In October 2006, photographer and 1982 MAAS graduate Najib Joe Hakim visited his birthplace of Beirut, Lebanon. Though less than three months had passed since the latest war with Israel, Hakim did not go with the purpose of documenting the destruction. “Lebanon was the bridge my parents crossed to bring us to the United States from Palestine,” he explains in an e-mail. “Through this project, I returned across that bridge 50 years later and tried to engage with some of the demons of my history.”
The result of Hakim’s engagement with his past is a photography exhibit entitled “Born Among Mirrors,” which is running at the Jerusalem Fund in Washington, D.C. until June 25, 2010. According to Hakim, the exhibit seeks to address the gap in time between his departure from Lebanon in 1956 and the country today. Illustrating this contrast, the exhibit also features black and white photographs taken by Hakim’s father that document his family embarking on their journey to America.
While Hakim is thus interested in documenting a personal journey, he is also keen on educating the public through his images. “I hope to provide some level of insight for American viewers regarding Lebanon…that goes beyond what they read in the news,” he says.
After graduating from MAAS, Hakim worked as an applications consultant for a software company in California. While he always loved photography, Hakim only decided to dedicate his life to it in 1991 after seeing an exhibition of Paul Strand’s photographs in San Francisco. In 1994, he traveled to Havana, Cuba, using photography as a means of approaching the local people.
Describing the difference between the experience of photographing Beirut and Havana, Hakim notes that, unlike in Cuba, he knows the language and culture of Lebanon. Yet, he says, he still—at least to a degree—feels like an outsider there. But this can be a plus, he notes. “That distance or alienation allows at least some necessary level of objectivity in a profoundly subjective context.”
Despite that distance—or perhaps because of it—the exhibit shows Hakim’s profound link to his birthplace. His favorite image, for example, provides an excellent illustration of this link: A graffiti message on an old wall surrounding the Hotel Dieu, a French hospital in the Maronite neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh, portrays a flying dove carrying the Lebanese cedar in its heart and the words “Love, Forgiveness, Respect” written in Arabic. “While the artist meant his message for everyone,” says Hakim, “I personally appreciated his offer of Love, Forgiveness, and Respect for the accidental fire I started [as a child] with a lighted sparkler, which nearly destroyed that part of the hospital!”