These black-and-white pictures are very small, too small to identify the people in them or any of their physical attributes. They are are stacked next to each other in this artistic installation put together by photographer Reine Mahfouz. These are the pictures of missing or abducted persons.
The people in the pictures are among the 17,000 missing and abducted individuals during Lebanon’s civil war. Their pictures form a giant mural that fills one of three show windows prepared by Mahfouz near the glass facade of the hall of the Ministry of Tourism on Hamra Street. The people in the pictures are not present, many of their names are unknown, and certainly no one knows their fate. Yet, everything else is present: their clothes, the feeling of loss, their families and their stories.
Faces are constantly “unfolded” before us and all the passers-by as if they existed and did not exist at the same time. This is an important realization, for these faces represent a reality, and are not just for decoration. They represent pain, not just a picture. That was Mahfouz’s first message.
She is conveying her message in a symbolic place. The tourists or passers-by who have gotten to know Lebanon’s tourist destinations — from Baalbak to Anjar, Byblos and the rest, to traditional Lebanese outfits behind a glass case — are now being introduced to something different. Officials are dealing with this as if it were a tourist landmark that they “watch” from afar. Mahfouz presents her artistic installation as a part of Lebanese history that is not meant to evoke any pride, and should not be understood simply as a show room or a picture.
Organized by the Act for the Disappeared, the “17,000” exhibition is part of the organization’s project for raising awareness among the youth about those who have been abducted or gone missing in Lebanon. The exhibition concluded yesterday with a visit from the families of the abductees. The families moved from one display to another, searching for their identities in these pictures and for memories in the gathered belongings.
One cannot see Reine Mahfouz’s entire display from behind the glass. The show windows are only for passers-by and for everybody outside. For those inside, a movie is shown, featuring 30 young men and women who interviewed the relatives of those who went missing. The interviewers searched for their stories in a society that deliberately tries to forget them. Inside the hall, the parents and mothers of the abductees gathered around in such a way that seemed as if they were part of the preparation for the exhibition. They were the final touch; the most vital element.
When you look at Mahfouz’s display, your mind drifts to the question: What should we do with all the belongings and clothes of those who are gone? Behind the showroom there is an impervious and rigid barrier filled with memories. The barrier — which is made of transparent plastic bags typically used to store bed sheets — has been filled with dozens of clothes and belongings, the only things left behind for the parents from their loved ones, who left without notice. The clothes might be outdated and their sizes might not fit their respective owners. They are casual, everyday clothes (and not folkloric) because they belonged to people who enjoyed a normal life before someone decided to make them disappear.
Every time one looks at the stacked belongings, more questions arise: When do we abandon something that used to belong to someone we lost? How do we pack away these belongings? When should we remove them from our sight? How do they become the only thing that connects us with people who were and might still be alive? How do we hold on to hope and past memories that we relive over and over until they come back?
In the center display, Mahfouz portrays a collection of pictures of bulldozers. In front of these bulldozers, she wrote: “Each one of them has a story, but we can never know all of the stories.” The bulldozer portrayed by Mahfouz is the machine through which some facts were revealed while others were hidden. She told As-Safir: “These are the machines that dug the mass graves that enveloped the bodies of the missing, and they are the same ones that buried people who were in our lives but that we never identified.”
The bulldozer is also the thing that destroys time and legacy, burying a pain that cannot be buried. According to Mahfouz, these machines try to “conceal an unforgettable memory simply by burying it underground, but there are still people waiting for their loved ones above the soil.”