Wrestling with Silences
Archival Activation Amidst Uncertainty
An essay by Kyle Craig
During a tour of the Beirut office of the Arab Image Foundation (AIF), Head of Collections Clémence Cottard and Managing Director Marc Mouarkech demonstrated to a group of Northwestern PhD students, including myself, how the Arab Image Foundation is unlike many other archives. The AIF, which has been collecting what they refer to as “photographic objects” from around the Arab world and Arab diaspora since 1997, is much more than a mere storehouse for a particular category of historical material. Rather, the general ethos of the AIF’s practices is centered around four key aspects of image collection: preservation of the materiality of images, with their tears, stains, fades, and so on; exploration of the visual and textual content of images; analysis of the images’ historical and geopolitical morphologies; and activation of images within contemporary sociopolitical contexts. These four guiding principles underscore that the “social lives of images” (cf., Appadurai 1986) contain vital information regarding the lived world within which images are produced and through which they move. For an archivist to overlook the nexus between the material and social biographies of images, or worse, to erase material traces of images through projects of restoration, perpetuates the inherently destructive practice of archival collection. In other words, while archives are often understood to be “saving” historical material, the act of archiving involves excavating or lifting items from one spatial and temporal context and rerouting them to a new one, and so archiving both creates possibility and destroys it. To erase—either discursively or physically—the material biographies of images is to further detach those images from their lives before entering the archive and to thereby foreclose possibilities for apprehending their depth and complexity.
It is with these theoretical positions and methodological approaches in mind that I set out to explore and understand the AIF archive with which I worked: a collection of advertisements dating to roughly the 1940s.
 Akram Zaatari, one of the founders of the AIF, reflected on the archive in his exhibition “The Third Window,” which ran from August 30, 2018 – January 4, 2019 at Beirut’s Sfeir-Semler Gallery. In his exhibition, Zaatari attends to the visual and material genealogies of photographic objects collected by the AIF—what he suggests we call “informed objects”—as they have either moved or been displaced from one spatiotemporal location to another. In one striking work, Zaatari presents a photograph that was used in the collective burial for the victims of the 1996 Qana massacre, when Israeli warplanes bombed the southern Lebanese town of Qana, killing more than one hundred civilians. The photograph is an ID portrait of Nahla Haidous, taken 15 years prior to the massacre and the only image of her that was available at the time of her death. Nahla’s photograph was modified in order to be used for the burial. Namely, flowers were added to the image in place of a headscarf, which she was not yet wearing at the time the original photo was taken given her youth. In examining these two biographical stages of the image, we see how Nahla’s family, who had no money for family photographs during Nahla’s life, engaged in symbolic exchanges with the ID photo (cf., Campt 2017), in order to transform it into a tribute that accounts for certain changes in Nahla’s appearance over 15 years. The biography of Nahla’s photograph underscores Zaatari’s point that “it is a misconception that photographs testify to the course of history. It is history that inhabits photographs” (Zaatari 2018, 101).
The collection comes from Tripoli, Lebanon, and was brought to the AIF by Mohsen Yammine. A studio by the name of Dar al-Funūn (House of Arts) has imprinted their signature on most of the images in the collection, which primarily consist of advertisements for products such as men’s and women’s clothing, home appliances, and skincare. I decided early on to base my exploration on one image in particular, a flier advertising a wrestling match between a Lebanese wrestler by the name of Antoine El-Zeinni and a European wrestler, who in the flier goes by the name of “Killer” (saffāḥ). I write this essay while I await a response from Yammine to questions posed to him on my behalf about the history of the collection, the studio where the image was made, and how the collection was found. Whatever answers, if any, he provides to these questions could change the entire analytical structure on which my current thinking about the image now rests. I am thus writing in a state of uncertainty wherein there are large gaps in the information I have thus far been able to attribute to the image due to the historical silences that are inevitably created in the moments of archival creation and retrieval (cf., Trouillot 1995).
