Exilium. Show us the way to bitter exile.
“You are here”. This is your position on the map. Now you can relate yourself to all these routes and places I am trying to tell you about. Imagine yourself standing in the middle of fields or mountains and trying to make sense of your next move. You left your house yesterday, 2 weeks ago, 6 months ago, 2 years ago… Where will you go? What will you take?
You are here…
I started working on the Exilium project in 2012. The idea was genuine and I continued with great help of different people (thank you Bente, Haid, Hiba, Mouna, Layla, Marc, Nawel, Khaled, Hani and all the people who you will meet reading their stories). We traveled around Lebanon (and of course, we could travel even more and more) and spoke to people, trying to understand what they were going through. People who had to leave their houses and their country. Their place on earth.
All the people whom I met during this project told me important things about themselves and their experiences. That is what I am trying to convey to you. I know I am not merely a messenger; I intervened during the process of this project, I asked the questions, I present the outcome.
“I never thought that a thing like a burned match, or a scrap of paper in the mud, or a fallen leaf, or a rusty worthless nail might have a soul.”
—B. Traven, The Death Ship
I asked each person about an object, an item, that they had brought with them from Syria and how they traveled to Lebanon with it. While working and gathering stories it became more and more apparent and heartbreaking to find out that a lot of them did not bring anything. Others brought pain, suffering or wounds. Some have kept only memories. They had no time, no space to think about their possessions. They grabbed their children and left dressed in what they were wearing in that very moment.
The object became a symbol, it turned my attention to something else, something much more important. This whole experience shifted the orientation of the project: the symbolism of an object extended to the symbolism of what was lost, or what is the actual meaning of things that tell stories, as anthropologists would say.
Asking people about an object, something meaningful and important to them, made me understand that the real reason to do this project is to look for a way in which we can talk about millions of people being displaced around the world and not abandon their unique personality, experience, and their individual story. They left their homes because of war, destruction, fear, and poverty. I will not give you big data. I will not give you numbers and scary statistics. I think you know them (I hope you do not forget them).
We cannot objectify them and their experiences by turning them into columns of numbers, piles of papers, pages of reports. Our condition as human beings, as Sartre would say, makes us prone to objectifying others. We need to be aware that by the mere act of seeing or addressing another person we can put them in the position of being the object of our gaze, speech or action. The grammar structures of languages themselves make it hard to avoid this situation as well. We always speak about something or someone. However at the same time this object of our attention or affection can start to mean more than we had initially imagined. How can this happen? What can we do? Have we lost touch with our hearts? Where is our understanding of others?
“What then must we do?” asked a tragic character from Peter Weir’s film “A Year of Living Dangerously”. This question remains open. It summarizes the sadness, the despair, the hopelessness, but at the same time the need to act, the need to shift perception, the will to rework our positions. This might not be significant. Not a grand gesture.
It is an attempt to look for other ways to react and object to all the suffering that we see. Maybe it is possible for us to, instead of talking about someone, start addressing ourselves, and our own position and privileges. I can try to shift attention from the refugees to myself, to situate myself within the situation and not outside of it. To become more than only a spectator. Can it reverse the usual narrative? Can we recognize ourselves in these stories and experiences?
“The paradox I want to point out is that these objects which always have, in principle, a function, a utility, a purpose, we believe we experience as pure instruments, whereas in reality they carry other things, they are also something else: they function as the vehicle of meaning… There is always a meaning which overflows the object’s use… there is no object which escapes meaning.”
—R. Barthes, The Semiotic Challenge
I hope that this object that was a focus for my project and allowed me to tell stories, using the tools and means I know how to use, will point to problems with our own perceptions of refugees and displaced people nowadays. I want to object to this perspective. We need to look back at ourselves.
We are here. Where are you?
Objects are, depending on the situation you find yourself in, more than mere objects. For those who leave their home in a hast, who leave for good and to an uncertain future, something that they brought from home might be a line to connect them to their old life and habits, to their family and an environment that they are not part of any longer – or that ceased to exist. Photographer Marta Bogdanska met Syrian refugees and asked them to show her an object or a memory that still connects them to their former lives and share their stories around this object. Someone has a favourite sweater. Another one scars reminding him what he went through to reach where he is. Somebody else a trivial plastic lighter. The exhibition was first shown in Beirut in May 2015 and now is on display here.