Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Out Loud for Human Rights in Lebanon

First published on HANNAH ARENDT CENTER
There is probably no question more debated in the course of Middle Eastern uprisings than that of the status of human rights. Anyone familiar with the region knows that the status of human rights in the Middle East is at best obscure. The question of why there was not a “revolution” in Lebanon is a very complex one, tied with the fate of Syria and with the turbulent Lebanese politics since the end of the civil war, and hence cannot be fully answered. In a vague sense it can be said of course that Lebanon is the freest Arab country and that as such it bears a distinctively different character.
While at face value, the statement is true, being “more free than” in the Middle East is simply understating a problem. Just to outline the basic issues, Lebanon’s record on human rights has been a matter of concern for international watchdogs on the following counts:
Security forces arbitrarily detain and torture political opponents and dissidents without charge, different groups (political, criminal, terrorist and often a combination of the three) intimidate civilians throughout the country in which the presence of the state is at best weak, freedom of speech and press is severely limited by the government, Palestinian refugees are systematically discriminated and homosexual intercourse is still considered a crime.
While these issues remain at the level of the state, in society a number of other issues are prominent: Abuse of domestic workers, racism (for example excluding people from color and maids from the beaches) violence against women and homophobia that even included recently a homophobic rant on a newspaper of the prestigious American University in Beirut. The list could go on forever.
The question of gay rights in Lebanon remains somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code prohibits explicitly homosexual intercourse since it “contradicts the laws of nature”, and makes it punishable with prison. On the other hand, Beirut – and Lebanon – remains against all odds a safe haven, for centuries, for many people in the Middle East fleeing persecution or looking for a more tolerant lifestyle.
That of course includes gays and lesbians and it is not uncommon to hear of gay parties held from time to time in Beirut’s celebrated clubs. At the same time, enforcement of the law is sporadic and like everything in Lebanon, it might happen and it might not; best is to read the horoscope in the morning and pray for good luck. A few NGO pro-LGBT have been created in the country since the inception of “Hurriyyat Khassa” (Private Liberties) in 2002.
In 2009 Lebanese LGBT-organization Helem launched a ground-breaking report about the legal status of homosexuals in the entire region, in which a Lebanese judge ruled against the use of article 534 to prosecute homosexuals.
It is against the background of this turbulent scenario that Samer Daboul’s film “Out Loud”(2011) came to life, putting together an unusual tale about friendship and love set in postwar Lebanon in which five friends and a girl set on a perilous journey in order to find their place in the world.
Though the plot of the film seems simple, underneath the surface lurks a challenge to the traditional morals and taboos of Lebanese society – homosexuality, the role of women, the troubled past of the war, delinquency, crime, honor – which for Lebanese cinema, on the other hand, marks a turning point.
This wouldn’t be so important in addressing the question of rights and freedoms in Lebanon were it not for a documentary, “Out Loud – The Documentary”, released together with the film  that documents in detail the ordeal through which the director, actors and crew had to go through in order to complete this film.
Shot in Zahlé, in mountainous heartland of Lebanon and what the director called “a city and a nation of conservatism and intolerance”, it is widely reported in the documentary that from the very beginning the cast and crew were met with the same angry mobs, insults, and physical injuries that their film in itself so vehemently tried to overcome; a commercial film about family violence, gay lovers, and the boundaries of relationships between men and women.  A film  not about Lebanon fifteen or twenty years ago, but about Lebanon of here and today.
Daboul writes: “Although I grew up in the city in which “Out Loud” was filmed, even I had no idea how difficult it would be to make a movie in a nation plagued by violence, racism, sexism, corruption and a lack of respect for art and human rights.” The purpose of “Out Loud” of course wasn’t only to make a movie but a school of life, in which the maker, the actors and the audience could all have a peaceful chance to re-examine their own history and future.
Until very recently in lieu of a public space, in Lebanon, any conflict was solved by means of shooting, kidnapping and blackmailing by armed militias spread throughout the country and acting in the name of the nation.
The wounds have been very slow to heal as is no doubt visible from the contemporary political panorama. Recently, a conversation with an addiction counselor in Beirut revealed the alarming statistics of youth mental illness, alcoholism and drug addiction across all social classes in Lebanon, to which I will devote a different article.
Making films in Lebanon is an arduous process that not only does not receive support from the state but is also subject to an enormous censorship bureaucracy that wants to make sure that the content of the films do not run counter to the religious and political sensibilities of the state. In the absence of strong state powers, the regulations are often malleable and rather look after the sensibilities of political blocs and religious leaders rather than state security, if any such exists.