Nonetheless, I want to propose, along with scholars such as Michel-Rolph Trouillot and Ann Laura Stoler (2009), that thinking within and through historical silences in archival material can be a highly generative exercise. In this paper I first lay out my attempt to reconstruct the story behind the flier through analyses of the photographic (material) object as well as the narratives embedded within the textual and visual content of the image. What I found in this exploration was two men—Antoine El-Zeinni and “Killer”—who have been historically silenced in their own distinct ways. The former of these men has been overshadowed by his ostensibly more talented relative and written out of history, while the personal details of the latter man are so obscure that we cannot even verify he existed.
0009ya00020, Unidentified photographer, Advertisement designed for projection in movie theaters of Tripoli, Gelatin silver negative on film, 7.8 x 5.2 cm, Tripoli, 1940, Mohsen Yammine Collection | Digital conversion generated by the AIF
I also offer two associative readings connected to the image. The source of one reading is from an opinion piece in the Lebanese newspaper, Al-Mustaqbal, which deploys the history of wrestling in Lebanon as an allegory for the state Lebanese politics during the mid- to late-2000s. The other reading, based on my own interpretations, questions how the image is provocative for thinking about the Middle East in contemporary global geopolitics. Each of these readings offer distinct examples for how images can move through and assert new forms of meaning in different spatiotemporal and political contexts. In this sense, I am reading the archive “against the grain” à la Trouillot in that I attempt to identify absences and the processes that create or perpetuate those absences. At the same time, I am reading, in Stolerian fashion, “along the grain” and theorizing the types of affects, worldviews, and practices that archival material, however incomplete, helps us to reflect upon and better understand.
The flier in the Mohsen Yammine collection is itself not what scholars would call an “original.” Rather it is a picture of the elements used to make a negative of the flier. During this time, images such as this were collages that were pinned to a board. The photographer took a picture of the collage, produced a negative and then a photograph, and then cropped the photograph. The photograph was then sent to news publishers to be included in the newspaper or to movie theaters where it would be shown before the start of films. Thus, by the time the image arrived at the AIF, it had already gone through several stages of displacement and reappropriation. Neither the AIF nor I currently have any information on who took the photographs of the two men, who wrote the text, or what happened to the original collage that was used to make the negative. Furthermore, while the flier is placed among a collection of advertisements from a studio by the name of “House of Arts,” I am not certain if Dar al-Funūn created the flier, and if they did, how often they would make such images in addition to advertisements for commodities.
The main text of the flier tells us, “The Lebanese international champion Antoine el-Zeinni will meet the European international champion, ‘Killer’” (saffāḥ). The flier states that this “Killer” is from a European city, which is written as “Butin” (more on that further down). The two champions are scheduled to meet on the June 31 in the court of the School of the White Fathers, located in Qoubbeh, a neighborhood of Tripoli. The flier does not state the year in which the event took place or was set to take place. Given the way the flier was created and distributed, however, it is likely that it was produced and the event presumably happened in the 1940s since this was the way images of this sort were prepared for mechanical reproduction at the time. I say “supposedly” because I have no proof that Antoine and the “Killer” actually fought in the School of White Fathers, only evidence that this event was planned and promoted.
This was also likely the time that the Lebanese wrestler depicted on the flier, Antoine el-Zeinni, was most active. This leads us to what I think are the more thought-provoking elements of this image. The flier, of course, contains two collaged photographs meant to represent each of the two wrestlers that will face one another in the match. The first image shows an above-the-waist shot of a shirtless man with his arms at his side and his chest pushed out in a pose that exaggerates his core strength. His body is facing the left-hand side of the flier while his head is turned toward the right. His mustachioed face looks calm, yet stern, and he appears as if he is looking contemplatively into a distant, anonymous horizon. An all-white circle acts as a backdrop to the man’s head, which indexes a halo or a spotlight shining down onto the wrestler. A thin white line limns the left side of his body, a trace of the process by which the image was cut and cropped.
