The best archeology stays under earth. Conversation with Akram Zaatari

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[PL] Zofia Chojnacka: Film "Letter to a Refusing Pilot" has been shown till now in some prestigious art institutions, such as: Biennial in Venice (première in the Pavilion of Lebanon, curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath ˗ Art Reoriented), MOMA in New York, Salt in Istanbul, Moderna Museet in Stockholm (currently on view until August 16th) and at the film festivals in Rotterdam and Ann Arbor. Has it been shown in some other, non artistic, places, which were, in your opinion, important?

Akram Zaatari:"Letter to a Refusing Pilot" is an artwork, so it is expected to be screened in art venues and film festivals. However, I recently showed it in a symposium "Time and Trauma: Memory in Global Perspective" organized by Columbia Global Center in Amman in Jordan in a collaboration with Columbia University History Department and Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, and it was great to discuss this work from the perspective of history, and conflicts, and sometimes trauma.

Why did you decide to use this very Gainsbourgian song "Comment te dire adieu" as the soundtrack of the film "Letter"?

What people do not know about cross cultures is that we have a lot in common, more than we think, even if we look different, even if we come from a different class, or even if we got a different education, we still share a lot. I was looking for an unexpected surprise because it is an important moment in the film. It's a young boy at a turning point in his life, learning how to put on a necktie, and at the same time going through a war that he is not capable of grasping. When we were children we often looked at Israeli television, like we watched Egyptian television and Lebanese television, and we could sometimes see that the three stations shared a lot of programming. I watched Hitchcock's films on the three of them. I watched French films on the three of them, and I listened to similar music on the three of them. In reality Israeli individuals who joined the Israeli army at the age of 18 were bombing citizens in Lebanon who they shared so much with; more than they thought. Popular culture has so much power providing those things people share across geography culture, across borders.

Akram Zaatari, Letter to A Refusing Pilot, 2013, © Akram Zaatari. Kadr z filmu
Akram Zaatari, "Letter to a Refusing Pilot", 2013, film still. © Akram Zaatari

Your new feature film "Twenty-Eight Nights and a Poem. An interpretation of Hashem el Madani's photographic archive" was premiered at the 65th Berlinale International Film Festival in February 2015 - in the FORUM section (International Forum of New Cinema), aimed on presenting artistic films and political reportage - and has been given there the special mention by THINK Film Award. The film will be shown soon in Poland at the 15th New Horizons International Film Festival in Wroclaw in July of this year. Lasting over two hours, the film was performed and recorded in the old commercial photographic Studio Shehrazade in Saida [Sidon], where Hashem el Madani worked from 1953, and in modern archives of the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut. Film is a visual essay on your lasting 16 years of research of the archive of Studio Shehrazade. The film juxtaposes scenes with 87-years old photographer explaining his lifetime work in his still untouched studio in Saida with sequences with objects taken from the studio presented in the sterile offices of the archive of AIF: piles of negatives under magnifying glass, photographs taken in hands in gloves, as well as tools and equipment used in taking pictures; we can also see you working there with archival documents while listening to Madani recorded on a smartphone. It seems that, in your view, a photographic archive cannot be understood only as the register of documents and cannot be a reliable source of information without the story related to each document; is that true?

While working on this huge archive of more than a million images, I was seeking to seize the photographer's practice and its multiple ties to his city, Saida. It is an archeological approach, in the sense that is based on researched material, unearthed from hidden pockets if I may say. Without the photographer being alive I would have missed much of the stories behind the pictures. I do not say that this is the only way to look at such an archive, and I am sure someone else from another discipline or from another background would have approached it differently, even in fiction. It just happens that with my baggage and experience, having initiated the Arab Image Foundation in 1997, and having worked for so long in the documentary tradition, stretching its limits and sometimes questioning it too. When I met Madani in 1999, this seemed to be the right thing to do. The operation of looking at the collection and coming up with themes to work on during the past years was really huge, especially dealing with the photographer, now an old man, and with the AIF, as an organization with many voices that's managing Madani's work today.

But having worked for years in a documentary tradition on Madani's work as subject, is not enough to communicate all what I wanted to say about him, and his work, and about the transportation of his photographs to the Arab Image Foundation in Beirut. My film was becoming a film about photography and technology, and the city in addition to it being about Madani and his work. This is why there needed to be a performative dimension to be introduced.

