Views for Rent
It was time to move again. The landlord called a few days ago with news of an updated rental payment plan. Effective end of August. The contract renewable on the condition that the rent be paid in fresh dollars. In late 2019, as the economy started to free fall, “fresh” began to appear in reference to the requisite cash payments of money transferred into Lebanon from abroad. Ever since the banks began confiscating people’s deposits by enforcing illicit limits on withdrawals and developing unconstitutionally creative financial schemes––such as imposing haircuts by converting depositors’ dollar accounts into “Lollars”––international transfers have become the only way to acquire dollars in cash. (Another new term combining lira and the dollar, a Lollar is a Lebanese dollar, or a stale US dollar held hostage in the pipes of the Lebanese banking sewer system.) But even where the Lollar assertively succeeds the dollar sign on some ATM screens, it merely indicates a number with no legal corresponding value. (A Lollar also indicates a bank’s rate of $1=3,900 LL at a time when the dollar rate on the black market––the real market––has plummeted from 1,500 LL to 24,000 LL.)
The Lebanese lira is well and truly pegged to the US dollar. But it is also pegged to the visits that the Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri makes to the Baabda Presidential Palace. Each visit holds the promise of forming a cabinet, pivoting things back into somewhat familiar territory––land-mined territory, as it were. A pattern develops: when Hariri goes up to Baabda, the lira gains some minor strength; when he leaves Baabda for Beirut, typically without reaching any agreement with President Michel Aoun, it takes a downward turn.
Hariri is on his way to Baabda today––his nth visit––with a new cabinet list. As I scrolled through apartment listings on the classifieds website OLX I wondered what would happen if, just before his arrival, he was to realize he had forgotten the folder containing the proposal for the new cabinet. Would he return to Beirut to retrieve the paperwork, thus bringing the lira down with him, or would he make his visit emptyhanded? Script-less, might he improvise for the sake of the lira? Or what if, halfway to Baabda, he stops at a kiosk for a dabké and Mirinda snack, thereby suspending the lira in a mind game. In my favorite scenario, the president hosts Hariri as a guest of the Presidential Palace for a few days, preferably a few years. The lira picks up and the economy regains momentum. But with his past few visits so short, a long stay seems improbable.
It’s been only twenty minutes since Hariri arrived. He leaves and subsequently announces his resignation. With a renewed awareness of the adage time is money, I return to my apartment hunt in a race against Hariri’s returning convoy to Beirut.
It has become a ritual of mine to scroll through apartment listings every morning in search of a new place to rent. All the listings are prefaced with the demands of a lingua franca. Rent should be paid in “FRESH DOLLARS/CASH/INTERNATIONAL TRANSFER ONLY. NO BANKERS CHECK.” Cash is often added in parentheses: “Asking Price: 500$/month (cash),” landing somewhere between a new ligature stitched to a musty term and a banal reminder or no-brainer: “$500, in cash, obviously.” Paying exclusively in fresh dollars is prohibitive, yet I continue my search. The contract is anyway up and, after a year and a half of lockdowns, I am yearning for a balcony.
The phone numbers in the listings are chiefly those of brokers or real estate companies––the kind who take one month’s rent from the landlord and tenant as commission upon signing the lease. Because I can’t afford to pay so much nor did I warm to their persistence, I resort to my own methods. I devise a system that entails inspecting the windows and balconies in the photographs of the listings to locate the building. With this information, I can check out the place without the middleman.
Sifting through each ad, I single out the ones I like and can potentially afford because affording had become a volatile affair. The Prime Minister-designate is, after all, en route. I click on one that seems promising and flick through the photos. I see the bathroom, a hallway to the rooms, a bedroom, another bathroom, the kitchen, and the living space with its windows. I enlarge the last image as much as the website permits and boost it with a forced zoom from my laptop. The windows closely overlook another building to such an extent that my enforced zooms pale in comparison. This closeness makes it impossible to figure out where the apartment is located.
