In the context of historical political events occurring in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East, photojournalist Stefan Christoff is currently touring a photo exhibition entitled Lebanon: Open Skies of Struggle. Christoff, who is a regular contributor to The Electronic Intifada, was interviewed by Montreal-based independent journalist Mostafa Heneway on the current Lebanon exhibition traveling across Canadian galleries.
Mostafa Heneway: Can you explain the context that led you to travel from Canada to the Middle East and specifically to Lebanon on three different occasions in the past five years?
Stefan Christoff: Over the past five years I have been traveling between Montreal and the Middle East as a social justice activist. My implication in social justice struggles in Canada pertaining to the Middle East, from Lebanon to Palestine both brought about and rooted my travels to the region in multiple ways.
My travels to the Middle East have always occurred within the context of political initiatives that have emerged in Montreal, in solidarity with liberation struggles in the Middle East. Montreal is of course an international city, where you have a major presence of the Arab Diaspora, from both Lebanon and Palestine. As a social justice activist I have worked heavily within these Middle East Diaspora communities and it is this community work that first lead me to the region.
I first traveled to the Middle East in 2003, arriving in Amman, Jordan as a member of the International Solidarity Movement. After being refused entry into Palestine by Israeli authorities, on the grounds that I posed a treat to the “national security” of the state of Israel, I eventually found myself in Beirut, Lebanon.
My first trip to Lebanon focused on building ties within the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon, where an estimated 400,000 refugees live in conditions throughout Lebanon, without citizenship, only with UN-issued identity documents. Thousands of Palestinian refugees reside in the surrounding areas of Beirut and on my first trip to Lebanon I spent most of my time in Beirut’s largest Palestinian camp, Bourj al-Barajneh.
On my first trip to Lebanon, for example, I visited many families in the camps of Bourj al-Barajneh, Burj al-Shemali and Ein al-Hilweh, who have family members that migrated to Canada, many to Montreal. I had developed political and personal relationships with Palestinians who had migrated from the camps in Lebanon to Canada within the context of their struggle against deportation from Canada and for refugee status, a struggle that many within the Palestinian solidarity movement in Canada deeply supported.
I started taking serious photographs on this first trip to Lebanon, photos not taken to represent some Orientalist vision of Lebanon or the Middle East but photos attempting to depict the intense history and current struggles of the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon.
On that first trip I visited the camps with basic factual ideas concerning the refugee camps of Lebanon but no idea on the intricacies of Palestinian life in Lebanon, details that you can only learn after spending time in the camps in Lebanon. This knowledge I developed as a visitor to the refugee camps of Lebanon, deeply informed my photographic efforts on the camps.
MH: There is a photo from a Palestinian refugee camp of a series of flags woven into electricity wires crisscrossing between buildings. How does this photo for you convey the reality of the Palestinian camps inside Lebanon?
SC: The picture you are referring to is from Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp. I took this photo in 2005 on a visit to the camp in which I met with Ahmed Abdel-Majeed, a Palestinian from Lebanon who I had first met in Montreal. On my first trip to Lebanon in 2003, Ahmed was in Montreal, but on my second trip to Lebanon in 2005 Ahmed had been deported from Canada to the camp, after being denied refugee status by the Canadian government. During the 2005 visit to Lebanon I spent a lot of time with Ahmed in Ein al-Hilweh.
Concerning the photo of the wires in the sky over Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp, such self-styled electricity wires are I suppose a trademark of the overcrowded Palestinian camps in Lebanon. In the case of Ein al-Hilweh almost 100,000 people live in a couple of square kilometers, crammed together without basic social and civil rights. Given that the Lebanese government doesn’t allow certain forms of construction or development within the deteriorating camps, the crisscross of electricity wires in the sky is an example of the informal or community-based methods for survival amongst the Palestinians, as the electricity is jacked from local Lebanese power supplies.
The electricity wires crisscrossing over the street with Palestinian flags woven into the wires, I like to think depicts that despite the hardships and repressive conditions for Palestinians in Lebanon, in a very physical sense, there is still hope for a brighter future and sense of struggle. Still there is optimism, a willingness to stand with dignity looking into the future to fight for basic civil rights and social dignity in Lebanon and for the right of return to Palestine.