The shirtless figure on the right, pictured from the waist up, is crossing his arms and looking directly into the camera from behind a black ski mask, which he was not actually wearing at the time the photo was taken. Rather, a look at the negative of the flier reveals that an outline of a ski mask was cut out and placed over the top of the man’s photograph. This man is bulkier and more muscular than his opponent on the other side of the flier. While the figure also has a white circle placed behind his head, the cropping of the photo left no white line limning his body. Due to the placement of the men’s photographs, this figure appears much shorter than his opponent. Unlike the figure on the left, this masked figure does not look calm or courageous, but menacing and brutal.
The flier gives no clear indication of the identities of Antoine and “Killer.” However my observations lead me to conclude that the unmasked figure on the left is the Lebanese champion, Antoine, while the masked figure on the right is his mysterious European opponent. The positioning of the text in relation to the flier’s visual components affords the first clue. The layout of the flier prompts our eyes to look at the image on the left after reading the first line of text, which references Antoine. Before we begin reading the second line, which provides information on the European wrestler, the flier directs us to look at the masked man on the right.
The second indication comes from what we might infer about the social dynamics of the match itself and its intended audience. Given that this flier was distributed in either newspapers or movie theatres in northern Lebanon, one would assume that the audience is meant to root for Antoine rather than the European. As stated earlier, the figure without the mask looks braver and more charismatic. Whether intentional or not, the white line on one side of his body and also the white circle behind his head gives the impression that he is glowing and thus almost saintly—an apt aesthetic to depict a paternal figure bringing glory to his country through sport and physical prowess. Simply put, he looks like the hero of the match—one whose benevolence accompanies but also exceeds his physical strength. The figure on the right, by simply staring us down from behind a mask that hides most of his face, obstructs our ability to make personal connections with him or to ascertain a personality or moral framework guiding his actions. His appearance indexes him as an individual in possession of exceptional brute strength acquired through unrestrained accumulation of muscle mass as opposed to attentive care of the self. He is simply a threat to be feared and defeated—a European Goliath facing a Lebanese David. In other words, the broader affective resonances that emanate from this faceless figure more concretely link up with the European wrestler, who according to the flier’s text is only known for the one thing that he does—that is, kill.
My assumptions about the identities of the two figures remain unconfirmed as fact since I cannot find any photographs of Antoine to compare with the flier. When I searched for details about Antoine and his role in the history of Lebanese wrestling, I found only information about a relative of his, Edmund el-Zeinni. Edmund (1912-1972) was a famous freestyle wrestler from the northern Lebanese village of Toula (AbdoGedeon.com). Edmund was one of Lebanon’s earliest wrestlers and is credited with having popularized US freestyle wrestling within the country. His most active years were the 1940s and 1950s, during which he won several matches against regional and international opponents and also trained individuals such as the Saade Brothers (Jean and Andre), two of Lebanon’s most famous wrestlers. Edmund’s many victories against opponents from Lebanon as well as across the world earned him the moniker “The Lebanese Lion” (Al-Asad Al-Lubnānī ). In 2003 there was a statue erected in Edmund’s honor in his home village of Toula, in a space that was renamed “Edmund el-Zeinni Square” (Sāha el-Zeinni) (ibid). The statute depicts the former wrestler shirtless and petting a lion in front of the iconic cedrus libani, or Lebanese cedar tree.
Former wrestler Ramzi Raji in front of the statue of Edmond el-Zeinni in Toula, Lebanon (AbdoGedeon.com)
In contrast to the immense efforts put into honoring and remembering Edmund’s contributions to Lebanese wrestling, his relative Antoine is effectively invisible, or silenced, in available electronic media that discusses the history of the sport. In Abdo Gedeon’s somewhat extensive webpage dedicated to wrestling in Lebanon, there is not one mention of Antoine, while several other figures including Edmund have their own biographical pages (ibid).
