During my time in Beirut in 2013, I began to study Arabic again for the first time since a year spent in Cairo in 2005-6. The spoken Arabic of Lebanon is very different from that of Egypt, and this process of having to learn and re-learn, against the backdrop of the Syrian civil war and its spillover into Lebanon, inevitably led to a great deal of reflection about the power and limits of language. Out of this experience, and perhaps the desire to neutralize the war of words flaring up around me – which I struggled to understand – came a series of videos in which language, multilingualism and translation become a game where, despite a lack of clear rules and purpose, the stakes remain exceedingly high. Arabic grammar terms become the names of cartoon-alien weapons, language-learning tapes are repurposed as actual dialog, the subtitles to an Umm Kalthum ballad break down into different levels of incomprehension. Beyond this ‘attack’ on discursive meaning, again and again we find that it is language that determines our reading of what we see, as the visual plane provides stand-in after stand-in: the ruins of downtown Beirut stand in for a new American civil war, the small polluted river of Beirut becomes the Grand Canyon, a train station in Madrid becomes the non-existent Beirut Grand Central.
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