The whole idea of censorship of ideas is intimately intertwined with the reality of freedom and rights and with the severe limitations – both physical and intellectual – placed upon the public space.
In the Middle East, censorship of a gay relationship is an established practice in order to protect public morality; however what we hear on the news daily that goes from theft to murder to kidnap to abuse to rape to racism, does not require much censorship and is usually consumed by the very same public.
If there is one thing here that one can learn from Hannah Arendt about freedom of speech is that as Roger Berkowitz writes in “Hannah Arendt and Human Rights”:
The only truly human rights, for Arendt, are the rights to act and speak in public. The roots for this Arendtian claim are only fully developed five years later with the publication of The Human Condition. Acting and speaking, she argues, are essential attributes of being human. The human right to speak has, since Aristotle defined man as a being with the capacity to speak and think, been seen to be a “general characteristic of the human condition which no tyrant could take away.”
Berkowitz adds:
Similarly, the human right to act in public has been at the essence of human being since Aristotle defined man as a political animal who lives, by definition, in a community with others. It is these rights to speak and act –to be effectual and meaningful in a public world – that, when taken away, threaten the humanity of persons.
While these ideas might seem oversimplified and rather vague in a region “thirsty” for politics, they establish a number of crucial distinctions that must be taken into account in any discussion about human rights. Namely:
1)      The failure of human rights is a fundamental fact of the modern age
2)      There is a distinction between civil rights and human rights, the latter being what people resort to when the former have failed them
3)      It is the fact that we appear in public and speak our minds to our fellowmen that ensures that we live our lives in a plurality of opinions and perspectives and the ultimate indicator of a life being lived with dignity.
Even if we have a “right” to a house, to an education and to a citizenship (that is, belonging to a community) if we do not have the right to speak and act in public and express ourselves (as homosexual, woman, dissident and what not) we are not being permitted to become fully human. Regardless of the stability of political institutions, provision of basic needs and security, there is no such a thing as a human world – a human community – in the absence of the possibility of appearing in the world as what we truly are.
 “Out Loud” – both the film and the documentary – are a testimony of the degree to which the many elements composing the multi-layered landscape of Lebanese society are at a tremendous risk of worldlessness by being subject to an authority that relies on violence in lieu of power. Power and violence couldn’t be any more opposite.
Hannah Arendt writes in her journals:
Violence is measurable and calculable and, on the other hand, power is imponderable and incalculable. This is what makes power such a terrible force, but it is there precisely that its eminently human character lies. Power always grows in between men, whereas violence can be possessed by one man alone. If power is seized, power itself is destroyed and only violence is left.
It is always the case in dark times that peoples – and also the intellectuals among them – put their entire faith in politics to solve the conflicts that emerge in the absence of plurality and of the right to have rights, but nothing could be more mistaken. Politics cannot save, cannot redeem, cannot change the world. Just like the human community, it is something entirely contingent, fragile and temporary.
That is why no decisions made on the level of government and policies are a replacement for the spontaneity of human action and appearance. It is here that the immense worth of “Out Loud” lies; in enabling a generation that is no longer afraid of hell – for whatever reason – to have a conversation, and it is there where the rehabilitation of the public space is at stake and not in building empty parks to museumficate a troubled past, as has been often the case in Beirut. In an open conversation, people will continue contesting the legacy and appropriating the memory not as a distant past, but as their own.
The case of Lebanon remains precarious: Lebanon’s clergy has recently united in a call for more censorship; and today it was revealed that the security services summon people forinterrogation over what they have posted on their Facebook accounts; HRW condemned the performance of homosexuality tests on detainees in Lebanon, even though this sparked a debate and a discussion on the topic ensued at the seminar “Test of Shame” held at Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut and the Lebanese Medical Society held a discussion in which they concluded those tests are of no scientific value.
In a country like Lebanon, plagued by decades of war and violence, as Samer Daboul has said in his film, people are more than often engaged at survival and just at that – surviving from one war to another, from one ruler to another, from one abuse to another, and as such, the responses of society to the challenges of the times are of an entirely secondary order. But what he has done in his films is what we, those who still have a little faith in Lebanon, should have as a principle: “It’s time to live. Not to survive”.