How can an “international champion,” as he is identified in the flier, be wiped from the memory of what is a relatively short history of the sport within the country? As it turns out, Antoine may not have been the unyielding hero he is made out to be in this image. In his 2007 opinion piece for the Lebanon-based newspaper, Al-Mustaqbal, Nasim Daher (2007) begins by fondly remembering the times when his younger self watched Edmund el-Zeinni’s matches. According to Daher, Edmund’s “reputation rose to the point of myth” during his active years and there has yet to be any wrestler to achieve the same pedigree or public appreciation within the sport. Daher then turns his attention to Antoine, claiming that he rode into the wrestling scene on Edmund’s coattails, “sharing in the family name without any other qualifications.” In particular Daher recalls bitter memories of children and youth carrying Antoine on their shoulders and of towns throwing parades in his honor, all supposedly because of the reputation of the el-Zeinni name and no thanks to the skill or victories of Antoine himself.
Ironically (or perhaps not given the overall erasure of Antoine), the article’s primary focus is not Antoine, the el-Zeinni family, or even Lebanese wrestling. Daher merely used the accusation of Antoine’s unearned fame to make a point about the then outgoing president of Lebanon, Émile Lahoud. The former army general earned himself prestige on the Lebanese political landscape for his role in reuniting the fractured Lebanese army after the civil war (1975-90). Reunification, for Lahoud, was largely predicated on his “no victor, no vanquished” notion of reconciliation and his policy of blocking military personnel from fraternizing with politicians (Venter 1998). Lahoud’s role in post-war nation building helped him claim the presidency in 1998. However, his support for Syrian Presidents Hafez al-Asad and Bashar al-Asad and the presence of Syria in Lebanon, as well as his affiliation with Hezbollah became a source of tension for many in the country. These tensions became particularly pronounced after the assassination of Rafic Hariri in 2005 given that Lahoud was an outspoken opponent of the former Prime Minister (Harris 2007).
Daher laments the pictures of Lahoud that in 2007 were lining the streets of neighborhoods with a pronounced Hezbollah presence, placed there as a loving farewell to the outgoing president. Daher calls Lahoud’s presidency a failure and accuses him of promoting loose security practices and leaving the country less safe than when he assumed office. These unearned congratulatory farewells to Lahoud and the public praises he received at the time, according to Daher, allegorize the ways in which people carried Antoine on their shoulders, lionizing him as a champion when he was merely cashing in on the fame earned by the real “Lebanese Lion,” Edmund el-Zeinni. For Daher, Antoine and Lahoud are one in the same: false heroes who have been showered with unearned recognition, praise, and prestige. So, while the image included in the Mohsen Yammine collection at the AIF presents us with what appears to be an experienced and skilled “champion,” all that remains for us now is Antoine el-Zeinni as a satirical footnote for another, unrelated conversation.
Locating information about Antoine’s European opponent was an even greater challenge. An online search with the Arabic and English words for “killer,” “murderer,” or “bloodthirsty” in relation to wrestling yielded nothing. Since the figure is wearing a mask it is impossible to conduct a search of European wrestlers from this time period in order to compare faces with the individual on the flier.
I also attempted to pinpoint the identity of this wrestler via an online search of the city that the flier claims he is from. I did not recognize the European city pronounced as “Butin” at first. A Google search revealed a small village in Yemen, located in the town of Hadibu. Yet, the flier explicitly states Antoine will fight a European champion. I then tested the possibility that the word was written as a homology for a place without an official Arabic translation and came across a place called Origney-le-Butin, a former commune in the Orne department of France. On January 1st 2017, Orignay-le-Butin was merged into the Belforêt-en-Perche commune. Perhaps our mysterious “Killer” came from this former commune? A search for a 1940s-era European wrestling champion from this area was also fruitless.
Thus what we have so far is a Lebanese “champion” that the world has decided to forget, activated only as an allegory for political critique, and a figure whose identity has been concealed by a paper cut-out of a ski mask and an untranslatable word. So, how might we discuss this image outside of obsessive pursuits for empiricism and “facts,” what Derrida (1995) refers to as “archive fever”? To approach this question, I find Foucault’s (1972) definition of archive instructive. Foucault defines an archive as a collection of material objects as well as discourses that have been layered upon one another through the passage of time. The social relations that form these layers come to create what Foucault refers to as “conditions of enunciability”—that is, what can and cannot be said and what is presumed to be common knowledge or illogical. For Foucault, then, archives are not simple artefacts of the past; rather, they are always already engaged in dialectical relations with a number of spatiotemporal contexts.