The skies or a future of possibility may seem not obvious to the international community, which implicitly continues to deny Palestinian basic rights, yet for the Palestinians in the camps the skies are open for the right of return, open for struggle, open to the dream of obtaining the goals expressed by the Palestinian movement for decades.
MH: There is another picture within the Lebanon exhibition from the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, a photo of a stencil of Yasser Arafat. I’m wondering why you chose this photo given all of the debate and divergent views on Arafat’s role in the Palestinian struggle.
SC: This photo you mention was taken in Bourj al-Barajneh camp in Beirut. The camps in Lebanon are filled with artistic graffiti, stencils and political posters articulating the various social vision and political ideals of the Palestinians. The walls of the camps have become artistic murals for the Palestinians, who are officially the largest refugee population in the world.
Many people will tell you that the streets of Lebanon are haunted. That the refugee camps are filled with ghosts, not mystical ghosts, but very real depictions of the dead, the walls filled with pictures or images of those who died in the conflicts or battles that have ripped through Lebanon during the past 50 years since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
Beirut and the refugee camps are brushed with symbols of political struggle against Israel and I featured a photograph of a stencil of Arafat, a historical leader, omnipresent in Middle East politics, because I wanted to convey that Arafat’s almost mystical presence in Lebanese or Palestinian politics is still alive today despite Arafat’s many failures, including the Oslo Accords.
Within the photo exhibition I also included a political poster of former Egyptian President Nasser. I included these images not necessarily for the individual leaders in question, to illustrate the role of such iconic images or figures, like that of Arafat or Nasser, in the popular political history in the Middle East. Importantly, such leaders are not popularly remembered for their collusion with imperialist powers but for their acts of defiance against imperial or colonial powers.
MH: In 2005, during your second trip to Lebanon, the politics of the country began to drastically shift. A wave of assassinations of Lebanese politicians took place, while major international pressure on the Palestinians and resistance movements in Lebanon was being applied. It was in the 2005 context in which Tadamon!, the Middle East solidarity collective in which you are currently involved, was formed. Can you speak about how Tadamon! played a role in your second trip to Lebanon and the photos you took?
SC: All the photos I took in Lebanon were taken within the context of my work as a social justice activist working to build ties with the Middle East. In Lebanon I had many discussions with activists, writers, journalists, artists on the role that international solidarity work can play in Lebanon. I spoke with political organizers in Beirut about difficult questions surrounding international solidarity work, including how to build bridges between struggles in the Middle East and North America despite the totally different political climates and histories of each region.
Tadamon! was formed in the context of these difficult discussions on how to build meaningful solidarity. Until today our work in Tadamon! is fueled through collaboration with people in Lebanon and the Arab Diaspora in Canada. In early 2006 Tadamon! was officially launched in Montreal and has become a central vessel for Middle East solidarity organizing in Quebec.
MH: You were also in Lebanon in 2005 when tensions between the governments of Syria and Lebanon were running high in the aftermath of the assassination of Hariri. Can you talk about this period?
SC: Some of the photos in the exhibition document this volatile period in Lebanon. At a certain point the borders between Syria and Lebanon were shutdown in 2005. I found one underreported result of the border shut-down extremely compelling, the story of the thousands of Middle East transport truck drivers stranded at the border regions. For six weeks hundreds of Syrian and Lebanese truck drivers were sleeping on the highways of Lebanon as the borders were closed to economic traffic from Lebanon to Syria, in Akkar and the outer regions of the Beqqa valley.
As the Syria-Lebanon border shutdown was happening, myself and other members of the Beirut Independent Media Center traveled to the border regions to speak with truck drivers — we did interviews, documented their inability to cross the borders. The photos from these trips to the Lebanese-Syrian border region depicted the conditions faced by the drivers on the highways.
Personally the situation facing the truck drivers inspired anti-authoritarian ideas on the political situation in the Middle East, which was that one cannot have faith in political leaders to solve the injustices or conflicts of the region.
In 2005 while a diplomatic dispute was taking place between air-conditioned office towers in Beirut and Damascus, the popular people, the workers, the truck drivers in this case, were left to burn on hot highways along the borders under the summer sun. It illustrated to me strongly that people cannot and should not rely on governments to meet the popular needs of the people, either the Lebanese or Syrian governments.
