I don’t think I’ve ever decided to write about something so large, and multi-layered before. But, here goes…

A couple of years ago, I came across an old VHS tape about 24 years old hidden in a dark, humid basement in my parents’ home. The tape had an inscription on it, and it indicated clearly that it was a video of my brother’s funeral dated 19 July, 1997. I took the tape and kept it in my home. I knew one day I might watch it, I didn’t know when, why, or how I would do it. So much has happened to me since (to everyone)… two years is a very long time for a lot of things to happen.

I had been unconsciously preparing myself since I found it, but I only started to consciously drive towards it at the beginning of 2023, 26 years since I was a 10 year old boy attending his 19 year old brother’s funeral. In the beginning of this year, the tape was digitised with the help of a dear person, and it was now ready on a USB stick sitting on my table waiting to be watched. Then, 3 days ago, my friend’s mother passed away. I went to pay my condolences knowing that these things are not “social obligations” as we often call them in Lebanon. They are in fact a natural human drive. A funeral, after all, is a ritual not only to say farewell to the dead, but to console and help the living carry the burden of loss, and not feel alone with the task. The moment it is felt as a social obligation, it loses its significance.

As I was leaving, my friend’s brother met me outside, he said he didn’t recognize me but that he felt he knew me. He had immigrated to Italy a long time ago and rarely visited, his mother’s funeral being the reason for his visit this time. I told him whose son I was. He said, “You’re Shady’s brother? You look just like him.” And, he went on to tell me how he used to be friends with my brother, and what he was like. We were joined by another friend who told me what happened the night that Shady passed away: how there had been a huge fight in a nightclub in Beirut where they had all been out, and how the police arrested a bunch of them, but they let my brother go, and on his way back up to the mountains in those twilight hours between late night and dawn he drove off the road, crashed, got out of the car, and was found dead about 12 meters away from it after trying to crawl back up to the road. He ended up losing too much blood. Finally, about an hour or two after the crash, someone saw him and called a too late ambulance.

After hearing all this, I felt with clarity that it was time to watch the video, I had no more hesitation. There was no longer any confusion as to why I wanted to do it, I just wanted to do it; I would figure out why later. And so, the night of February 23rd, I went home and turned on the heat in my living room, turned off the lights, and plugged the USB stick into the laptop. I won’t go into details here, it would be a very long read for you, and it would turn into a personal lament, which is not why I’m writing this. But, I will say, it was two and a half hours of extremely intense emotions. And, if I could say I took away one thing from it, it’s this: Growing up, I thought I was the center of that experience. I thought I was the one who suffered the most from my brother’s death. But, when I got to watch the whole thing from another perspective, through a camera lens, I understood so much. I understood that the nature of suffering, pain, trauma, whatever we decide to call it, is that it intensifies the “me”. And, that is where the real pain comes from, because it isolates us from the rest of the world. Watching a video of my brother’s funeral, seeing the deep suffering of all the others who were there, removed myself as the center of the experience, it brought about a large feeling of compassion. Compassion literally means “To suffer with; to feel together.”

In the funeral, there was an assertive presence of Art. There was a marching band that came in with horns, and some drums, and they played laments and elegies. There were 3 poets who would recite and improvise poems of lament as well. Some of the women would carry Shady’s picture over their head and dance with it next to the coffin in order to physically express the pain. The video itself was directed in an artistic way to bring out certain emotions, and to emphasize certain aspects in the funeral (someone’s hand covering their face, people hugging in grievance, thoughtful accepting faces.) A few days later, my uncle Jamal dedicated a piece of music to Shady’s memory, and we would receive all kinds of hand-written poetic condolences in our home. And flowers… so many flowers. I realized for the first time what an artistic statement that is, and how we all do it unconsciously. Art is often symbolism. And the symbolism of the flower, is that it reminds us of the process of life. We come out of the earth, go towards the light and beauty, bloom into maturity, and eventually we must accept our decay. Everything, however beautiful, must decay.

A lot of us, who go into the arts, are usually discouraged in the beginning mostly because it’s not a “secure” career. But, it is so clear: art is not a commodity. In the most real moments of life, art comes out of artists, and ordinary people alike. It is a natural inclination in human beings. Art is a way of making sense of the world. It is a creative act, in which the creator moves from uncertainty, chaos, and fragmentation towards clarity, order, and wholeness. It is a way of preserving memories, of retelling painful events in beautiful ways, and thus transforming them: healing from them. Why else would the most beautiful songs be about heartbreak, and other kinds of loss?

And, so, this is where I’d like to emphasize the role of the artist in society. Though I do believe everyone is entitled to make art, but those who choose it as a career and decide to put their art out in public for many to see, should adopt a special responsibility. In today’s world, artists are pushed more and more into self-centered activity. Artists must promote themselves, must write their own biography, must target audiences through trending subjects regardless of whether they feel sincere, or relevant to them. How many times have we heard phrases like “You must make a name for yourself” or “You must find what separates you from other artists in order to be seen.”

The way I see it, adopting this perspective makes it a social obligation, very much like attending funerals because we “have” to, which strips them of their meaning. The self-centered approach to art goes in the opposite direction of the natural course of art, which is to bring about a collective feeling, a dissolving of egos, a way of telling people “You (we) are not alone is this experience.” And, so, it follows that self-centered art, might bring about suffering, both to the artist, and the audience.

I may be too idealistic in my point of view, and I certainly don’t mean to bring anyone down. But, I’d like to see the day when we as artists adopt a unified role that revolves around sincerity, and love. Because love is not self-centered, just like the loss of a loved one isn’t. We see self-centeredness in a lot of artists, I can be guilty of this sometimes, as well. It manifests in criticizing other artists in order to justify our own efforts, for example. Maybe that’s what this whole essay is about, in fact… or maybe, it’s a reminder, because one time in my life I felt like I wanted to get a tattoo, but I never did. The tattoo would say something like “remember the suffering of others”. Maybe this is my symbolic tattoo.