I abandon this apartment and move on to others. In most, I am unable to discern any specific building or neighborhood. Whenever the view is visible, it is an indiscriminating closeup. But as I continue my search, a singular view commands my attention: the blurry. Here, the rectangular shapes within the window and balcony frames appear to have been selectively blurred. In some a generous toggle of exposure has been added, producing a radiant flare that explodes at the threshold of the windowpane. I gather that the blurry views have been designed to hinder all pedantic attempts to eliminate the middleman. But they are not only a means of discretion. The blurry views I find time and time again in the listings are the afterimage of an exploded city.
The Beirut Port exploded on August 4, 2020, killing more than 220, injuring more than 6,500, and leaving 300,000 homeless. On August 9th, five days after the explosion, I posted the following:
My week was a little busy. I survived a deadly blast that killed 155 people, injured more than 4000 with 60 still missing, I drove my bike home and saw people bleeding on the streets, I saw buildings collapsing, I cried, I went into my house to find it shattered, I went to a funeral of a friend’s daughter who passed away due to the explosion, I cried, I cleaned the shattered glass for four days with the help of wonderful friends but with detachment and absolute lack of hope, I watched tens of videos of the explosion in slow motion, fast motion, and no motion, of people collapsing in front of the camera and those still looking for their loved ones, I went down to protest against this unaccidental explosion, this literal rendition of years of mounting corruption, this inevitable blow of built-in negligence, I got tear-gassed and survived the bombs now served with a side of pellets, I left because I couldn’t bear it, my body is exhausted but I am very angry, a dangerously neutralizing mix, I continued covering the broken windows with plastic and watched the city through the only two available lenses now: shattered through the broken glass and blurry through the plastic wrap.
For months, plastic sheets clung to our windows and the windows of a thousand others. The sheeting blurred the view when looking out over the city while rendering us pseudo-cadavers inside, befitting the city’s status as a crime scene. We looked out through plastic sheets for three months until new glass windows and doors were installed. Still, one year on––and as the listings confirm––the blurriness endures.
The investigation into the explosion lingers too. The promised five-day reveal of the investigation results has sailed past its 365th day. One chief investigator was replaced by another, who has so far arrived at no conclusions, set back by laws that grant immunity to politicians and shield them from being called for interrogation. The inscrutable deals and muddled operations that powered the Port have spread out across the entire city.
It is possible that the views are not an afterimage as much as a protracted version of the August 4th image in whose dust-haze we roam. Parenthesized between every inhale and exhale of the dust particles reverberating since that day, the image is replenished from our lungs. Taking a deep inhale, I hold my breath for as long as I can. Perhaps the view will clear momentarily with this holding.
Twenty seconds in and I cannot hold my breath any longer. I exhale, spurting out more than I took in. My warm breath is visible in the room, thickening as it mixes with the dust haze. In the spirit of resignation, I roll a joint. A group of friends came over last night for a drink to belatedly celebrate the restoration of the apartment and its windows. Everyone brought drinks or desserts with the exception of Nadia and her boyfriend, who are fresh graduates as well as struggling photographers, directors, actors, and editors––in short: image-makers. Smoking into the night, the difference in the view was barely commented upon. Cleaning up afterwards, I saw two lumps of hashish left on the table where my two friends had sat: their gift in this period of collapse. I held the lumps dearly, pinching through one of them to make my joint. Lighting the joint, I think of the two as not just image-makers who are struggling financially but as makers of images struggling to come to—or be brought into—focus.
