Ever heard of Lebanon’s bid to join the space race? You would have had you the chance to wander into New York’s CRG Gallery in Manhattan this spring. The multi-layered exhibit entitled “The Lebanese Rocket Society: A Tribute to Dreamers” includes works in the mediums of video, photography, sound and sculpture, and explores, as the gallery notes, a “forgotten space of adventure” in Lebanon.
With the Americans and Soviets in a race to the moon in the 1960s, Lebanon began its own quest into space study and exploration, becoming the first country in the Arab world to develop its own solid fuel “Cedar Rockets”. It launched 10 in total between 1960 and 1967.
The Rocket Society was lead by math professor Manoug Manougian and his students from Haigazian University and was widely popular, receiving broad media coverage, its own official stamp and financial aid from then-President Foaud Chehab. And then, at the pinnacle of its success, the project was abandoned. Possibly as a result of tensions in the build up to the Civil War that followed shortly after, the Lebanese Rocket Society was dropped and effectively forgotten — until Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, two Lebanese visual artists and film directors, brought it back to life through their project.
The exhibit made its debut at the Beirut Exhibit Center in the Lebanese capital last year, under the title of “How Soon is Now? A Tribute to Dreamers”. It was the artists’ intention that the project be launched in Beirut, as it was important to them that the city where the project was born be the first to see it relived. They were not disappointed with the exhibit’s reception in Beirut, noting that it raised awareness about a period in history that many people did not know existed.
Though the installations that make up the exhibit have been displayed in many art houses across the world, including Dubai, Paris and Lyon, the exhibition in its entirety has only been displayed in Beirut last year and now in New York.
Hadjithomas and Joreige worked for several years with Carla Chammas — the C in the CRG Gallery, a Lebanese who has lived in New York for more than 25 years. Chammas wanted to have all the parts of the exhibit in New York, including “The President’s Album”, an installation of 32 folded images that make up a rocket, produced by Chammas herself to showcase in New York.
Of the New York interest in the exhibit, Hadjithomas says: “We, as Lebanese, are of course interested in the project, but to make it interesting to other nationalities was really a challenge — one which we conquered.” According to Hadjithomas, the New York crowd was attracted to the exhibit because, in addition to the visual artistry of the exhibit, they were also exposed to forgotten research on a historical period when Pan-Arabism was at its height in the region and the space race was at its peak internationally.
The other part of the project, the documentary entitled “The Lebanese Rocket Society, the Strange Tale of the Lebanese Space Race” will be released in Lebanon on April 11, and Manougian himself will be attending the premiere after an absence of 47 years from the region.
The film is a tribute to dreamers, and the directors insist the film’s message is not one of nostalgia or a lament for past glory. “We see it more as an incredible adventure, a conquest, which makes a great story,” explains Hadjithomas. “It is also a story that has been forgotten, and we deal with that in the film. We also want to continue this gesture of dreamers in the present and recall it, to say that today we can do something, we can be those dreamers again.”