The very existence of authoritarian, religious or feudal political power in both countries, Syria and Lebanon, means that there will always people cut short, Lebanese and Syrians. Real politics is a struggle between the powerful, attempting to retain existing social norms and the powerless, attempting to change existing social structures that don’t benefit the vast majority in most societies. This simple equation can apply in the Middle East and internationally.
MH: Can you describe the photo of six Syrian-Lebanese truck drivers looking agitated and sad? What were these driven feeling towards the conflict Syria-Lebanon conflict of 2005?
SC: There is a popular political skit or cartoon in Beirut that has been used in multiple contexts, in which one Lebanese asks another, “Are you a Christian or a Muslim?” In the Lebanese rendition the second person responds, “Christian or Muslim, I am hungry!” This is an anti-sectarian statement in Lebanon but also a critique of the national political system that hasn’t benefited the poor majority, which is rooted in sectarian divisions of political power.
An altered rendition of this political narrative can apply in the case of the stranded Syrian truck drivers of 2005. In this case the question would be, “Are you Syrian or Lebanese?” to which the response would be, “Syrian or Lebanese, I am hungry!” For the truck drivers stranded at the border in 2005 nationality didn’t matter; for both the Syrian and Lebanese drivers, the political dispute between the leaders of each respective country was undermining their ability to survive.
Five minutes after taking the photo of the Lebanese and Syrian truck drivers stranded in the border region, a Syrian intelligence officer drove down to our location and the truckers who had assembled to answer questions quickly retreated. The presence of the Syrian intelligence officers illustrated that the Syrian government is always attempting to monitor the situation on the ground, especially as relating to delicate Syrian-Lebanese political relations.
My photos attempt to depict a popular perspective on life in the Middle East. I feel that many photojournalists who work in the Middle East, even those who feel sympathy with the Palestinian or Lebanese cause, don’t have that basic critique of state power as central to oppression, Arab state power or western state power. Fundamental change in the Middle East won’t happen until the entire colonial nation state structure that currently defines the region is fundamentally altered.
MH: When you traveled to Lebanon a third time you arrived shortly before a critical moment in Lebanon’s history, the 2006 Israeli attack. Can you speak about the experience of being in Lebanon during the Israeli bombardment?
SC: In reality the devastating impacts of the Israeli war on Lebanon was very well documented and projected on television networks around the world. However, just because the world was watching the war on Lebanon, as covered by journalists, it didn’t necessarily mean that those same people watching the war were educated on how to take action to stop the bombing of Lebanon.
Perhaps this point marks the importance of educating people not only about the suffering experienced by the Lebanese people but also on ways to act against the political powers that created the human suffering, like the governments of Canada and the US who openly blocked a ceasefire resolution at the United Nations admit the intense bombing of Beirut’s southern suburbs.
Honestly, my experience during the Israeli attack of 2006 did fundamentally change my perspective on life and seriously deepened my ability to understand the history of the Middle East and the struggle against Israeli apartheid, as I lived a through a critical moment of this struggle in recent history. While in Beirut as the bombs were falling, I along with the majority of Lebanon felt pride for the Lebanese resistance, which against incredible odds was able to fend of the Israeli military.
MH: I am wondering where you aim to impact people by showing these photos from Lebanon?
SC: These photographs are an attempt to open a dialogue on Lebanon and the Middle East. Also, these photos aim to open a discussion on the fundamental political structure of the Middle East, rooted in national borders created by colonial powers, from Lebanon, to Jordan, to Egypt, to Palestine. This photo exhibition aims to address the blurry lines of nationality in the Middle East within a present and historical colonial context.
In terms of Lebanon, it’s clear that the Lebanese national identity overlaps with other national identities and is deeply connected to the collective identity of the Middle East. Lebanon, like all other countries in the region, is not isolated from the social, political or cultural influences of other nations in the region, influences that can’t be stopped by state border agents.
This photo exhibition attempts to illustrate that all major political events in the Middle East are interrelated. When we address or act in solidarity with the Palestinian cause, it is essential in my mind that we understand that fundamental justice for Palestine and the Palestinians will only ever be achieved through radically changing the fundamental political and national structure of the Middle East region.
Stefan Christoff is an independent journalist and social justice organizer based in Montreal. Christoff has traveled to Lebanon on three occasions, the most recent in 2006 during the Israeli invasion. Christoff is a regular contributor to The Electronic Intifada and is active with the Montreal based Middle East solidarity collective Tadamon!.