I resume my browsing and sometime later land on the page of Studio 35Sq. in Achrafieh Prime. Loading the images, I realize that I can see something through the windows. For once, it is not entirely blurred. My inhale-and-hold method cleared a view and feeling elated I take a decent puff. It is a view from high up, revealing the tops of buildings without giving much away. Still, a promising start. One window appears to overlook the sea: a shoreline of rubble and landfill. As I progress, further details reveal a space under construction. In the living room, a ladder and a blue barrel flank the space. A concrete block appears in the foreground, and a few tiles sit against the left wall next to sandbags. In front of these, a messy congregation of smaller tiles. Another neat pile of larger tiles is stacked in the middle to the left. In the background, lying against the wall is a detached door with a large piece of wood obliquely set in front of it. I navigate to the entrance area and encounter three more doors. Another removed door, possibly for the middle room, is set against the left wall. I click on the next image, and it takes me into the interior of one of the rooms. The walls, a mix of white and grey, are primed for a fresh coat of paint. Judging by the paint smudges around its frame, one door appears to have been recently painted. The bathroom window is radiantly lit, with some wood scraps cleared to the side. I arrive at the last image in the ad.
A window with a black aluminum frame pierces the wall. Beside the window, lies a piece of wood and other scraps. The wall on the left exhibits some blue blotches that indicate the patching in progress. From the window, the view is crystal clear. I see it then: the Port of Beirut, unmistakable with the monolithic remnants of the grain silos amidst the debris. Plugged in as a climactic moment in the image sequence of the apartment hunt, the view warrants the apartment’s current status. Facing the port like this, the apartment would have been destroyed. The apartment is undergoing repair because of its proximity to the view.
But repair is also ample, even deliberately staged, in spite of the view. “We shall rebuild”: a refrain that latches onto the myth of the phoenix bird rising from the ashes claimed countless official and non-official voices directly after the blast. By plagiarizing the phoenix’s mythology of cyclical regeneration, the ruling class reproduce and recycle the political myth of endless opportunity, ad nauseam. The appropriation of this symbol mandates that our national brand be one of resilience: a shorthand that licenses the crimes it exercises and justifies the crises it perpetuates. Such a top-down characterization of resilience can only be maintained by being put to the test and validated through repetition. The narrative of resilience does nothing to prevent extreme acts of violence from (re)occurring, whether assassinations or port explosions. Rather, a resilient public is taught to stridently continue as “normal.” The phoenix is made a prisoner of its loop.
The apartment is being repaired for the promise of the view. All things considered, it overlooks a prime location in a port city where a sea view has long become an expensive exception; a prime location that was widely televised and socially mediatized, even trending, in the aftermath of the explosion. Contact us now on 009… [click to reveal full phone number] to organize a time to inspect this lovely property. Complicit in real estate imaginaries of speculation, the listing features the Port view as an already iconic landmark, thereby advancing the transition from disaster site to vista. This transition began only a few hours after the blast, when brokers––many of whom representing or working with the ruling oligarchs––went scavenging amidst wreckage for derelict buildings to procure from owners where they could be unearthed. New monuments to commemorate the blast claimed the wreckage, using materials salvaged from the Port to construct figures from its ashes, further pedaling this transition. These processes are evident in the language of the listings and other such written accounts:
Achrafieh is considered an important tourist outlet in Beirut where a great number of restaurants, coffee shops and nightclubs are located. This, in addition to its important commercial venue, its luxurious apartment buildings combined with renovated traditional houses, make Achrafieh an ideal place for shopping and touring within the city.
Beirut, the capital of Lebanon. Considered Lebanon’s commercial and financial hub. Also home for leisure and entertainment sites.
This tone of address is not for us. It targets foreigners to whom the lira is also pegged. Working for embassies, sprouting NGOs, or other overseas entities. It targets those that pay fresh and could use some tips on Achrafieh’s ideal-ness or Beirut’s hub-ness.
