The Derivative is a bi-annual online publication launched in October 2020, in the midst of unprecedented political, social, economic, and environmental collapse in Lebanon. It is an attempt at building collective vocabularies, registers, and practices able to account for and run against the systemic onslaught we are faced with.

The Derivative is a student of the uprising of Oct 17, 2019; it is first and foremost a rhizomatic object around which to mobilize a diversity of praxes. Experimenting with collective editorial models, each issue is above all an excuse to think and make together and a way to expand and strengthen networks of friends and allies through divergent modes of address, thought, and action.

Every issue of The Derivative starts with three guest editors, each assigned a theme in the form of a three-letter root word (جذر) in Arabic. Each editor then collaborates with five contributors to help unfold the various facets of each theme, as well as an artist contribution responding to each text.

Have you written anything lately?

Carine Doumit and Nour Ouayda

It is said that the occurrence of certain events generates vibrations that penetrate the body, meandering through it, never fading away completely.
It is said that this infinite pulsing inhibits the formation of thoughts and memories.
It is said that writing is an attempt to reach out to those echoes, to grasp them, and to make them last.

1.

We fear that writing will evade us and disappear. Why does that always happen, N.?
Do we really do everything in our power to retain the words that vanish?
We sat and spoke of this in the yellow kitchen with the balcony overlooking the sea of Beirut.
We recorded what we said at the time out of fear of forgetting.

Evelyn stands in the kitchen as directed by Ted Fendt, 
silently as if she were listening to us.

I thought the title of this text would be the phrase stretched out on the lower part 
of the image above: Have you written anything lately?
Someone sitting off-screen addresses Evelyn, 
standing in that white kitchen in Philadelphia.
The question is uttered in English and appears on the screen translated in German, 
as I had captured these stills from the Arsenal film archive in Berlin 
in the summer of 2019.
The archive is adjacent to a small cemetery, 
and is part of a cultural space called Silent Green 
which literally translates to al-akhdar al-samit in Arabic.
This name reminded me of what a friend of ours once said 
about the silence of trees and their apathy towards us and our tragedies.
What do you think of translating it as samt al-akhdar: the silence of green?
Can any one text have as many titles as the number of voices it holds?

Evelyn is asked: Have you written anything lately?
She remains silent and says nothing.
As I sat in the small room behind the Steenbeck editing table, 
in the archive which was a crematorium until only a few decades ago, 
I felt as if the question was directed at me.

I wrote in my blue notebook:
21st of July. Because we die, and because things and moments die, 
the films here died a long time ago, 
buried alive in canisters preserved in that crematorium, 
watched over at night, by the cemetery across.

In another scene, Evelyn goes with Cal to the library next door. 
While he brags about what he has written and read, 
speaking in long and complex sentences, 
she inhabits her silence, roaming in it as if it were her only salvation. 
After some time, Cal breaks her blaring silence and asks: 
Do you keep a notebook?

As I captured Evelyn’s silence,
I was taken by a profound feeling of gratitude towards cinema. 
Do you see what I mean, N.? 
Isn’t it surprising when someone else mirrors you, 
someone who exists in a universe parallel to yours, 
and does not even know that you’ve met?

Do you remember, N., that you were the first to see Evelyn? 
It was during the last time we were together in Marseille during the summer of 2019. 
Did you know that Evelyn was the name of my first childhood friend? 
That day, did you sense in Evelyn’s face an echo of both her childhood and mine? 
Is that why you insisted I watch Classical Period 
after you had seen it yourself just the day before?

That morning, after I met her –
Isn’t it wonderful to be in the cinema in the morning?
I wrote a lone sentence in my blue notebook. 
I scribbled a sentence in the dark that appeared jagged and crooked in the light of day, 
like the handwriting of a small child who has not yet learned to write properly:
13 juillet. Evelyn m’est comme un miroir.