Speaking Out Loud

First published on THE MANTLE
Not too long ago I had been reading Lina Khatib’s book “Lebanese Cinema: Imagining the Civil War and Beyond” (2008) and was fascinated by her bold proposal: Modern Lebanese cinema is best explored in the context of the Civil War, partly because almost all Lebanese films since the outset of the Civil War in 1975 have been about the war. I was always fascinated by the history of the Lebanese civil war, if only because of how little it was history or a history.
Canonical films such as Ziad Doueiri’s “West Beirut” (1998) and Jocelyn Saab’s “Once Upon a Time, Beirut” (1995) are set against this background. Civil war films are an entire industry in Lebanon and titles become available each year, and though these films are somewhat critical, the truth remains that the history of the civil war has never been written, let alone spoken.
Without a history, you cannot tell a story.Bernard Khoury expressed this with utmost accuracy: “Local artists are undeniably prisoners of war. In the end, Beirut’s image is a prisoner of the Other’s gaze.” But Lebanon is a country where living exacts a price that is dearly paid, and what is important always is precisely that, the living. This is the story that Samer Daboul’sOut Loud (2011) is telling, with an uncanny sense for magic and daydreaming.
The film is an unusual tale of friendship and love in modern Lebanon in which five strangers are brought together in postwar Lebanese society in a struggle to break through the traditional boundaries imposed by society. That being said, this doesn’t come as a surprise for the connoisseurs of the emerging Arab cinema in which traditional films have become the benchmark of its identity and the battleground for cultural antinomies.
But “Out Loud” has little to do with tradition films. The colorful and bitter-sweet tale begins with the encounter between Nathalie – a random girl from the Internet – with this unlikely group of five friends, raised up in the openly violent tensions of Lebanon and struggling to find a way out of the vicious circle – the memories of the war, homophobia, corruption, hatred – in order to do what the Middle East deems impossible: To simply live as who you are.
After Rami and Ziad were found out to be a gay couple by their families, they have to run for their lives – and this part of the story is hardly a fiction in Lebanon – finding first temporary shelter in Jason’s house, where the five friends pledge loyalty to stay together and marry the one girl, and then at Nathalie’s chalet in Zahlé, where they plan to settle down, far away from a hostile world, which is alas, everybody’s world.
But we don’t need the movies to tell us that love is not like in the movies. Hannah Arendt reflects that even if you turn life into a story and tell beautiful stories about life, you cannot make life beautiful by telling a story, except at the expense of life playing tricks on you. The original plan is somewhat changed, but not altogether given up. After all, it is promises what constitutes the basic currency of the human world.
What is demanded here isn’t resignation or the acceptance of a certain sealed fate but the facing up to reality – that includes both of the orders of happiness and unhappiness. What is this world in which they want to live? That they want to create? Is it possible? Is it real? Old as those questions might be, they’re never irrelevant and for Lebanon, they’re the thread of silence that extends between one war and another.
Suffice it to say that there is no movie like “Out Loud” ever made in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the year 2009 saw the release of Marc Abi Rached’s film Helpthat also dealt withhomosexuality – though in passing – together with other taboo topics such a delinquency and prostitution. The film was banned short of its release.
Joanna Andraos, who played the role of young prostitute Soraya in “Help” tells us about the film: “Many films talk about politics, war, conflict… but the singularity of this film is that it just tells a story”. “Out Loud” is also another story-telling film – which is somewhat rare in the Middle East – that also speaks about politics, war and conflict but in such a subtle – yet explicit – way that it doesn’t obscure what the film really wants to tell.
“Out Loud” – to put it in simple words – isn’t only challenging the taboos of a society but also telling a beautiful story and at that successfully. Unlike most films that tell linear stories with socially relevant content – and somehow evoke the format of the traditional novel – there’s hardly any social realism in it and the aesthetics of the film is somewhere between poetry and hope.
Director Samer Daboul wanted to plant a seed for the future, and this film is precisely it. It is a question mark and an exclamation mark for all those who want to live in tolerance and equality. This film – Romantic, epic, sardonic – being humble as it is, is a microcosm of the real Lebanon that lurks underneath the wars and the endless political diatribes. In this Lebanon, there’s just so much life, there’s just so much death; all at once. But it’s all in our hands. Kierkegaard writes: “Decision is the eternal protest against fiction.”
In my next review, I will be speaking about Out Loud – The Documentary that was released together with the movie and that tells in detail about the ordeal of shooting a movie of this kind in Lebanon and the status of human rights in the country.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Beirut: Reinventing or Destroying the Public Space?