The film "Twenty-Eight Nights and a Poem" was commissioned by the Musée Nicéphore Niépce, dedicated to the history of photography and to the person of Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833), the inventor of photography, which he called héliographie (drawing by sun). Melancholic, and sometimes amusing, the story shows Studio Shehrazade as a microcosm embodying the development of contemporary photography and amateur film till the digital era and the abdication of the television (as the main source of entertainment and news, medium for advertising and shaping public opinions) on the favour of community media channels in the internet. This is a meditation on practice of Hashem el Madani as a chronicler of his times and society, whose knowledge should be transmitted orally to future generation; he was a photographer who offered his services to a community of clients, using all sorts of machines of moving image (including Super 8 films, video cameras and projectors). Is the film a farewell to the times of the analogue photography, its people and the former status of a Photographer?

Yes, it announces an era, when images left a physical trace, is over. Now we take our own images, and we decide to delete them without leaving a trace. In the past, deleting a picture would still leave a trace of it, because there is a negative for every image, unless one literally burns or destroys the negative. "Twenty-Eight Nights" is also a reflection on archives, and on the links that exist between human individuals and photographs or films, even clips in digital forms found on YouTube. Man's relation to images is one of the most enigmatic relations. One develops emotions facing a dear picture and one cries while watching a film, isn't it great?

Akram Zaatari, "Twenty-Eight Nights and a Poem" (2015), kadr z filmu, scena finałowa: Hashem El Madani i Akram Zaatari. Dzięki u
Akram Zaatari, "Twenty-Eight Nights and a Poem", 2015, film still, final scene: Hashem El Madani and Akram Zaatari. Courtesy of the Artist

Akram Zaatari, "Twenty-Eight Nights and a Poem" (2015), kadr z filmu, scena finałowa: Hashem El Madani i Akram Zaatari. Dzięki u
Akram Zaatari, "Twenty-Eight Nights and a Poem", 2015, film still, final scene: Hashem El Madani and Akram Zaatari. Courtesy of the Artist

It is said that legendary Egyptian singer, died in 1977 at the age of 47, Abdel Halim Hafez - known as King of Arabic Music, The Voice of the People, The Son of the Revolution, King of Emotions and Feelings, The Dark-Skinned Nightingale - became an inspiration for the people taking part in demonstrations during the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, who sung his patriotic songs. In your film we can watch an amazing scene: you, dressed in a T-shirt with an inscription "RÉVE"(dream), are putting a green living potted flower in a transparent plastic archive box together with the a cassette tape recorder which plays the song of 1974 by Abdel Halim Hafez singing "in my dreams we traveled, him and I, we fed on our desire, and we built our hopes and dreams together, I said «If I only could have a second life!» a second life a second life", then you are closing the box and placing it on a shelf among many others archive files. Is it the commentary on the impossibility of the Arab Spring or of the intrinsic impossibility of the idea of the archive itself? What do you want to say?

This is one of the scenes most open for interpretation. It's about all what we are not capable of understanding in an archive. It has something from the writings of Yoko Ogawa (in her novel "L'Annulaire") and it has something about second life, virtual world, or parallel lives in digital form that we also are not capable of fully understanding. What would this tell us about preservation if we miss (if we do not understand) something in a picture? How could we preserve it or claim to preserve it? So it is there where the plant comes to sit in the same box as a Walkman (audiotape player) playing a recording of the Abdel Halim song where he wishes he is given a second life. It is enigmatic, but not so much. In other terms, maybe my work on Madani's photography give his pictures a second life, or even gives him another life by allowing his work to be continued or interpreted by a different younger person. These are only hints to possible readings.

All of this, like working on archives, reminds us that pictures and objects live longer than us. In my relationship with Madani, I cannot but think of myself as continuity or extensions to his memory. So this is why we sit right after that at the last scene in the film, seen side by side.

To answer you on the link to the revolution in Egypt. By bringing in Abdel Halim's song "Ahlef Bissamaha" (Swear by its sky) shown as sang in different ways on four iPads, and a bit out of synch. This is a patriotic song made to the love of the Arab Nation. I have to admit my use of it is a bit cynical yet I am moved by it at the same time, because I grew up listening to it, and yet I do not believe in it, nor in its romantic view of the Arab united nation. It ends with Lebanese singer Majida al-Roumi singing the same song in front of the former Egyptian president Housni Moubarak and his army officers, which was found on Youtube.

