Ruins hide things. Not just the memory of what they were, but the memories they still contain. For years after the Lebanese civil war ended, I would prowl the ruins of downtown Beirut – as a journalist, of course, but truth forces me to admit that I was searching for something more than a reporter’s stories – to find that the poor had gravitated into the collapsed buildings, into the wreckage of dentists’ shops and post offices and stores. These troglodytes, whole families of them, had fled from their own ruins in southern Lebanon – bombed by the Israelis – to seek sanctuary in bigger ruins. They were there with their children and their grandparents, with a litter of precious pots and bowls and gas fires and damp bedding, gaunt in the winter cold as the rain guttered down the walls, sweating through the humid summers until the bulldozers came to drive them out.
Beirut, 1990. Berlin 1945. The irony that in the heart of Beirut, the city’s Dresden-like ruins lay along streets named after the victors of an earlier, infinitely more catastrophic war — Allenby, Clemenceau, Foch, Weygand (there was once a rue Petain) – quite eluded its new occupants. The memory of the ruins of seventy years earlier clung to the shattered, bullet-holed street signs bearing these portentous names amid a new set of ruins. But destruction moves with the times. The haunted streets of Beirut were crushed beneath Ottoman lintels and French mandate balconies.
Gerry Judah’s paintings – for that is what they are – are of a later age, the collapse of a new heritage of war, the wires and satellite dishes speaking of the death of the modern as well as of the past. Yes, they are the destruction of Jenin and Baghdad, of the Iran-Iraq war, of Belgrade, great apartment and office blocks and television stations – or so my imagination slowly works them out, for I see them every year — they lack the rubble-ised chaos of car bombings for they have been computerized to death. This is the vision on the screens of the Cruise missile, the last green television silhouette of ‘targeted ruins’ – for the bomb-aimers of our latest wars (at consoles in bunkers or on ‘gun platforms’, for we must use their clichés, mustn’t we?) are always reporting that there is no longer a ‘target-rich environment’ because all the targets have already been destroyed. So they are bombing the ruins, turning the rubble, smashing up the last satellite dishes. What Judah’s work is saying is that these structures are now irredeemably gone, beyond repair, beyond re-creation.
Of course, you can re-build; the medieval Cloth Hall at Ypres in 1918, the centre of 1944 Warsaw, indeed the re-constitution of the French streets in central Beirut today, but these are individual acts of defiance. And who would want to ‘save’ Judah’s images of destruction? Look at them carefully and find one which would have been worth saving, and there are none. For Judah’s structures – before he imaginatively broke them up — were modern, ugly, cheap, the product of an architect-less society (think Yugo, or even Baath party). I imagine some of them – before their decimation – as cheaply painted, full of empty, cracked offices and tired, unshaven bureaucrats and screaming, overcrowded families. One, all masts and giant chimney-like protuberances, might be a mortally wounded battleship, surrounded by its debris amid the waves. Without question, the ruins are more beautiful – and more frightening – than the buildings ever were before their demise.
And, make no bones about it – bones, after all, is what we are talking about, for we do not speak of the ‘skeletons’ of buildings without reason – they draw us into them. I have explored bombed embassies long after the weeds have taken over – I once found a NATO code-book behind the US embassy in Beirut years after the suicide bomber had finished with the place – and in Baghdad, in 2004, I walked with a friend into what was left of the ministry of information a year after its pulverisation. It was as ugly in life as some of Judah’s structures must have been before he set to work on them, all purple-painted and cheap tiles, dictator-chic, blessed now by a carpet of weeds – there really were some broken satellite dishes clinging to the tilting walls – but amid them was a vein of silver that moved in the breeze. With a friend, I clambered up a 10-foot pile of rubble and reached out to this skein of delicate but tough celluloid. I pulled and it unravelled down from broken walls and iron bars that poked from pre-stressed concrete, metre after metre of movie film. Some pieces were twenty feet long, others only a few inches. We held them to the light. Each frame showed dozens of soldiers, some with rifles, some without. It was old, monochrome stock, from 20 years ago. But here was the memory within the ruin, the genuine article, the real McCoy, the final proof that, yes, there was human life on earth.
Back in Beirut, that other city of ruins, I asked the projection assistant at my local Lebanese cinema to splice the film together and then I sat in the front row to watch. The pictures came up cinemascope-size on the screen above me. I knew at once who the unarmed soldiers were: Iranian prisoners of the Somme-like eight-year war between Saadam and the Ayatollah Khomeini. The Iranians bowed their heads and looked sideways at the camera. The Iraqi guards eagerly forced their prisoners to march back and forth in the heat. They were being humiliated, one army destroying another army. Then we supported Saddam – this was our victory that I was watching on the screen – and then we destroyed Saddam, which is how I laid hands on this film. Those soldiers, those prisoners were ruined men whose memory of suffering – unknown to them – had been preserved in the ruins of a later conflict, in a building destroyed a decade and a half after their war ended. This is what Gerry Judah’s work asks us: was there really human life on earth?
Robert Fisk is Middle East Correspondent of The Independent