“The Garden of the Prophet”, Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran’s posthumous book, included the poem “Pity the Nation”, his most famous and that ends with the following stanza: “Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation.”
“Pity the Nation” might well be an eight-stanza history of Lebanon: Fullness of beliefs and emptiness of religion, acclaiming the bully as hero, not raising its voice except in funerals, boasting not except among ruins, welcoming rulers with trumpeting only in order to farewell them with hooting and welcome another with more trumpeting; more than anything stands out the division into fragments, each one acting as a nation or in the name of the nation.
Already in 1860’s geopolitical conflicts in the region were translated into bitter sectarian conflicts that continued throughout independence, only to be further marred by the creation of the neighboring State of Israel. The weak political leadership of the different sects looked elsewhere than Lebanon to enter larger alliances that could further consolidate their power and quickly enough the central government began to lose control and the sectarian violence deteriorated into a civil war lasting nearly twenty years.
The history of the Lebanese civil war is rather well known, and though remarkable it was in terms of the actors involved, what is even more remarkable is the ways that the Lebanese found to negotiate their former conflicts and rehabilitate the public sphere in order to move on from a turbulent past into a future plagued by open wounds and uncertainties.
Nowhere is the legacy of the war more visible than in the city of Beirut, whose status as a cosmopolitan regional hub wasn’t born out of planning but rather the obvious accidental consequence of a very troubled past.
Craig Larkin outlined in his paper “Reconstructing and Deconstructing Beirut: Space, Memory and Lebanese Youth” some of the reasons behind Lebanon’s dynamism: A mountain refugee for religious minorities; a forged compromise of colonial powers and indigenous elites; a republic of tribes and villages; a cosmopolitan mercantile power-sharing enclave; a playground for the rich; a battle ground for religious and political ideologies; a fusion and combustion of the Arab East and the Christian West; an improbable, precarious, fragmented, shattered, torn nation.
All of these elements convened at once in Beirut in pre-war times: The city grew along the lines of quarters – usually of different religious communities – that developed an inclusive space for all after 1879 when a public garden was launched in the “bourj” (Martyrs’ Square) and the area evolved into a urban hub for all types of public activities.
During the civil war it was precisely this area what split the city in two and along the lines of which militia fighting was drawn, separating the city between East and West Beirut, and shifting the once mixed population. The end of the war, with its permanent calls for dialogue and reconciliation, surprisingly, did nothing to change the demographic status quo of the war.
The reconstruction of Beirut, and particularly of its historical downtown, was taken up in 1994 by private venture Solidere (Société libanaise pour le développement et la reconstruction de Beyrouth), established by then prime minister Rafik Hariri – later assassinated – at a time when the Lebanese state was still too weak and could not appropriately pass strong judgments in order to punish war criminals and effect a true social reconciliation in Lebanese society.
The solution then – as aptly described by Sune Haugbolle in his book “War and Memory in Lebanon”- was a vision of national unity, imagined or imaginary, through which Hariri’s capitalism seized the day with a state-sponsored amnesia in which reconciliation was limited to the private sphere and a vision reigned in which the most important thing was to leave the past behind.
The price that Beirut had to pay for this nominally was the actual destruction of what had been formerly the sole equivalent of a physical public realm. The obvious lack of interest in social reconciliation eliminated the possibility of true interaction between the different communities and this was further consolidated by the total absence of shared public areas. The forces and powers of the state were incorporated into Hariri’s capital and became identical with it.
The reconstruction of Beirut wasn’t so much an exercise in reconstruction as it was the total remaking of a symbolic part of the city that closed off the vaults of the past to interpretation in order to replace the immediate past with two equally disturbing symptoms of amnesia: The absolute past and the absolute future. The motto “Beirut: Ancient City of the Future” was coined and before the reconstruction even began, a large part of the area was demolished; in fact, much more than had been destroyed during the entire war.
The futuristic landscape entirely absent of public spaces – consisting mostly of prohibitively expensive residential towers and an exclusive shopping district – was coupled with an interest to preserve Beirut’s ancient heritage – ruins from Roman and Phoenician times – in order to create a model of a city that was entirely disconnected, even physically, from the vast majority of Beirut and created yet new sources of segregation and division.
Solidere’s concept envisioned a “Beirut reborn” in which the past informs the future, doing precisely what prominent Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury expressed: “It completely bypasses the present. It evokes and links the past and the future, but shrugs off any notion of the present.”
But Beirut shows a different picture in which the present rises as it self-destructs: The ambitiously wealthy downtown is contrasted to a city with poverty looming close to 35% and where news of buildings collapsing because of inadequate infrastructure is not uncommon.
At the same time the ghost of sectarianism is a living reality: What had been checkpoints and militia roadblocks during the civil war have now been replaced by subtle division lines that can be experienced by anyone who travels through the city: Posters of different sect leaders, graffiti and other religious and political icons serve the exact same function and give the unavoidable impression of a city deeply divided that echoes Lebanon’s political landscape.
Acts of memory have become commonplace in response not only to Hariri’s capitalism but to the entire political establishment, however they remain at the level of demanding what no Lebanese movement or faction has ever done: To step up to the challenge of opening public spaces in which there can be social reconciliation; namely, the acceptance that a court of justice cannot punish an entire country in which all groups involved bear responsibility.
Artists on the other hand have remained trapped in two narratives that equally defy the gist of the present: Either the total view of Lebanon through the eyes of the war or the Oriental Romanticism of the pre-republican Lebanon that is identical with the Western fantasies about the Middle East. Khoury says elsewhere: “Beirut has a false relationship with its past, characterized by a superficially Arabocentric kind of nostalgia.” What is remarkable here is the absence of the present.
