Gregory Buchakjian in Beirut: A Course of Catastrophe

Gregory Buchakjian looks at the Arab uprisings of the last two years and sees not an exception but an extension — at best a pause, not a change, along a course of catastrophe. The pattern of the Middle East since 1945, he’s saying, has been warfare that resolves nothing: that always stops short of treating the agony of Palestinians displaced and more recently occupied by the young state of Israel. Do we know yet what it means that tyrannies have been toppled in Egypt and Tunisia? Or that vicious close-up war has broken out in Libya and Syria? “In Lebanon,” he says, “we are used to saying — ‘we don’t know.’ We’re in a region that gets relief now and then, but not reconciliation.” We’re scanning the Arab upheavals from the intersection of Greg Buchakjian’s artistic passions, photography and history, and from the views not far from his window of war damage and construction cranes in his hometown Beirut. He is my kind of informed, digressive, mercurial talker with angles that could sound unconventional in America, but not unrecognizable…

Gregory Buchakjian at home in Beirut.  Photo by Leonardo Matossian.

Gregory Buchakjian at home in Beirut. Photo by Leonardo Matossian.

The French have an expression, le sens de l’histoire, the direction of history, mainly based on the French Revolution and the American Revolution that preceded it. The meaning is that history moves from dark ages to enlightenment and the liberation of people. Well, I don’t agree with that ‘direction of history.’ We are living today in an era of neo-liberalism when the world is commanded by brokers and bankers… We are not moving toward enlightenment and humanism. The world is going toward the enrichment of a category of people who are ruling over economic empires. So if the direction of history is to let some companies take the place of states and empires, I don’t see myself in it. I don’t find it a good direction… We are talking about the Arab world, which is one of the most violent regions in the world. I am not optimistic about the Arab world because I am not optimistic about the world as a whole.

Gregory Buchakjian in conversation with Chris Lydon in Beirut, December 2012.

I am trying out on Greg Buchakjian my romantic notion that the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square were pushing a “universal panic button” for all of us — about their habitat and ours, their economics of inequality and ours, about blind state brutality far and wide. He hears rather “a cry of despair” in the revolts today and two years ago, speaking directly for a population that is young, poor, angry and out of luck in its current prospects. Either way, is the ongoing Arab rebellion a signal that the world can hear? Greg Buchakjian is drawn to smaller readings and smaller gestures — toward the planting of walnut trees in Lebanon; or, in Japan, to the farmers who are engaging ducks to fight insects that infest rice plants. Or in his own case, to making a photographic record of the houses and lives being crushed and abandoned in the real estate war — “and it is a war” — in Beirut as we speak.

Gregory Buchakjian Archive, Beirut, 2011 Ultrachrome print, edition of 5 ©Gregory Buchakjian

Gregory Buchakjian Archive, Beirut, 2011 Ultrachrome print, edition of 5 ©Gregory Buchakjian

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  • Robert Zucchi

    “…somewhere in sands of the desert/A shape with lion body and the head of a man”

    Gregory Buchakjian is not an artist infatuated with revolution. He disavows pessimism as a worldview, but his hopes for the Arab Spring are not high. Just what is there for the young revolutionaries –educated, au courant as never before with TV and the Internet and social media–to aspire to when the international financial system seems so decayed? Bright young people are reduced to pumping gas.

    Here is an artist who, it seems, distrusts the heroic images with which others have prettified the uprisings.

    The world over, people want to prosper. They want to emancipate themselves from repressive hierarchies, including the clerics. They want democracy, even if they don’t fully grasp how complex it can be.

    Mr. Buchakjian is cautiously hopeful. He cites some small-scale projects he finds encouraging. But the spirit of Tahrir Square is a fragile thing. The rebellion arrived at a time when the financial infrastructure that promised improvement for the citizens of developing nations was starting to fail people even in the world’s most advanced countries.

    “…And what rough beast, its hour come round at last…”

    Japan didn’t have a “Lost Decade.” Japan ran into the law of diminishing returns, when inflation began, like wind resistance against an accelerating car, to inexorably slow all economic momentum. The same phenomenon began to overtake America with the end of the postwar boom in the 1970s.

    Capitalism cannot possibly prosper a billion people in India, nor in China. Possibly it can’t even fully revive a rich country like the US, with its 310 million people. The media have shrunk the world and fed a hunger for material well-being, just when capitalism as presently constituted was losing its vitality.

