The Epic of Dalieh

Roï Saade

In Beirut, Dalieh is the city’s last natural outcrop and shared space where the public can freely access the coastline for their own recreational purposes. But today, this last remaining informal space is on the edge of disappearing, as the land is being given over to big developers with plans for the construction of a private resort.

In my search of how to tell its story, I found parallels in the epic poem “Dionysiaca” written by Nonnos of Panopolis in 5th century AD.

Beroë, the goddess-nymph, representing the city of Beirut in Phoenicia (modern Lebanon), was wooed by two gods, Dionysus and Poseidon, and became the object of a fierce fight between them. In their fight for the conquest of Beroë, both Gods unleash their wrath regardless of the damage and destruction they bring down on nature, and this becomes a metaphor that shapes my story about Dalieh and the people who use it, while I also examine our relationship and conflict with nature.

Mythology becomes the narrative thread for how I address and talk about one of the last remaining public spaces in Beirut... This project has led to a series of saltwater and soil photographic experiments, supernatural events and an open-ended conversation with nature.

For the Aim Lab exhibition, I collaborated with team members Sabrina Ward Kimola and Diego Bravo who interacted with the project and created a space in its own by creatively interpreting and affectively describing the photographs and their visual narrative. Thus, their positionalities played a role into imagining a spatial and social narrative within the boundaries of the crystallized moment in time the image gracefully created.


S : Sunsets like these witness the day's end, observing the phantom-ivory cloud grasping the day’s last breath of light. It’s so nice to be here with you. Do you see the night encroaching? The sun’s warmth cooling down?

D : All I see is you, my newfound friend, sailing away in that cloud up there, I don't want to come back down from this cloud. All you have said makes me wonder if freedom is granted or free. Sunsets like this here seem to still be open seats, not “invitation only” parties. This sunset granted me the opportunity to return to you in that vessel up there.


D : From below, I can only see the top of the building behind the sea poppies. How does it look from above? Should I come over to meet you up there or do you want to walk down to the beach where I left all those cardboard signs underground?

S : From here, I see the sunset’s final golden light filtering through the tall blades of foliage, a warm blanket of the day’s last breath printed onto a condominium in the distance. I see the pale blue of a hot sky, partially obscured through dancing mineral burns – a patchwork of salt-faded memories hold the scene we witness together.


S : I hope you don’t get sea sickness as we dance through these small lapping waves. How does it feel to confront this sheer, towering cliff of sandstone over younger, imposing as it hangs between the soft sky and glassy waters on which we float?

D : As if sea poppies were floating overboard, I swear there is almost one poppy floating for every person staring at us from the cliffs. We should speed this boat, otherwise water will fill the vessel, it feels like we are already sinking, we should make it back before sun sets in a couple of minutes.

S : As we make our way back, try to calm your fears; draw your attention to the translucent pinks, oranges and yellows that bleed into the sky as the sun sinks into the Mediterranean Sea.


S : From this vantage point, we can see the small peninsula white sandstone piercing into a dark, abyssal sea. As the sun sets, the peninsula’s smooth grooves carry and distort the light, sculpting abstract patterns splitting the yellow sun from blue shadow. The ripple of light casts a halo upon our faces, warming our skin.

D : Overlooking Beirut at night, makes me wonder if it was in Tahiti or were we on the Nile. Either way, I forgot what you say every night around 11 o'clock at night you go out and look for things to do by the Raouche. I guess I made it this time, but look, the boats are perching already, it's too late… I want to go home, I am walking back now, please make sure you rinse the sand off your feet, it's windy tonight here, you even have sand all over your hair.


S : Do you see that diver at the cliff, suspended in mid-air, their tan skin and light blue top foiling the cold, dark waters below? The warm, brushy cliffs on which we stand are visible in the bottom right corner; the presence of off-image bluffs interject into the top, right, corner of the image in the form of soft, brown reflections. The sun-warmth of the rock contrasts with the ocean's crisp demeanor.

D : You shouldn't have pushed him over the cliff, he didn't even have a chance to remove his shoes and socks, sea water is cold at this period of the year you know? Here is the towel, go get him, so he can get some warmth as soon as he swims back to the shore.


S : Looking down from the cliffs at dusk, the camera's flash captures the brush at our feet and the reflective eyes of a passerby bat. Further down, a midnight harbor is protected with smooth, sandy rock formations, who welcome the day's last shimmer of sunlight.

D : You think we'll make it back to Batroun before 9? Your mom said she won't be long but look, there are already bats flying around the cliffs. We must be the last people here now that the tide is low. I heard these fruit bats are afraid of people. Wow, they are so fast, can you hear the wiggling sound of their wings? They are certainly not here when all those people do their diving competitions by sunset, they like the harbor by the quiet of the night. Eat the remaining olives and start packing, I am going to get your mom, oh look another bat!


S : At the night's ocean's edge, we see the frothy impact of the tidal swell against the smooth, wet rock. The image freezes one such moment, rendering visible a wave's white bouquet. We feel the mist on our face, tasting the salt as it burns our skin.

D : Remember when we found that Syrian girl on a shiny night like this one? Waves were crashing wild over the rocks just like tonight, we could almost feel the salt burning of her naked skin. As if the sea would have erupted the baby girl from its depths, who leaves a child like that? Well, certainly they could not have kept her with them in their painful journey, I don't blame them, war is hell, and for the love of Christ, the baby was deaf.