When I first examined the image “along the grain” while giving into my own impulsive reactions to it, I was particularly struck by the fact that the person I presume to be the European wrestler is rendered anonymous behind a ski mask. This type of ski mask is also known as a balaclava because soldiers from the village of Balaclava wore it during the Crimean War (1853-56), which marks one of the earliest moments of such a mask being used for purposes of combat (Thompson 2012). It is unclear exactly when the balaclava gained popularity as a tool of concealment in activities such as bank robberies or home invasions, or when the mask took on resonance to represent the figure of the criminal in popular culture and media. However, there is no doubt that the clothing article is now largely recognizable as a signifier for various categories of villain.
The balaclava is also a popular symbol to represent the figure of the Middle Eastern “terrorist” in Western media and film. One of the earliest disseminations of this image comes from the news reels of the 1972 Munich Games. During this time masked gunmen, who named themselves “Black September” (Munazzamāt Aylūl Aswad) after the 1970 war between Jordan and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), took hostages of Israeli competitors in order to demand the release of 234 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. The operation resulted in the deaths of nine Israeli athletes, five of their captors, and a German policeman (Amara 2012). Since this time, the balaclava-clad Middle East “terrorist” has emerged several times in US and European popular culture and media. For example, in his seminal exploration of Orientalism in American films, critical media scholar Jack Shaheen (2001) notes a number of instances in which masked Arab gunmen are depicted killing US or Israeli civilians. As Shaheen illustrates, these anonymous figures are depicted as the polar opposite of the characters they are shown to be killing, who have backstories and personalities that are meant to garner sympathy from viewers.
In the flier for the wrestling match, the visual and textual content mediates an inverted set of social relations with regard to many of the representations currently in popular circulation when it comes to the Middle East (see Debord 2016 ). The balaclava-clad European with no name other than “Killer” is presented in the flier as a dehumanized, terrifying enemy—merely an object of potential defeat by the hero Antoine. In other words, there are two figures represented in the flier, but photography serves as a practice of visibility for only one of them (Campt 2017). What is all the more fascinating is that it is very likely that the European figure is not wearing the ski mask for aesthetic, but rather practical purposes. As noted earlier, upon looking at the negative of the flier, one can see that the figure on the left was not wearing the balaclava when he had his photo taken. Instead, the mask was cut out and placed over the top of the original photograph. While the mask could have been chosen as a way to emphasize the European’s identity as “Killer,” there is also perhaps a much more mundane, less symbolic reason for the addition: the photograph is not actually of the wrestler. It is likely that the people promoting the match and the studio making the flier did not have an actual photograph of Antoine’s opponent, and so they sufficed by placing the mask over a photograph of another muscular man and presenting him as the European champion.
In examining the material traces of the flier while thinking through the discourses or representations they evoke in the contemporary moment, I am reminded of Akram Zaatari’s “Third Window” exhibition. One of the artworks in this exhibition, which ran from August 30, 2018 – January 4, 2019 at Beirut’s Sfeir-Semler Gallery, is titled, “The Photographer’s Shadow.” In this artwork Zaatari presents a collection of photographs where family photos are obscured by the photographer’s shadow. Rather than discard these photos as “mistakes,” Zaatari suggests we can read them as early “shadow selfies”—evoking the genre of photograph popular in the contemporary age of social media. Similarly, I see in what was likely a pragmatic solution on the part of Dar al-Funūn, the creation of an image that has resonances with the aesthetic and discursive representations of Middle East geopolitics that would take form over two decades later. However, the flier complicates pervasive assumptions about who is meant to play which part in these geopolitical representations. We can also identify in the flier a predecessor to the aesthetics associated with the period when freestyle wrestling, assisted by the advent of television, would take on a sensationalized performative component (Ball 1989). In professional wrestling today (in Lebanon and elsewhere) wrestlers build personas based on ethnic and racial stereotypes, political ideologies, and the part of the villain is often played by a character in a mask.
