Following the devastating explosion on August 4th, 2020, close to 25,000 tonnes of glass debris littered the streets of Beirut. The cause of destruction, although unprecedented in its magnitude, was another episode in the cycle of corruption and negligence brought about by Lebanon’s political elite. Seeking to uncover political violence and the precariousness of urban life in Beirut, the film essay Shafāfiyyāh (Transparency in Arabic), looks at the socio-political and historical complexities of Lebanon’s capital through the lens of glass. In this interview with director Batoul Faour, we talk about the historic weight of glass in Beirut’s collective memory, the political dimension of the material and how the language of film can negotiate between notions of corruption and transparency.
KOOZ Shafāfiyyāh examines the material politics of glass embedded in Lebanese collective memory and trauma. What prompted the project?
BATOUL FAOUR After the explosion on August 4th, 2020, and amid the near absence of the state, some friends and I, like so many people from all over the country, volunteered to help with cleanup and reconstruction efforts. In the wake of the destruction, nearly 25,000 tonnes of glass debris littered the streets. It blanketed entire pavements and sidewalks and was still raining down from windows and balconies. You had to watch your feet and over your head for shards, pebbles, and panels. As it was being cleaned up, you could hear it scraping against the pavement for days on end. People would comment on how Beirut sounded “like glass”1 or “pieces of shattered lives”,2 with older generations remembering this sound from their childhood3 during Lebanon’s civil war. The physical properties of glass lent the language to describe the indescribable and tapped into both old and new traumas. It was this overwhelming sensory experience, followed by conversations with other volunteers, organisers, and friends who were collectively experiencing the same thing.
The physical properties of glass lent the language to describe the indescribable and tapped into both old and new traumas.
KOOZ How does glass’ material and narrative life cycles illustrate the precariousness of urban life in Beirut, and the many dichotomies of the lived experience within it?
BF Glass is meant to provide visibility and access to the city—to uplift quality of life through light and views. It is often a declaration of safety to glaze windows and storefronts. In Beirut, these ideals were quite literally and metaphorically shattered by the explosion. And while the destruction of the port was a case of criminal negligence unprecedented in magnitude, it was unfortunately not the first wave of violence inflicted on Beirut and its residents. Sectarian violence in the city extends from the beginning of the civil war in 1975, to the assassinations and bombings of the early 2000’s, to more recent political turmoil. The sound of broken glass has echoed these tragedies, perpetuated by the same political elite over the years. On August 4th, glass related damage affected homes as far as 10km from the blast. After the explosion, I spent the next few months following the glass—in all its tangible and intangible forms. From cleanup, recycling, and repair of glass debris to the supply, manufacture, and distribution of glass panels, to the intimate encounters and traumas caused by broken glass. These stories came together to construct a sort of critical biography of the material, that in turn, I realised, would also become one of Beirut. For example, a family decided to replace the broken windows in their home with metal shutters—not wanting to deal with the next wave of destruction they anticipate will eventually come. It represents the ways of attempting to make a life within a sort of dysfunctional present normality, which is characteristic of many of Beirut’s infrastructures—like its electricity crisis and its garbage crisis, among other institutional failures.
The sound of broken glass has echoed these tragedies, perpetuated by the same political elite over the years.
KOOZ In Shafāfiyyāh you state that“desired for its transparency in a country that has none to offer its people, glass is valued for its absence.” What is the story behind the widespread implementation of this material throughout Beirut? How does it speak of Lebanon’s history of repeated political violence and expand the semiotics of glass, revealing the different social and cultural disparities within the city’s-built environment?
BF You could say that excessive use of glass is somewhat extraneous to Mediterranean architecture—one that belongs to a tradition of controlling light and shade through shutters and balconies. The boom in the industrial production of glass is representative of a sort of imported modernity, one that comes with certain representations of power and progress.4 This is characteristic of the many glazed high rises that line the shores of Beirut, buildings that could not have possibly been erected in a corruption free system due to their many violations of building and zoning laws. Angry protesters who smashed the windows and glass storefronts of these buildings during the mass protests of October 2019 recognized luxury development among the many injustices of the authoritarian state. Such disparities were also seen in the types of glass, between buildings treated with safety glass and ones that were not able to afford this luxury. Untreated glass is known to cause much greater damage, since upon impact it breaks into large knife-like shards. While this is often a consequence of the age of the building, it is also an indicator of violations of safety regulations in newer buildings, which was revealed by the explosion. The widespread use of glass has also been amplified by an amendment to the construction law in 2004, which gave developers the right to count glazed balconies as indoor spaces—ultimately as a way of maximising total exploitation ratio, and hence profit. This is a consequence of a building law written by developers—many of the political elite are tied to or are themselves large developers.