Letter to A Refusing Pilot, 2013, © Akram Zaatari. Kadr z filmu
Akram Zaatari, "Letter to a Refusing Pilot", 2013, film still. © Akram Zaatari

In the opening scenes of the film "Twenty-Eight Nights and a Poem", we learn that the title of the film refers both to the classic collection of Arabian tales "One Thousand and One Nights", as to the music of, the coming from Cairo, Mohammad Abdel Wahab (1902 - 1991), who composed more than 1820 songs, including the national anthem of Libya and United Arab Emirates, and is considered to be one of the Great Four of Arabic music (along with Umm Kulthum, Abdel Halim Hafez and Farid Al Attrach). Extremely long and improvised Arabian songs, dealing mostly with the universal themes of love, longing and loss, usually last hours (not minutes), and have a structure of Western opera, consisting of long vocal passages linked by shorter orchestral interludes. In his long vocal improvised invocation (mawwal) in song "Fil-Bahr" (At Sea), composed in 1935, Mohammad Abdel Wahab, repeats the word "Oh Night" 28 times in different musical variations, and concludes the piece with a sad poem.

In the final colorful scene of the film - shown as a single piece titled "Endnote" in Moderna Museet - the digital era enters the old Studio Shehrazade: photographer Hashem el Madani and you, sitting at the computer screen, share a video from YouTube's online archive and are intensively listening to the Lebanese eminent pop singer Melhem Barakat, who passionately performs his hit - ecstatic vibrant love song "Amarein" (Moons), demonstrating incredible vocal abilities and continuity of the musical Arabian tradition. Is your film a tribute to 20th century Arabian pop playing special role in Middle East societies?

There are indeed parallels between the first song of Abdel Wahab and the last song of Melhem Barakat. Both of them spend so much time singing in trance a single word repeatedly. The first one sings the word "O Night" 28 times, and the second one sings endlessly, repeating over and over the letter "W" (wowa wowowa wow) as pronounced in English not in German, draining it from meaning, or emptying it from lyrics, from any meaning and fall in total trance, tarab, and this is what I was trying to do with the narrative structure of the film. I was stretching certain parts beyond a narrative, beyond the documentary format, to allow for something else to erupt or appear in my images, my recordings, something coming from elsewhere, pure emotions coming from the mind of the viewer I hope.

Whether or not the film is a tribute to 20th century Arab pop, I do not see it this way. While looking at an archive, one notices parallels, similarities between images that were taken at different times with different people posing in very similar ways. So Photography is in my opinion a tool to produce and reproduce attitudes, fashion and maybe values. Look at the image of men or women smoking in front of the camera. People used to pose in that way even if they were not smokers. It was for them a way to conform to a model, an image propagated through photography in the twentieth century. In music it is the same. Singers became models, and propagated fashion and values as much as they were inspired by each other's values and fashions. So while commenting on visual culture, taking photography and attitudes as a starting point, it was inevitable not to talk about film, especially that a photographer's studio in the sixties in Lebanon was the place where people used to go to in order to buy or rent famous films on Super 8 formats, especially published for home viewing. It was way before video players were invented. Looking at the music industry (especially pop songs) helps us understand something about popular use of photography in the fifties and sixties.

Yes, and quite unexpectedly we can hear Radio Nour announcing "It's four o'clock", and then the uncanny voice of the muezzin praying "And proclaim the Grace of your Lord". This broadcast comes from the old radio from Studio Shehrazade placed in a modern space of the Arab Image Foundation? Could you comment this scene?

The AIF does not have any of the photographer's equipment. Those were filmed in his studio against a white backdrop that he uses to project 16 mm film. I mapped all the machines he has and tested them with the Super 8 films he had in his studio including the audio player, the radio, the light which lights AGFA, etc... I simply put the radio ON and it was on Radio Nour (Light) that he often listens to and I recorded that moment, then I switched from radio to tape and played that tape that was in the machine, which was Sheikh Abdel-Basset, a well known Egyptian Muqre' [Quran reciter] who recorded, like many, the whole Quran. It is common that old people, and some youth, listen to Quran, and Abdel-Basset is a kind of legendary Muqre' in the Muslim world. I was happy to capture that moment at least to communicate some of the cultural baggage of where the photographer comes from. His father was a religious authority who encouraged his son to become photographer, and who allowed him to make his first studio in his home when Madani was still young, and when many conservatives were suspicious of photography.