Recently, I elaborated in “War and Memory in Lebanon” about the challenges posed by Hannah Arendt’s ideas on forgiveness and reconciliation in postwar Lebanon in the context ofTajaddod’s interactive exhibit “Another Memory”, however I want to turn my attention now to Beirut’s relationship to the public space.
Arendt conceived of the public realm as a space produced by particular forms of citizen interaction, where citizens engage in the unpredictable self-disclosure typical of political action, properly conceived, and strengthen the bonds between them in order to sustain this selfsame space.
She writes in The Human Condition:
The term public signifies the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it. This world, however, is not identical with the earth or with nature, and the limited space for the movement of men and the general condition of organic life. It is related, rather, to the human artifact, the fabrication of human hands, as well as to affairs which go on among those who inhabit the man-made world together. To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.
She continues:
Under the conditions of a common world, reality is not guaranteed primarily by the “common nature” of all men who constitute it, but rather by the fact that, differences of position and the resulting variety of perspectives notwithstanding, everybody is always concerned with the same object. The end of the common world has come when it is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in only one perspective.
This common world which Arendt discusses is a man-made phenomenon that occurs in between men naturally rather than dictated by one man alone, and this variety of “crafted” worlds is typical not only of totalitarian regimes but of any situation – political or otherwise – in which the spontaneity of human action is taken away in order to be replaced with an ideal situation in which the unpredictability of action is traded for calculations.
One of those situations in which human action is calculated is the privatization of the public realm, as has been elaborated by Mark Willson in his paper “Enacting public space: Arendt, citizenship and the city” where he makes the case for the importance of citizenship practices within the shared space of the city and how the political implications of the privatization of the public space always result in the weakening of participatory democracy.
Willson brings up recent work of Margaret Kohn (2004) which is immediately relevant to the case of Beirut: “Even when members of different groups do not engage in formal political discussion, expose to others may help offset the mutual fear and suspicion fostered by segregation. It is difficult to feel solidarity with strangers if we never inhabit places that are shared with people who are different.”
The privatization of downtown Beirut and the area surrounding Martyrs’ Square isn’t simply a question of neo-liberal economy but an attempt to dovetail and manipulate the public space into an artificial arena of consumption.
On the other hand, alternative public spaces have existed in Beirut through the war years and not limited to downtown; Larkin for example brings up the case of Hamra, home to the prestigious American University in Beirut and where the lack of urban planning and official governance enabled the development of a creative environment, allowing greater room for contested post-war visions and plural identities.
Cross-sectarian platforms do exist in Lebanese society (among them, Tajaddod is but one example) and there has been something of a resurrection of a secular movement, however at the level of the state, representation remains largely sectarian as it was from the times of French edict of 1936, after which people had to declare membership in one of the religious communities to receive the right to citizenship. Many aspects of life are still largely determined by sect.
But the consequence of this is that the fragile balance remains in spite of the official narrative of reconciliation between past and future, and without present; proof of the above is that recent clashes in the north of the country quickly spread to Beirut and brought up the anxiety of the civil war years in an environment in which people are acutely aware that the balance may break at the slightest disturbance.
It is highly unlikely that the current political leadership will be able to resolve the sectarian conflict at the heart of Lebanon’s turbulent history since they rose – against all odds – out of the sectarian conflicts and are indebted to the status quo for their power and authority in representing large sections of the Lebanese population.
A public space reinvented on a policy of amnesia isn’t only a limited public realm but also the gentrification of an entire location of memory into an elitist museum, closing not only the past but also the future. A student interviewed by Larkin expressed it best: “The redevelopment involved a covering or hiding of the memory of the war, and in this sense it’s unreal. You can’t talk just of Romans and Phoenicians and our great heritage, without mentioning militias, kidnapping and bombs.”
Catherine Wants to Know - Bernard Khoury
Even though the historical downtown isn’t the only of Solidere’s ventures (that include also the failed Elyssar plan in southern Beirut) it would be of course an unfair assessment to say that Solidere alone is responsible for the gap in the Lebanese memory. Bernard Khoury comes to mind again when he says the obvious: “Could anything more be demanded of a private company when the country as a whole is incapable of writing its own history? It’s very sad now that in school books history stops in 1975.”
Lourdes Martinez-Garrido articulated it very well in her “Beirut Reconstruction: A Missed Opportunity for Conflict Resolution” (Al Nakhlah, Fall 2008): The Lebanese civil war resolved none of the conditions that generated the initial confrontation. Like any other type of violence, it generated fear, suffering and destruction. In the process of recovery, there was no political plan for social reconstruction.
Finally, the attempted reconstruction of Beirut – though an apparent success – has decidedly turned its own heritage and culture into a “product”, usually a product of entertainment for everyone but those who suffered the war, into a touristic souvenir. This is what Hannah Arendt warned about in “The Crisis in Culture”:
Mass culture comes into being when mass society seizes upon cultural objects, and its danger is that the life process of society (which like all biological processes insatiably draws everything available into the cycle of its metabolism) will literally consume cultural objects, eat them up, and destroy them.
The Lebanese heritage that has survived millennia of wars might yet not survive a couple of decades of amnesia and disappear altogether with the public realm. As these risks loom close, the proponents of doom will seek shelter in the past and the proponents of progress will seek shelter in the future, all while the present will continue, unfortunately, to pity the nation.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Regarding the Memory of the Other