After that, you returned to Beirut. 
I travelled from Marseille to Berlin, where something unexpected happened: 
I found Evelyn in the archive again! 
I also found out that Ted Fendt was a projectionist
at the Arsenal’s cinema that is connected to the archive. 
When I met him, I wanted nothing more than to ask him about Evelyn, 
that imaginary friend who had not left my side for a single moment. 
Ted told me that Evelyn lives in New York, 
where she also works as a cinema projectionist. 
I began to tell Ted about everything I loved. 
I told him many things, hoping that he may relay them to Evelyn. 
Finally, before we parted ways, he said: 
Evelyn is inspired by my own notebooks.

Ted had put his own words in Evelyn’s mouth and his silence on her face! 
So what was it, then, that captivated me – Evelyn’s face or Ted’s words? 
As I went back to my small sublet that night, 
suspended in time outside the borders of my own city, 
I had a strange feeling. 
For a moment, it was as if I was in the right place at the right time. 
Have you ever had this feeling, with such intensity?

2.

On the 4th of August 2019
I was lying in the cemetery adjacent to the archive.
I wrote in my white notebook:
August 4, I’ve been lying on the ground in the Urnenfriedhof Gerichtstraße cemetery
for more than an hour, among the dead but still alive.

Whereas you, N., on the 7th of December 2019, you told me:
The transformation of the city will be described in full detail.
It will be described as belonging to the time after, after the explosion.
This film of ours has to record the multiplicity of time.
We have to document all of that, C.,
we have to search for the tools that make it possible for us to document it.

Out of fear of forgetting your words,
I copied them from a notebook whose color I cannot recall
into the green one, our new film’s notebook,
which would tell the story of a secret garden inside the city that exploded.
The explosion scattered its plants astray all across the city,
a city that no longer resembled itself.

Tell me, N., how is it that we are able to be innocent and to predict the future all at once?
Or could these prophecies be explained differently?
Someone wrote a description of the explosion of the port of Beirut,
which blew up the city along, on the 14th of August 2020:
Its echo, that reproduces both past and future in the same instant,
is all of our lives at once.
The life we have lived, are living now and will keep living,
we and many others yet to be born.

After the explosion, we did what we always do, you and me, N.
As silent survivors, we started documenting everything.
I would write down words in my red notebook,
while you would roam the city, photographing its remains.
Because more than anything else,
the two of us are afraid of forgetting.

As for me, I observe every now and then a glitch
in both my past and present memories.
Words are erased, and their traces disappear,
so I find myself searching for them in vain.
Someone said to me that ruptures are created in the self
after an explosion like this.
The echo from the enormous bang continues to reverberate through the body.
“Une sorte de réverbération infinie” as she describes it,
one that does not cease to quiver inside the body.
By doing so, it inhibits the formation of thoughts
or erases memories in a back-and-forth movement
which can only be stopped by parallel motions
more akin to a caress than friction.
Like the wind on branches, it is a motion that never grow weary or tired,
as if fully realizing the stubbornness of this particular echo;
the echo of a disaster at the moment it befalls us.

Someone said that each one of us has her own ability to remember,
and that this should not be an impediment at all,
because each of us reminds the other of things that may have escaped her.
My silence may invite you, N., to speak, and your words may invite my silence.
Or our silences combined might open the space for the words of others to sneak in between us,
as could Evelyn’s words when she speaks to Cal,
finally breaking her silence and her inability to write:

What I need to do now is find a subject.
Something very specific to focus on and follow through with.
I’m all over the place right now.
The other night, I couldn’t sleep at all…

3.

One day, in the summer of 2019,
Helga and I entered the Dahlem Botanical Garden
and walked alongside one another on the paths between the trees and flowers.
That day, Helga seemed to me to be the botanist we had described in our green notebook,
the journal of the new film which would tell the story of Nahla and Camelia,
who wander the city in search of a lynx that went missing after the explosion of the garden,
a feline described by the botanist in her field notes before it disappeared.
That day, Helga and I were particularly joyful,
and I told her about a species of poplar tree that is called le tremble in French,
“the trembler” – a noun that contains its own verb. What a beautiful name!