    As to the industrial revolution, it exacted a terrible price for the advances it brought. Our degraded environment may undo much of what we imagine to have been human progress. There is unlikely to be a haven even for the rich anywhere on this planet if the biosphere is irreparably damaged.

    Our tragedy today is that our progress (computers, the Internet, the accessibility by jet of virtually any place on earth) cannot be counterposed to the imminent collapse of an environment that will no longer sustain our increasingly desperate exploitation of it.

    “…And what rough beast, its hour come round at last/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” (Yeats, “The Second Coming.”)

    Mr. Buchakjian speaks confidently and engagingly about this watershed moment for the Middle East and the world. And I’m reassured to find that he is too well-informed and well-spoken to lapse into the sort of jeremiad of which I delivered myself above. Thinking back to the artists C. L. previously interviewed, and even considering the less cheerful views expressed by Mr. Buchakjian, this series has brought us intelligent people who are equable in temperament, thoughtfully analytical, and undaunted by the supermassive black hole that is human history. It’s not forced optimism that leads me to expect that they will have have a part in rectifying some of this world’s ills.

  • Dear Gregory.

    A very passionate interview. Unfortunately the world is the way it is now. Humanity, and I speak in the majority of sense are so unaware of what is really happening not in the world, which like you say can be seen anywhere on TV, the internet, mass media, etc. Humanity is completely unaware of what is happening to them on the inside. Their entire lives are lived on the surface. The saddest thing is possibly that they don’t even know this. It’s not from absorption of material things or living in the material world, although that certainly sinks them further, but it’s more about being so unaware of all the consequences their daily lives have on the lives of everyone around them.

    Ignorance is our greatest disease. Not the ignorance of education or even of awareness but the lack of wisdom, that we are all here, including all animal and plant beings together and all you have to do is be honest and kind to each other to live peacefully, harmonious and in love. Ah, such joy that is.

    Never mind, all the material world is so unpermanent, it will all pass. So, yeah, plant an olive tree.

  • Potter

    When I used say “everything is happening as it is supposed to happen” it was to calm myself and I believed it. That still works. I think we are headed towards universal enlightenment. So though this means more revolution, more war, more suffering, because social evolution is so very slow, it’s the only way it seems. We are not in the Garden of Eden. We knew that then. The destruction of our habitat will surely happen because we are using our planet up. Knowledge and enlightenment has been speeded up but I don’t think it will be fast enough to save us. By progress I mean the internal knowledge that we are all connected, indeed one, and we behave as though we know it.

    GB is very interesting. He’s all about the sweep of history. I end up where GB ends up feeling the importance of every day, every moment, every person. the here and now.

    Regarding war, we now watch it coming to northern Africa, Mali, sadly, the country of beautiful music.

    It’s wonderful that GB makes these photographs, witnessing but also revealing the beauty even in the destruction. It seems more art than journalism and it forces me to into neutrality and contemplation, at least for the moment.

    I think I will listen again to your interview with Howard French. I just heard him on the radio.

  • Sarine

    I have been following Arab Artists in Revolution with such ardency and barely contained enthusiasm. In a way, these fragments in cafes, insightful interviews, and raw moments of candour and humanity have connected me more with the Arab world than actual people that have passed through my life.

    After a lifetime in exile, it was Elias Khoury, among others, and now my compatriot Gregory (may I call you Koko?) Buchakjian who stirred a piece of my soul. As an Armenian born and raised in Beirut, Greg’s pessimism haunts me, his images recollect the war that I escaped.

    Thank you for these moments that mean the world to me.


  • Potter

    I have to pass this on as it was passed on to me. It adds another thought or two to the above conclusions/truths… the other side of the coin.

    Beyond the Rational- Matt Ridley- Zeitgeist 2012

  • Dave Atch

    Working in the US in a space heavily impacted by the formerly even more inflated Republican/JohnGalt austerity crusade (privatization, good thing they lost a bit in Nov)…I can’t always keep up with things like I’d like…too whooped. But with the lack-of-fruition news, of course I come back desperately to r-opensource for reflections on same. Thanks Chris for this interview. Hey, and PLEASE keep the streaming!

  • Carl

    Thank you Chris, another very powerful and moving interview…an honor to meet Mr. Buchakjian.
    I wish there could be a brief bibliography of references spelled out, such as the filmaker who made the film from youtube feeds…

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