First published on THE MANTLE 
Also available on Tajaddod Youth
In the aftermath of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), the Lebanese hastened to escape the burden of the recent past, either erasing the memory of the war or longing for the re-establishment of life as it was before the war.
The public sphere – NGO’s and civil society organizations no less than politicians – also quickened to establish all fashion of committees, courts and movements in order to promote dialogue and reconciliation.
While the public sphere thrived on this optimism and defiance and against the official discourse of “no victor, no vanquished” that prevalesced, the private spheres remained at the level of remembering the war through the narrative of the sect, party and even family.
The question of the cultural memory – in the absence of which there can be no national consensus or identity with which to move forward – remained fragmentary and thoroughly absent from historical studies on the period. One of the sole exceptions is the work of Danish scholar Sune Haugbolle, articulated in his 2010 book “War and Memory in Lebanon”, reviewed here by the Middle East Policy Council.
Haugbolle begins his book with the blunt assumption that the Lebanese are not dealing with the past but simply coping with it and brings into fuller view the degree of state-sponsored amnesia throughout the years between the end of the civil war and the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005.
The Danish scholar's lecture One day we’ll be looking back at this with nostalgia – Memoirs and public testimonies of the Lebanese civil war is a substantial contribution to a vast field of unexplored Lebanese historiography in which under the surface of public reconciliation, lurks a wide variety of conflicting memories and narratives often hostile to each other.
In a rare display of boldness the interactive exhibition Another Memory did precisely that: To allow the private and the public spheres of Lebanese society to overlap at the level of memory, confronting the public with narratives about the war other than their own. Certain key dates of the civil war were selected from the newspapers An-Nahar andAs-Safir and reprinted in large displays. The public interacted with the exhibit adding their notes footnotes to the articles in post-it notes and bringing together a wide variety of opinions and reactions to certain events of the war.
The exhibit, organized by Lebanon’s Tajaddod (Democratic Renewal Movement) Youth in cooperation with Danish Radikal Ungden (Social Liberal Youth) was conceived under the assumption of what Haugbolle so clearly articulated in his book, albeit closer home:
“We believe that for real reconciliation to take place one has to be confronted with other narratives of the war than one’s own. In Lebanon the narratives are passed down by family and community and, particularly with young people who didn’t live the war themselves, are limited to one inherited version of events. Our hope is that knowing and trying to understand each other’s perspective on the past is the first step of working together on creating a common future.”
Lebanese war and post-war literature has also stepped up to the challenge. Elias Khoury for example articulated his novel “The Little Mountain” (1977) the hope for a better future – without knowing what would happen during the following decade – but it is in his novel “Gate of the Sun” (2000), an epic about the life ofPalestinian refugees in Lebanon since 1948 where he addresses best his own ideas on memory, truth and story-telling.
In an interview with Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot from March 2002, when his novel was published in Hebrew translation, he said:
“The Israeli is not only the policeman or the occupier, he is the “other,” who also has a human experience, and we need to read this experience. Our reading of their experience is a mirror to our reading of the Palestinian experience.”
Khoury might have been referring not only about the Israeli as the “other” but also about the struggle of memory and narrative in his native Lebanon insofar as the “other” is concerned and hence, the unresolved conflict.
A certain short documentary aired on BBC last year, Open Eye: Lebanon’s missing confronts us with the realities of the Lebanese civil war: In the documentary, photographerDalia Khamissy attempts to uncover what happened to the thousands of people who were kidnapped and never returned from the war; it confronts Amina Hassan Banat whose four sons were rounded up and disappeared in 1982 with Assaad Chaftari, a man involved in the disappearances. In spite of the brutal honesty of the documentary, there are no answers to be had and when asked about the whereabouts of Amina’s sons, Chaftari can only answer:
“I don’t know. The whole Lebanese soil is planted with mass graves.”
That is why initiatives like “Another Memory” are so important in a country with such a fragile shared memory like Lebanon, because as Haugbolle puts it: “No one is in possession of the absolute truth of the war… In such a public sphere, one might have to stop insisting on the truth and instead listen, very carefully, to the conversation.”
For an essay about cultural memory in Lebanon seen from Hannah Arendt's perspective on forgiveness and reconciliation, see my "War and Memory in Lebanon".

