Fouad Elkoury, from Photography to Architecture: Documenting the Absence of What Was

by Lea Saad

In his image The hand (1991), Lebanese photographer Fouad ElKoury draws his audience into an apocalyptic, post-civil war vision of Martyrs’ Square, once Beirut’s premier landmark and meeting place. ElKoury’s focal point is the square’s famous statue, allowing the hand of a martyr hewn from copper to dominate the photograph’s foreground.  To shoot the photograph, ElKoury stood on the statue — to this day, the last remaining structure in Martyrs’ Square — in an effort to capture his own point of view, as if he is searching for something he can no longer find on the ground. Lebanon’s collective sense of loss and agony is channeled into “the hand” stretching out, trying to grasp something that is not there — something that does not exist anymore. Despite that absence, however, he tries to cling to fragments that might bring his lost memories back to life. That, in itself, is an act of rebellion showcasing what it really feels like to long for a place that does not resemble you anymore, yet still be-longing.

Older generations of Lebanese remember the very square that ElKoury quite literally reaches out for in his photographs — a place brimming with vitality and movement. “The square was a home to all people,” said 65-year old retiree Nabil Hassbini, referring to Martyrs’ Square in the pre-civil war period. People would descend on Martyrs’ Square from all over Lebanon and beyond, be that to visit the different souqs (markets) and cinemas in the area, or simply to have their photo taken with the square’s famous statue. Rafaat Faddoul, a professor in architecture at the University of Balamand, traces this bygone era to more harmonious urban planning. “The square was surrounded by buildings that no longer exist, and narrow streets with low traffic congestion,” Faddoul said. “Pedestrian traffic was made easy and accessible.”  

The hand,” along with ElKoury’s other photographs of Martyrs’ Square, document a nation’s collective loss, something that only imagination can now bring back. During the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990),  Martyrs’ Square stood at the center of vicious fighting between combatants, sitting atop the Green Line that divided Beirut along sectarian lines. The same space that once connected Lebanese of all creeds became a source of fear, damaging the identity of Martyrs’ Square for many years to come. 

The square’s fortunes have not improved over the intervening decades. Martyrs’ Square has remained an architectural and urban planning void, a casualty of Downtown Beirut’s gaudy, multi-billion-dollar reconstruction project. “After the civil war, the rebuilding of the square did not succeed in maintaining [Beirut’s] identity as a pedestrian city,” explained Faddoul. Today, the Martyr’s Square statue casts a lonely and isolated figure — cut adrift from the city, marooned in a vast asphalt space, and hemmed in by newly built, chaotic multi-lane roads. For the retiree Hassbini, the square has lost all of its lustre. “Nowadays, I cannot walk there without fearing for my life, a car might hit you at any second.” 

At Martyrs’ Square, the sense of isolation has crossed over generations and even nationalities. Jacob Boswall, a British journalist who has reported on Lebanon for several years, enjoys the square’s current incarnation no more than [Nabil] does. “What is supposed to be the centre of an amazing city has been horrifyingly diminished to a glorified carpark,” he said. 

Despite these setbacks, Martyrs’ Square did enjoy a triumphant renaissance during the recent 17 October revolution of 2019, when thousands of protestors demonstrated there for months against government corruption. As Martyrs’ Square filled once more with music and excited chatter, the younger generation tasted the sensory experience their parents had told them about. Yet the relaunch of Martyrs’ Square proved fleeting — as protests ebbed away and the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, the square reverted to a shadow of its former glory fading away with that sense of be-longing.  

With no realistic hope of rejuvenation in sight, ElKoury’s photography has never been more important in commemorating the architectural heritage of Martyrs’ Square — or, more accurately, what remains of it. For Florient Zouein, a contemporary French-Lebanese photographer, ElKoury’s archive preserves his country’s frayed links to Lebanon’s fallen cultural icons. “[ElKoury] tries to move past the violence and take pictures showing stories, feelings, and human nature,” he argued. “His photos are taken as a memory of a place, resonating his presence in that place.”

Traces of war and ghosts of the past still torment the streets of Beirut today. What is more haunting than the memory of war itself, is the inability of letting go of what was. All that remains is an abstract idea of Beirut before its destruction and an intangible connection to scattered remnants from that era. ElKoury portrays that common struggle through his delicate lens,  almost like a eulogy to a city that shaped his identity. His photographs speak of his desperate fight to reincarnate the invisible city that dwells within him. The attachment to the memory of a place is just as excruciating as that place’s absence.

Fouad El-Khoury’s visual diary has never been more important, as Beirut reels from an unprecedented economic crisis and last August’s disastrous port explosion. His photographs allow viewers to dream, taking them back to a journey in the realm of his memory as they dwell in hopefulness that these memories might come to life again one day.

In most recent days, his works are the object of Middle East Archive’s first book, regrouping Lebanon, Palestine, Oman and Egypt from 1980 to 1997, an ode to the past and urging collective nostaglia of the region.