The disaster site-cum-vista can be recapitulated by the new stamp that was issued by the post office, LibanPost. The stamp features an image of the Beirut Port at the moment of the explosion, with the orange smoke cloud at its pinnacle, just before it sent a lethal wave pulsating across the city. On the 9x12 cm stamp is written in English and Arabic: “Together we will rebuild our city,” signed simply from بيروت (Beirut in Arabic) alongside the date of the explosion. The stamp does not showcase the traditional wavy edges and isn’t die-cut, as that would entail fresh dollars. Instead, the wavy border is drawn around the image in a self-referential fashion that manufactures the likeness of a stamp. The image it uses is taken from an original phone image that has been artfully smudged to look like a painting. One can easily achieve this look by opening the Filter Gallery in Photoshop and choosing from any number of available effects. This painterly effect inserts the photograph into the tradition of the sublime. In commanding the ineffable, the sublime transforms the terrible beauty of the blast into a tamed vista. Within this tradition, the painted event is exiled by the categories of nature’s mythical powers––or worse, the predestined, thus absolving any party from any responsibility. Like the “feature” of the apartment window overlooking the Port, the stamp becomes the city’s window for correspondence with the international community.
A notification from AppleNews lights up my phone screen: “Lebanon’s Prime Minister-Designate Saad Hariri Resigns After Failing to Form Government.” Even before Hariri’s convoy returned to Beirut, the news spread globally. Nearly out of time, I am forced to abandon my virtual methods. I call a number on one of the listings. The broker is Rita, who had shown me some apartments a year ago right after the blast. I made the mistake of not saving her contact, and now I am stuck with her again. Rita tells me about a few places that I will “most definitely like” and asks me to meet her at the corner of a street, so we can walk to the apartment together. While showing me a place I do not like, she learns that a new apartment with a terrace in the same building has been recently vacated and we go up to see it. As I look around, she releases me for a few minutes to photograph this apartment for a new listing she will put together. She anticipated that I wasn’t taking it. The apartment was ridiculously overpriced.
Rita and I develop a routine that involves meeting on specified corners and walking together to the apartments. I figure that this is part of Rita’s cultivated act: blurring the details of the listing’s exact location through the peregrinations of the walk so that deals are not struck without her. It’s her listing, her territory, her vacant city. Save for rare accidental reflections in the mirror—sometimes showing the photographer’s silhouette, occasionally a body part, or a hand—the listings are never peopled. They are clean slates onto which potential tenants can project their lifestyles and dreams unimpeded by tenants, site workers, or other visitors. Rita, however, haunts them all.
In the weeks following, my time with Rita starts to blur with my own thoughts and I imagine us making a video together. Would traversing the city through the eyes of a broker be any different from my own derive through apartment listings? I become occupied with the idea of filming it with a shallow depth of field to create a very low range of focus that blurs the background while allowing me to foreground a particular subject or aspect of the scene. The shallow depth of field also allows more light into the lens, thereby emitting a radiant effect. The project haunts me. In one scene, perhaps the finale—running out of things to show and fed up with having to supply me with exclusive material—Rita guides me to the last showing. A former brothel, she tells me that it’s now home to a photographer who develops his images under the red lights that still adorn the place. She invites me in to inspect while she stays outside and smokes a cigarette. The camera enters the red house, tracking through the hallways and rooms with their red curtains, unmade beds, and checkered floors. It arrives at a room and stops before the doorway. A naked man lies on a tired bed. In his hand, he holds a small piece of paper. He places it face down on the bed and begins licking it slowly and sensuously with his tongue. He carefully makes sure his saliva covers the entire backside. It sticks to his tongue. He releases it with an aggressive spit and continues spitting on it for a few minutes after.
I convince myself that I will write about this video for the time being because I need to be focused on finding an apartment and I need funding. I return to the scrolling ritual. The views remain unchanged: up-close and/or radiant and/or high up and blurry. A new listing appears. One of its images shows a terrace. I zoom in to attempt to identify two people in a corner. I see my own face first then my body. Behind me stands Lulu. It was taken in the apartment that I was looking at while Rita took her pictures. Leaning against the concrete handrail and talking to Rita while inadvertently looking into the camera, I am standing in front of the property as if I own the damn place, so much so that I have turned my back on the view.
© 2022 8th Triennial of Photography Hamburg 2022 and the author