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Il Pomeriggio

“But this is the point. You die for your country. Suppose. Not that I wish it for you. But I say: Let my country die for me. Up to the present it has done so. I didn’t want it to die. Damn death. Long live life!” –James Joyce, “Ulysses”

The early evening seemed squalid, though somewhat warm. Blotches of purple, cerulean and always the thick white - the summers in the south are never blue. Fernando's mother had gone to Venice and we had only a couple of hours to enjoy, more than we had had in long weeks. “Il Pomeriggio” was always the place; after all none of us was older than sixteen, and in spite of the dyed hair, the trench coats and the incessant smoking, the obvious anxiety gave our ages away at mere hindsight.

Honorary membership in the bourgeoisie gave teenagers in those days the privilege of partaking in the world of the adults; especially expensive alcohol and lies. The nervous conversations, like verses written in free style without punctuation, filled the entire air and froze it, showering the half empty martini glasses with a thawing breath, half incomprehensible, half miraculous. It is called love. Only at “Il Pomeriggio” such pleasures could be thoroughly enjoyed, not entirely free from guilt.

When he left – as the clouds turned from purple into violet and then invited the ocean of dark – I thought, “Maybe I could linger a little longer”. I was a careful observer of nature; not of the plants and thrushes, as much as of the faces. “Where is this man going?” I asked myself. “—Hello, Bloom. Where are you off to? –Hello, M.Coy. Nowhere in particular.” I imagined that conversation from the Ulysses. And anyway, observation of human nature at that moment saved me.

Saved me from provincialism, from the inanity of home, from the obligation to read that book about the “Ladies in Blue” fresco from the Cretan palace of Knossos and anyway Juana had interpreted much better than me. She was better than me in everything, in the love of Greek and in the love of men, that came to her easily. At a time when I struggled still with a few phrases from Xenophon, she was already reading Euripides and was a regular fixture at the important parties in the city, which I only dreamt attending.

I wasn’t curious about the parties because I thought it would be nice to be free for a few hours, but rather the opposite. I wondered about the little deaths of the people and the stories they had to tell. Maybe I would meet somebody interesting. I guess that is why I began writing in the first place: Since the people I had met at the parties had never been interesting – with the sole exception of Tundama, whom I met many years later and now lives in Siberia – perhaps the anonymous readers I would find them.

I thought that the world was divided in two: Those who belong to the secret society of books and those who don’t. For that very reason, I always walked around with a book and when I sat in cafes in the city, I thought that reading a book would always bring people to me with a casual “I also read that book!” or even better, “That’s an interesting book! I’d like to read it as well”. This of course never happened. Neither did it in the countless museums, art galleries or even brothels. Reading books in brothels. How little did I understand.

