On Sunday, Lebanese performance artist Rima Najdi took to the streets of Beirut clad completely in black—oh, except for a big, fake, red TNT suicide vest-style bomb strapped to her chest. Unlike her previous performances—which frequently involved months of planning and shopping—this was a spontaneous reaction to two recent car-bomb attacks in Beirut that occurred within two weeks of each other: one in downtown Beirut and the other in in the Dahiyeh neighborhood that killed a total of ten and injured 136 in the worst spurt of violence since the Lebanese Civil War.
Rima—now also known as Madame Bomba—is a Lebanese performance artist currently living in Berlin. Most of her work is interactive, installation and often performance-based, and frequently explores social and political topics relating back to the Middle East. One such piece explored the idea of “the other” through a simulation of what it is like to carry a passport from an Arab country and apply for a US visa—and then reversing the roles of interrogator and “other.” In another piece, Rima called on audience members to dress her in order to explore and critique the ways Arab women are represented in popular media. It was appropriately titled, “Dress Me as YOU Like.”
I caught up with Rima to chat about her performance: how it felt, what she hopes to achieve, and the political crisis facing Lebanon and its people.
VICE: First thing is first—your most recent performance involved walking around downtown Beirut in a mock TNT suicide vest-style bomb. Where did this idea come from?
Rima Najdi: This idea came from the last two car bombs that exploded in Beirut—and the fact that it can suddenly be normal to feel threatened as part of everyday life. It is so intense to feel this way. I was just visiting Lebanon for the holidays when these bombs exploded.
After the second bomb, I was reflecting on myself and my emotions and the fact that fear and death suddenly became such a strong image in my mind. The fact that when you walk and when you drive you need strategies to go from point A to point B—and you become suspicious of everything around you. This pushed me to want to do something, to react and intervene.
What was the experience like?
For the performance—or the intervention, rather—I was really scared. My family was also scared, as were my friends; it wasn’t an easy choice to just do it. I didn’t think that it was going to end well.
But I learned a lot during the process. I was shocked by many of the moments—I was intrigued by the fear of people, but I was the most shocked that many people had fun with the experience. They took pictures with me, or were laughing and made jokes. Maybe this is good. Although the action started [with] me and my feelings, it quickly became a collective experience.
In a previous interview, you mention a passerby saying, “I wish all suicide bombers were like you, then I would have wished to die.” How do you think being a woman played into your performance?
I think being a woman played a big role. The intervention had many layers—only one of which was was gendered. As a woman, I received many strong, exploitative reactions. But I think that if a man were to do this performance, it would be seen as a lot more aggressive.
So, let’s talk politics. There has been an unusual outpouring of political sentiment among the youth—particularly with the #NotAMartyr campaign—where they took selfies and held up signs about what it means to be Lebanese with this kind of violence and political turmoil. What do you think clicked?
Yes. First, I am kind of familiar with it. In the case of my performance, in addition to the press writing about it, a lot of people have connected with it via Facebook and other social media, and many have commented—of course this varies between “this is great,” “this is terrible,” and “you are psycho.”
But I strongly believe that there is a general feeling among the youth in Lebanon of this fear of random death. These are subjects that will trigger anyone. Like I said, it is not easy to have to have a strategy when you have to go to school or want to do anything—and it is not OK to be looking for where and when the bomb is going to go off as part of normal, everyday life. It is not a healthy psychology, right?
Particularly among kids, the amount of violence—like the death of Mohammad Shaar during the first bombing—I think it shook a lot of people up in that age group. It is not easy. You are doing a regular act in your every day life and then you die—what for? Why? I don’t know.
But with things like the #NotAMartyr campaign, and even posting on social media about bombs and violence—it is good because it makes people react and talk about things. This is always good.
I want to talk about this word, martyr. In places that are traditionally political, like Palestine and currently hyper-political, like Syria, this word is so often used to honor the dead—often victims of politics, whether or not they were involved themselves. But this campaign that went viral—and in a way, correct me if I am wrong, your performance piece—was largely about rejecting both this term and the idea that our youth and innocent civilians will die political deaths in vain. What are your thoughts?
Suddenly it became clear that everyone can become a martyr, in a way. Martyr, I think, with the history of the word, the martyr has always chosen to be a martyr. But the use of the word in Lebanon has become so arbitrary. No one is choosing to be a martyr anymore—but people are still calling themselves or others that, even when an explosion happens without him or her wanting to die in that moment. They weren’t in a fight or on the front line, or something like that, you know?
It is so absurd to just be in the street and die. That kind of image strikes me so much. Can you imagine? Just walking, drinking juice, and eating—oh, I don’t know what—and suddenly you die. Just because of these political messages being sent through the bodies of citizens. This is horrifying.
Do you think that Lebanese people—both within the country and among the diaspora—are united in times of crisis like this one?
I don’t think that Lebanese people are united in a time of crisis—this is part of the whole performance, right? As I told you, I have never seen people as angry and depressed as right now. Everyone is angry and tense and acting incredibly individualistic, in a sense. The community is not there to think or react together. Politicians are feeding this tension and people are responding to what they are being fed, and it is making them more and more separated than ever before. It is a mess.
You can see the rest of Rima's work here.