In the midst of all the chatter around Lebanon’s new potential oil and gas reserves offshore, an art exhibition in Karantina’s Sfeir-Semler Gallery reminds us of an era when Lebanon was a major player in the region’s black gold. Titled “The Shortest Distance Between Two Points”, Lebanese artist Rayyane Tabet’s exhibition tells the history of Lebanon’s role in the transportation of oil. Starting in 1946 and continuing over the next three decades, oil traveled from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, crossing Jordan and Syria to reach Zahrani in Lebanon. From there it was then exported, generating wealth for the country.
The Trans-Arabian Pipeline (TAPLine) Company, a joint venture between United States oil companies Caltex, Esso and Mobil, built and operated a 1,213 km pipeline until, amid increased regional political and military conflict — including Israel’s bombing of the Zahrani terminal in 1982— it abandoned the pipes underground in 1983, the same year Tabet was born. Oil has since traveled by ship, a longer route illustrated at the exhibition by two contrasting chalk lines: a straight line representing the shortest distance by land and a curved line passing through the waters.
Reimagining a line
Tabet first encountered the TAPLine in 2007 as he was heading to the beach in southern Lebanon, detouring around the highways that had been bombed during the 2006 war with Israel. As he reached the town of Saida, huge cylindrical shapes on a hill sparked his attention. They were the remains of TAPLine, and that’s where his investigation started.
It’s been six years since that day on the beach. With no information to be found in Lebanon’s public archives, Tabet researched the company in American university libraries and conducted extensive interviews with former employees and their relatives.
Tabet’s investigation eventually led him to the company’s headquarters in Beirut’s Hamra area, a property owned by Lebanon’s Arida family. When he asked the family for permission to search the premises, they told him, “It’s trash on the floor; take it, do whatever you want with it.” He was stunned to find that the offices were left completely untouched, and that is where he found two of the seven pieces of the exhibition: empty letterheads, withered with time, which were also featured at the Frieze Art Fair in London last year, and the five different color mail tags, representing the five cities in Saudi Arabia from where the oil was extracted.
With no roads connecting the cities to each other when the project was initiated, basic necessities — food, water, clothes, etcetera — were delivered to the workers daily by plane from the south of Lebanon, and the color-coded mail tags simplified the task of delivering the goods. Only 40 km of the pipeline ran through Lebanon, and for each kilometer Tabet reproduced a fraction of the pipe using the same metal and replicating the thickness of the original pipeline. These replicas were produced in a steel mill in Aleppo before it was bombed during the ongoing conflict.
The path of the pipeline is shown with folded rulers with different shades of yellow, each symbolizing a country under which the pipeline crossed. White folded rulers linked to Jordan’s borders represent where the pipeline was originally destined to end: Palestine. Following the United Nations partition of Palestine in 1947, the pipeline’s final destination was changed to Lebanon. “Just like I saw the remains of the company [in the summer of 2007] by accident, the company itself arrived to Lebanon by accident,” says Tabet.
With plans to develop further replicas of the pipeline — Saudi Arabia’s portion is currently being replicated in a German steel mill —Tabet’s ultimate project is to reproduce each country’s portion of the 1,213 km pipeline and eventually reunite the pieces in a future exhibition.
The underlying theme of the exhibition seems to be to remind the Arab world of a time when it was more united, more connected; a time when the different states along the pipeline route were somehow able to work together to share responsibility for a resource and create mutual prosperity. Tabet’s question to us, then: will this be possible again?