However, your newest work seems to refer to a more distant past than contemporary history of Lebanon. On your Vimeo channel, we can now watch videos relating to the archeological discovery of Hellenistic royal necropolis in ancient Sidon (nowadays Saida) - among others: famous so called the Alexander Sarcophagus from late 4th century BC adorned with bas-relief carvings of Alexander the Great - made in 1887 by Osman Hamdi Bey, the Ottoman statesman and the founder of Istanbul Archaeology Museums. The story of the discovery is narrated both by the renowned Turkish academician, specializing in late ottoman social and economic history, as well as ordinary people from Saida, being the descendants of the key individuals involved in the original excavation. Could you tell us more about this project?

This is the beginning of a project about archeology of the 19th century through the excavation of objects from Saida, both by the French and by the Ottomans. I have done an installation at Salt in Istanbul with research material about the Osman Hamdi excavation. I am interested in the transport of artifacts from original context to a museum, Instanbul museum. This is a story of a race between the French and the Ottomans over archeological artifacts, of the making of the Imperial museum in Istanbul, of the value of the past objects, about the meaning of cultural artifacts when moved away from where they were found, and about the notion and the concept of the museum.

Akram Zaatari, Objects of Study / Studio Shehrazade – Recepcja, 2006, © Akram Zaatari
Akram Zaatari, "Objects of Study / Studio Shehrazade - Reception Space", 2006.
© Akram Zaatari

Professor Edhem Eldem, recorded in your film, considers that the archeology - extremely popular then in Western Europe - was seen by the Ottomans as one of the symbols of modernity and civilizing mission. Istanbul Archaeology Museum, which was initiated by the finds in Saida, was conceived and designed as the Greek temple of Western science. He maintains the discoveries led by Osman Hamdi Bey in Saida were made with invasive and destructive methods aimed only to obtain the objects; which, nevertheless, were the challenge e.g. the Alexander Sarcophagus of Greek white marble weighs 5 tons. He also supposes the whole city of Saida had been watching then the procession of the sarcophaguses coming out of the mountain and going into the ship at sea.

In your project you want to reconstruct what you had known in Saida as a semi-mythical story, a fable told from father to son. Is this event still vivid in the memory of the inhabitants? How is this story being re-told till today? Do you want to show that the oral history forms the integral part of the heritage of the region?

There is something form this story that remained in people's imagination in Saida, and that's the desire to dig in one's own garden. Being myself from Saida, I am maybe a product of that too! A few people relate to that story. They are not a few, but they are not numerous neither. We are so lucky to have a written manuscript by Hamdi Bey published in 1892 in French and telling the story of the excavation and analyzing the findings with extremely fine illustrations. This excavation was extremely well documented with photography and drawing.


Your artistic work centers around your native town Saida, which encapsulates the history of the humanity and of the Levant. Ancient Sidon [Saida], one of the oldest Phoenician cities, was founded in the 3rd millennium BC; it is frequently mentioned in the works of Homer and in the Old Testament; it was ruled in turn by Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Alexander the Great, the Seleucids of Syria, the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, the Romans, it remembers the times of Crusades, reign of the Ottoman Turks, and finally the French.

In your artistic practice "act of excavation" was a metaphor for the revealing of concealed artifacts; e.g. you treated a photographic atelier Studio Shehrazade in Saida as a site of an ongoing excavation for 16 years. Your newest work on Osman Hamdi Bey's archeological mission to Saida looks like a culmination of your idea of archeological gesture in art. You have finally faced on your way archeological museum itself. Will you be "excavating" the origins of archeology as such?

Lebanese archeologist Hareth Boustany, who was the director of the National Museum in Beirut in the seventies, and who was responsible for burying the collection of the National museum under huge concrete blocks on the museum site at the eve of the civil war in 1975 in order to protect it from possible damage, once told me that the most appealing and most desired archeology is the archeology that you know of, but that stays under earth. It's the archeology that you long for but do not excavate!

This is why I was getting interested in burying things, and this is why I did my dOCUMENTA13 piece, a buried foundation under earth, "The Time Capsule ˗ Kassel". But I do believe that one needs to perform reverse gestures, even if they were seen as contradictory. It is as important to dig as it is to burry. Addressing the history of archeology is above all, writing the history of a practice. As someone interested in writing, archeology is not an end in itself, but a tool to write with.


The exhibition "Unfolding" by Akram Zaatari in Moderna Museet in Stockholm, presented from the 6th of March, can be viewed until the 16th of August 2015. As part of the exposition, a selection of Zaatari's film works from 1997-2012 is being shown in the Mini Cinema.

Akram Zaatari na wystawie w Modena Musset. Fot. Piotr Chojnacki
Akram Zaatari at the exhibition "Unfolding" in Moderna Museet. Photo: Piotr Chojnacki