Flier for event advertised by the Lebanese Wrestling Federation (Facebook.com/LebaneseWrestlingFederation)
Whether or not the ski mask was an aesthetic rendering or pragmatic solution by the photography studio, I nonetheless wonder what such imagery evoked for audiences during its original circulation—how they read it along the grain, so to speak. In the time that this wrestling match presumably took place, Lebanon was either on the cusp of or had recently received independence after more than twenty years of living under French mandate rule. A wrestling match between a Lebanese and presumptive French-European—where at least inside the ring resources are distributed equally as bodies—likely had important symbolic weight for people attempting to make sense of Lebanese nationhood. Scholars have shown the important role that “care of the self” through body-building and other demonstrations of masculine power had for the ways colonized subjects contested the legitimacy of colonial rule (see for example Jacob 2011). This flier similarly presents the physical strength of the man as the strength of the nation—male body as national body. The representative of the Lebanese nation faces an opponent that surpasses him in brute strength but lacks moral virtue. In other words, the image challenges notions of Western superiority upon which European imperial practices rely. Thus, in a pivot from from Nasim Daher’s assessment that Antoine el-Zeinni merely rode the spotlight of his relative, perhaps the image suggests that judgments as to the legitimacy of Antoine’s fame were unimportant to the crowds that showed up to parades or carried the Lebanese wrestler on their shoulders. For some, perhaps Antoine represented not a set of medals, but the potential for autonomy outside the purview of colonial rule, or at least an inversion of the reductive binaries deployed in representations of colonial subjects. In other words, I am proposing the possibility that Antoine was one node within a broader imaginative framework of community or nation that transcended questions of his individual talent, and it is only retrospectively that his contributions are rendered meaningless or forgotten altogether.
 It is not clear from this website what source material Abdo Gedeon, the website’s founder, draws from in order to construct a history of wrestling and other sports in Lebanon. I reached out to Abdo using the e-mail addresses provided on the site but as of yet have received no response.
 Jean and Andre Saade were also in a number of Lebanese films (AbdoGedeon.com).
 According to Abdo Gedeon, Lebanese wrestling began in Beirut in 1910 and the first wrestling club, Nādi al- Shabāb al-Riādy (Youth Sports Club) was established in 1935 in Beirut.
In his seminal work on the construction and reproduction of historical silences, Trouillot (1995) makes a distinction between “what actually happened” and “what was said to have happened.” According to the flier, what was said to have happened was that two international champions, one from Lebanon and one from Europe, faced each other in a school arena in northern Lebanon, likely some time in the 1940s. What “actually happened” is not quite clear. Was Antoine a fraud? Did this European “Killer” actually exist? Did wrestling serve as a key source for expressing nationalism in a decolonial moment? Insights to these questions are potentially available but require more investigation in terms of expanding archival material to newspapers of the time and interviews with people who were alive at the time the flier was produced. In the interim, I have attempted to demonstrate that we can discuses, theorize, and debate from within the silences by reading images both along (cf., Stoler 2009) and against the grain in order to illuminate the dialectical relations between different times and spaces. Archival images are not mere relics stuck in a past time; they are living objects with different biographical stages that each tell different stories or evoke different sentiments. As key actors in multiple social worlds, these objects have the power to constantly add new meanings to the past, present, and future. The object’s power to shift meaning is why I have made it to a point to be transparent about the numerous contingencies that shape my analyses. I want to acknowledge and in fact celebrate how images continuously provoke and transform social worlds, often in unpredictable fashion. That being said, without completely abandoning the importance of “what actually happened,” I look forward to future insights and lessons this image will hopefully inspire now that the launch of the new AIF website and digital archive has rendered it more widely accessible.
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Zaatari, Akram. “The Third Window.” August 30, 2018 – Janurary 5, 2019. Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Beirut.
 Most online archives of Lebanese publications only go back to the 1990s.