The roots of memory reside in the rubber trees of Beirut's old houses

Triggering the artist's creative ideas of giving human extensions to rubber trees in Beirut.
by Zeina Nasser English Zeina_w_Nasser

6 March 2018 | 14:34

Source: by Annahar

A handout photo by Abed Al Kadiri revealing the rubber tree at the blacksmith's house; the subject of his first exhibition in "The Story of the Rubber Tree" project.

BEIRUT: There has always been a fond relationship between nature and artists, whether they were poets, painters, or performed any other type of art.

Yet, talking about the rubber tree has not been one of the artists’ preferences, who often choose to talk about, paint, or take photos of jasmines, sunflowers, tulips, or lavenders instead.

The rubber tree, though beneficial in numerous ways to humans, has customarily been looked down upon.

Abed Al Kadiri, a Lebanese Artist, thought of changing the plot of the rubber tree’s story, and specifically that of Beirut.

His ongoing project “The Story of the Rubber Tree” started two years ago, stemming out of a personal story, he tells Annahar. In his first exhibition’s guide around the project, Al Kadiri mentions that it is an ongoing project that examines the histories of Beirut’s abandoned houses, frequently re-inhabited and invaded by rubber trees.”

Annahar spoke to Al Kadiri two days after an attempt to cut one of Beirut’s oldest rubber trees in Jean D’arc Street, Hamra. The artist spoke angrily about the incident, mentioning that he received a video from Mona Hallak, an architect and heritage preservation activist.

The video that went viral on social media platforms was shot by Heba Hage, one of Hamra’s residents.

Hallak, who is part of the “AUB Neighborhood initiative”, that aims to improve Ras Beirut, tells Annahar that there was an attempt to cut that rubber tree inJjean D’arc Street in August and September, 2017, yet the old tree was saved. Unfortunately, however, three heritage houses were destroyed back then.

“On Sunday 4 March 2018, some people were sent to destroy this tree, along with other heritage houses,” Hallak mentions.

Though the “heritage destroyers” based their action on a decision issued by the Choura Council, cutting the tree requires permission from the Gardening Department in Beirut Municipality, something they have not obtained. 

This led Hobeich police station to forbid them from cutting the tree. 

AUB’s neighborhood project has tried its best to forbid destroying the heritage houses as well, but to no avail.

In this regard, Hallak sadly says: “For me, the memory of the city is being destroyed.”

According to Hallak, who has been fighting for heritage preservation for 24 years, memory is not only related to the physical building, but it is also the relationship between the city and gardens connected to these legacy houses. It is a way of life and it is always related to trees. However, it goes beyond the symbolism of ecology, to reach the intimate human relationship between humans and nature.

The Rubber tree is one of Beiruti’s collective memories even though it is not a native tree for Beirut.

That memory is perceived differently by anyone spotting the “extremely rooted” tree at this Hamra locale.

Al Kadiri’s memory of that tree is mostly related to his grandparent’s house in Aisha Bakkar Street, Beirut. “My story is one of many that have happened between the rubber tree and people,” he says.

The artist’s memory of that place and surroundings, triggered his creative ideas of giving human extensions to rubber trees in Beirut, leading him to start raising awareness about rubber trees since two years.

“I could have focused on how people feel close to their objects and how this is related to memory, yet I wanted to shed light on how trees reserve the memories of places.”

Al Kadiri’s grandparents’ rubber tree struck him two years ago. His whole memory about that abandoned place is related to the tree, he says.

Trees hide many stories of houses behind them, especially when they get older and the house becomes barely visible. There is something particularly fitting about rubber trees and their connection to the memory and stories of a labyrinthine Beirut.

Al Kadiri’s story is one about disputes that have been happening for more than 10 years between his father and uncle, due to the abandoned house.

“Since I opened my eyes to the world, my father did not talk to my uncle, so I felt like I wanted to go and see this house,” Al Kadiri said, adding “This family was apart because of this house. Is it worth it?

Hallak’s memory on the rubber tree is quite different.

She tells Annahar that the rubber tree was not one of the things that she worked on, but mentions that “it’s one of the oldest memories of Beirut.”

One of Hallak’s biggest projects on preserving heritage are Beit Beirut, and other projects include preserving Rawshe’s Dalieh, and Ramleh al Bayda; Beirut’s remaining public beach.

Hallak narrates that “there is always an old rubber tree hiding an old house,” So, when one sees a 100 year old tree, then the house is 100 years old as well.

Years ago, Hallak stood watching a nine-floor tall rubber tree in one of Beirut’s streets. She remembered that her mother has previously told her what it is called in Arabic “شجرة الكاوتشوك” or “كاوتشوكة”. So, she passed it down to her four year old son back then.

That rubber tree was part of an old house, a man living in the neighborhood told Hallak.

The heritage preservation activist seems to be very passionate about the aesthetic aspect of the tree. “You see all its leaves being covered with a red cone, and this is really beautiful,” she says.

Lebanon is moving very slowly regarding heritage preservation, Hallak recalls, “but we have to continue and be really be patient, believing that change is possible.”

This is what Al Kadiri bases his project on as well; Change. On a tree that has become a metaphor about Beirut, whether it was about a woman who lost her children, or about siblings who fought over the house…

After Al Kadiri saw his grandparents’ huge rubber tree two years ago, he started realizing many other rubber trees existed in Beirut, and they were mainly found near empty houses.

“I always see the tree before the house,” the artist says.

The artist researched a lot about the rubber tree, before preparing his series of exhibitions as part of the rubber tree project. He found that it came from South America and was planted in Beirut in the late 1930s.

Also, there is no documentation mentioning that Beirut is the rubber tree’s main habitat, yet this is where it has been planted.

The exhibition will be launched on Thursday at Sursock museum with one story, and then other stories will be launched throughout the year. It will include two sculptures, three paintings, and a film.

The rubber tree is very invasive, more like the stories it hides. Its roots extend a lot, so if anyone was going to remove that tree, he/she would have to remove the house as well.

The rubber tree is not sky. It is not a jasmine tree, or any tree with beautiful flowers.

It seems to be a green bucket of people’s stories, providing shade for their houses. So, it is more than beauty, it is functional, and does not need lots of care to grow strong.

Al Kadiri’s broader practice examines the thematics of violence, cultural heritage, migration, and belonging, he mentions.

The Story of the Rubber Tree explores the changes wrought on Beirut’s urban and personal fabrics, and the tree’s ability to address intimate shared histories.

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