KOOZ Faced with the mountain of debris, glass, aluminium, and plastic following the Beirut explosion in 2020, the citizens' quest to turn this into glassware is not only proof of their resilience for survival but also the issues tied to normalising these atrocities and the consistent failures of the Lebanese government. To what extent could we consider the community’s resilience a double-edged sword?
BF The material rebirth of glass enticed both entrepreneurs and artists who recognised the power and sentiment that it came to bear after the explosion. None, however, acknowledged its systemic politicisation, instead diverting it into a visual culture of precious artisanal objects and artefacts. Through these marketing exercises, glass was returned to blatantly premodern modes of production, while the very modern issues around its industrial fabrication, production, and installation continued to prevail—such as the lack of support for local manufacture and the expense of imported glass that burdened reconstruction efforts. Some of these products were met with local rage for embracing what some have called “disaster capitalism.” These artefacts were sold and introduced once again into the very homes their raw shards once covered. The cycles of broken glass simultaneously produced both expensive imported window panes and fancy local bottles, each an attempt at managing the disaster in the absence of the state. In the process, however, the victims themselves are burdened with picking up the pieces and stewarding their own rehabilitation. While resilience has become a requirement for survival, it also became its sole focus—blurring the public’s sight of justice and accountability; normalising atrocities as if there were no perpetrator; branding tragedy and offering it as a marketing strategy to the world.5
Shafāfiyyāh was created through an alternating process of filming and writing—its genre is what you might call a film essay.
KOOZ Paradigmatically the citizens of Beirut find themselves repairing window panels in buildings which still bear bullets from the civil war, questioning how much glass has been littered in the last forty years and how long will the Lebanese people keep fixing broken windows and repairing broken glass. What is the potential of the medium of the film essay in catalysing attention to this reality? What is ultimately the ambition of Shafāfiyyāh?
BF Shafāfiyyāh was created through an alternating process of filming and writing—its genre is what you might call a film essay. This form of expression, as pioneered by the likes of Chris Marker, Harun Farocki, and Jean Luc Godard is, as described “unique in its capacity to create connections and tensions while probing the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction, subject and object, narration and reflection, image and thought, whole and fragment, stasis and movement.”6 For me, these dualities became a way of untangling the neutrality we often associate with architecture’s materiality. Taking on the notion of the essay and the practice of writing became a way to search within and through language as a form of catharsis, but also as a new lens of looking at the city and the artifacts in which its politics are embedded. Shafāfiyyāh means transparency in Arabic. There is a short segment towards the beginning of the film where I gathered clips of news interviews with various Lebanese politicians in which they are all repeating the same thing: that for the state to function, and to avoid structural corruption, we need “transparency” in our laws, systems, and political life. The film questions these borrowed metaphors, at a time when the unthinkable continues to happen, and Beirut’s streets have become palimpsests of broken glass.
Batoul Faour is an architectural researcher, writer, and filmmaker who works between Beirut and Toronto. Her work operates at the intersection of politics, spatial histories, and media - blending a journalistic, documentary approach with the empirical and the architectural. These are methods she employs within and around dimensions of colonialism, migration and displacement, state and occupational violence, infrastructures, and other power systems. She holds a BArch from the American university of Beirut and a MArch from the University of Toronto.
1 From the Instagram story of Jude Chehab.
2 From a tweet by local art journal Rusted Radishes.
3 From a tweet by Mona Harb.
4 See Andrés Jaque, “Blue Sky Urbanism: The Socio-Territoriality of Ultra-Clear,” e-flux, December 6, 2019, [online]
5 See Batoul Faour, “Glass Politics: On Broken Windows in Beirut,” in the Avery Review 52 (April 2021), [online].
6 See Papazian, Elizabeth Astrid, and Caroline Eades, eds. The essay film: Dialogue, politics, utopia. London: Wallflower Press, 2016.