S : From where we are -- a ledge jutting from the cliff on a sunny, blue-skied day, -- can you see that diver, arms above their head, palms pressed together? They are surrounded by white, brush-littered cliffs, some sharp and some bulbous. A collection of condos tower the furthest point we can see. I can't help but think about the pitch black of the ocean in which the diver will plunge within the next few seconds. He missed a passerby boat by a couple of minutes, the passing of time observable through the boat's path of whitewash.

D : It's like time never goes by between these cliffs. Although it's always such a relief at the end of day. I certainly see him. So committed. Looks like he is praying in motion. Like a flesh sculpture. Most plunges we saw the other day were unlike this one.


S : From the stern of this boat, the sun warming our face from the left, we have a good vantage to observe the scene before us -- at the base of this tall, sandy white cliff, a shirtless captain stands on the boat's bow, black rope in hand, flaunting a large inky lower back tattoo. In the water below, a swimmer in a red bikini and leather sandals grasps to the slippery rocks, climbing upwards. Isn't it beautiful how her red bikini contrasts with the deep green sea-lichen on the rocks, slowly fading into a mustard yellow before turning to an ivory white?

D : There is a certain mystery about the chemical reactions happening in this part of the landscape. Rocks and plants react to each other as the tide comes up and as the sun dries the cavities left.

In a way her body is almost the size of the tide at this time of the year. When the water caresses or crashes the cliff as we can see. I am glad she has these leather color sandals on. Which will allow her to cling better as she climbs up. At the bottom where she is, these green-sea-lichen-grass covered rocks are slippery and sharp, that is why she is being extra careful not to place the face of her knees directly on the slippery rocks.


S : With our backs to the shore, we look up at the gently sloping inland brush, foregrounding new residential buildings. A group of people -- children, adults and elders -- stands around a light-blue landed boat. The sweet smoky smell of caramelizing meat drafts through the warm air, teasing our rumbling stomachs. Should we go grab a bite somewhere? As we head to a restaurant, we walk through the image before us – passing a faded blue boat, dusty-brown brush, sandy-colored buildings amidst a pastel blue sky.

D : I mean, it was so nice of them having invited us to join them, I felt there was not enough food for those 5 or 7 people. I guess they were celebrating, I get the feeling those little girls don't get the chance to enjoy with their father that often. I don't see them often here. Must have been a special occasion.


S : Amidst thick, brown and green brush, we look slightly upwards to two, dark clothed figures, standing in a clearing and their bodies piercing the idyllic blue sky. We share the same perspective as the sun, our shadow taking hold in the grass’s sharp texture. Do you see the third figure, partially concealed by brush, or is that just me?

D : Here in the Mediterranean, we can't live without the sun. Mediterranean, to be inland, isn't it funny, how this body is in the middle of all these lands. It is a nice postcard, don't you think?

The middle earth sea people? The average sea, I could say. Those two figures accepting you concealed, look like a black number eleven in between two worlds: Eleven: The realm between one hell and one heaven. I wonder if they live far away. I can't believe they came all the way to notify that wife of the fisherman, that they have two months to pack and go. Those two people fading in the landscape won't be the ones evicting them, that is for sure.


S : Follow me along these smooth rocks, merely feet from the night’s Mediterranean. As our eyes adjust to the darkness, a small bouquet of light green flowers emerges from the darkness, the texture of the plant exceeds that which is illuminated, revealing a chorus of grainy florets.

D : I think those plants grow from bat poop. That's where they thrive the most from, I heard a kid saying the other time we came. I love it, it is lit up so beautifully by the moonlight, and the plant is so eloquently placed. It's absurd they want to fence this whole area. Should we fence this little one around the plant? Let's ask Tarek about it.


S : Walking along the cliffs at midnight, we approach a man standing in front of a cool concrete structure, his head surrounded with a golden halo. His eyes are open, alert to the cold dark night surrounding him. His salt and pepper beard is unshaven, adding a rough texture to the rich golden light within which he is submerged. We ask him, what brings him here at this hour?

D : I think he is one of those safeguards for the real estate development company that built this shack not far from here. He might be part of the nightmare of the 90 percent of lebanon that wants to keep this place public still. This man, waiting in the dark here, for him to get right with the right people, that would finally permit him to qualify for a subsidized bank loan. These people specialize in raiding in the dark. I am sure he is not conducting an orthodox Environmental Impact Assessment.

We then see him blink slowly, startled by our presence – his alertness is momentarily obscured.


We then see him blink slowly, startled by our presence – his alertness is momentarily obscured.


From our position on the cliff with the fisherman, we are startled by a noise beyond the cliff face – to our amazement, we see a magnificent jumper; arms out wide, his body is angled as if defying gravity, floating upwards into the midnight sky. The fisherman’s flashlight illuminates the jumper's pale body and a tall, rock and concrete formation to the jumper's left. There are bright, yet smeared stars scattered throughout the sky above. We think to yell, but our voice is caught within the realization he might be used to this – why would someone take the risk to jump from a cliff at midnight?

D : Diving in the dark is not for everyone. It requires a certain temperament. I have heard from the old fishermen that got evicted a month ago. That they used to organize contests of diving in the dark before they would venture to capture the fish around midnight. Sometimes two divers would plunge almost at the same time, all the fishermen would be pointing their oil lamps at them. If you think this through, it is quite spectacular and risky, imagine back then? I heard that the first one to make it back here to the top of the cliff in the middle of the night would win to be the captain for that night when they would go sailing in pairs. These people literally have been running this place up for so many years now, it's ridiculous that they are asking them to leave now. You'd have to be very resentful to evict people here, this is the last stand. Don't they have enough already? They started back in 1989 when they changed the 4810, in the silence of the unpublic night.