Then, Helga told me about that leopard she had observed for days and days,
until the shadows of the cage bars fell upon its black and yellow body.
In that very moment, in the heart of Berlin’s zoo
the leopard became a mirror of its own imprisoned self.
Helga filmed the leopard in silence.
When I saw the silent, untamed animal projected on the wall
of Helga’s Raum Für Film (Room for Films) on Danckelmanstraße 55 in Charlottenburg,
the only thing I could hear was the clicking of the 16mm projector
and the sound of the rain falling on the window panes.
At that precise moment, in our shared silence,
I felt that I was in the right place at the right time.

At the end of our stroll in Dahlem Garden,
as the sunlight had begun to dim,
Helga and I talked about the last scene from Carl Theodor Dryer’s Ordet,
the scene with the miracle.
She said, I too cried like a little girl when the mother was resurrected.
Tomorrow they’re screening Gertrud at the Arsenal.
Will you come with me to the cinema in the evening?

I went with her, N., not knowing it would be the last film I was to watch on the big screen.
Helga and I sat next to each other in the dark.
I had never sat next to someone in a movie theater in this way,
for Helga’s silence is unlike any other silence I had previously encountered.
It was as if she were witnessing a sacred ritual.
I sat alongside her silence, a foreigner in two tongues,
as the spellbinding faces in black, white and all shades of gray spoke in Danish,
while the subtitles at the bottom of the screen appeared in German.

After I returned to Beirut in October 2019,
I wrote a long letter to Helga in French.
It unfolded in two tenses:
the time of the enchanting stroll she and I took in Dahlem Garden,
and the time you and I spent in the streets in Beirut.
I placed in the letter a secret sign,
a veiled expression (by the sheer fact that it was in Arabic) that described me in both times:
when I first saw the magnificent leopard on Helga’s wall,
and when you and I, N.,
began to loudly proclaim our revolt on the walls of Beirut,
in an impulse both singular and collective .
I wrote in Arabic next to the word tremble:
It trembles like the quivering leaves of a poplar tree.

And here, N., another title for this text of ours seeps into me.
I have written it down in our grass green notebook:
An echo that trembles like the quivering leaves of a poplar tree.
A title that is both a general description and a precise depiction
of the new state we are in now,
of that reverberation meandering endlessly in our bodies.

4.

We walked for the first time on the road leading to the desolate port at night. We stopped in a dark corner and wrote (because it’s hard to write while walking):

* At this precise moment, the city seems to be devoid of trees
** It is made only of sea and concrete
*** Someone wrote: The sea took its usual cut of all our calamities: 50% of the shock of the explosion
**** The sonic barrier that was broken just before the explosion (and which acted as a warning, enabling us to hide and be spared) will continue to merrily frolic in our bodies
***** There is nothing more violent than silence
****** The city has been emptied of its soul, but it is not menacing in its emptiness. Rather, it looks at us meekly, its head bowed
How do we let things be while also departing from them, when they are sad and inconsolable?
******* Departure has no beginning or end. It is a motion that is both hidden and apparent, as an echo can be
******** The city’s center contains our archive, echoes of what we lived are inscribed on its walls
********* Had Metropolis Cinema and Dawawine still been there, the bomb would have blown them up too
********** A city without cinemas is a city without shared darkness, it is lonely and cut off from the rest of the world
*********** Mohammed Soueid writes about the first film he watched at Cinema Empire in Gemmayze: There, I watched the first film of my life. In its light, my darkness was cleansed. There, I had my first kiss, not knowing it would turn out to be but a farewell kiss.

Then we stopped writing, and you said to me: Can you believe that we now live in a city without cinemas?

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

Translation: Suneela Mubayi


Films:

Fanderl, Helga, director. Leopard. 2012
Fendt, Ted, director. Classical Period. 2018

Texts:

Abi Samra, Tarek, “The Bomb Will Never Cease to Explode”, Megaphone News, August, 14, 2020, https://megaphone.news/ستستمر-القنبلة-تنفجر/
Soueid, Mohamed, “My First Kiss”, The Institute for Palestine Studies, Issue 124 (Autumn 2020): 161-167, https://www.palestine-studies.org/sites/default/files/mdf-articles/161.pdf

Images:

Stills from Classical Period by Ted Fendt – Courtesy of the director

All remaining images: Courtesy of the authors

Artwork: Couple’s Dinner for One – Sarah Saroufim