But that night at “Il Pomeriggio” was not like the other nights, walking all night, looking for someone to talk to. In the cold, in the rain, in the brimming sunlight. Sonia was very elegant, like those women I had seen only in films and sometimes at the tailor’s shop. Her long hair sprouted sidewards like a fountain of glittering brown and formed one vast unity with her fur coat. It all began with a cigarette, still unlighted for her. Then the coughing and that young people shouldn’t be smoking. Then the shy approval.

My grandmother, prostrated in her bed, so full of hubris and slurs, seemed from an entirely different planet. Sonia was a psychoanalyst and then we talked about Fernando: “But he’s so young!” she exclaimed, as if forgetting for a moment that so was I. “Isn’t that a curious name of yours?” she inquired and then I told her it was a name for a Jew. Her friend, Mrs. Goldman, also exhilaratingly beautiful had just left and Sonia told me she was also a psychoanalyst, and her parents had come after the Holocaust.

I wasn’t too worried about an age difference of at least four decades, and all what mattered after all was the friendship. Not the friendship of comradeship or complicity, but rather the polite, distant and very political friendship of conversation. I didn’t know quite well what “Zionist” meant at the time, except that all Jews were Zionists, because Israel was the land that the Eternal, our God, had given to us. Israel was not in this planet, it was something otherworldly. Sonia taught me, but not on that day.

The next time I saw Sonia – a few weeks later – she invited me for a succulent dinner at the same place and I was so elated, never had I eaten in a luxurious restaurant like that, then given alcoholic drinks and chocolates and cigarettes. At my age, I only had enough money to buy one drink – always the cheapest on the menu – and cigarettes I stole from my father’s drawer. She told me then a mysterious tale: Her father, a Palestinian, had once bought a Hebrew manuscript in Damascus and she wanted to know what the age of the text was.

Along the way, I learnt that “your people, the Zionists” burnt the house of her father and forced him into exile, long before the establishment of the state. Then he fled to Lebanon where he met her mother, and together they left for the new world, though they were always called “Turks”, because Lebanon still belonged to the Ottoman empire and they traveled the entire world on a boat with nothing but a Turkish passport. That night I learnt that the Zionists had burnt her father’s house and that knowledge still didn’t change anything.

I didn’t speak Hebrew at such an early age – though little did I know, how soon I would find myself in Jerusalem – but I had been taking Greek for two years with Noel, who had been once a militant priest in a revolution and learnt the sacred tongues in Rome and in Jerusalem. He invited me to join his class in Biblical Hebrew, in which for the first time I learnt what the dots below the letters in the prayer book meant and how they were to be deciphered. I took a copy of the Damascus manuscript to him and waited patiently for an answer.

In the meantime, a friend of Sonia – another psychoanalyst – had gone insane after quitting her medication and was now in a mental facility. In the meantime, Sonia had taken to drinking and thought a lot about her father. She told me about the Holy Land, to which she had been once, and where her father house had been, in a place where years later I found instead, a restaurant of Lebanese exiles. Once I called Sonia from Jerusalem to tell her that I had found this restaurant where her father’s home once had been.

About ten years had passed and she no longer remembered me. That’s what happens when you mix alcohol with Alzheimer. But I remembered that “we” had burnt her father’s house, so I came back to the restaurant and asked the Lebanese couple to allow me to put some flowers in the memory of her father, who never saw the Holy Land again. Now I knew who the Zionists were, and I longer had a rational explanation for the expulsion of Sonia’s father. I felt sorry. I wanted to walk all the way to Beirut, and say to people I was sorry.

Of course most of us had been taught that the love of the people of Israel and the love of the state, were one and the same. And why would you not love your people? After all, it was on the name of these people that world history had been wronged; the utopia hadn’t come. How could God have given us this land? Then I remembered my first time in Jerusalem, walking along the street of the Prophets and telling myself: “So, this is the Holy City. Stench of sweat, garbage and dust.”

Perhaps we took it. Perhaps we took it because there was nowhere else for us to go. Perhaps we burnt Sonia’s father house because we were full of resentment. And who is this “we”? Why can’t we be treated as individuals? Zionist no longer means anything other than “those Zionists”, e.g. those who burnt Sonia’s father house. Criminals, villains, thieves. There are no other Zionists. There are no good Zionists. We shouldn’t have stolen the land in the first place. We should have stayed in Europe. Mourn our dead there.

I’ve asked myself for so long, what would have Sonia thought of me, had she lived to see me today? Would she also tell me, “I have no problems with Jews, only with Zionists”, like Ali did? Would she also tell me that we should have stayed in Europe? Would she also call me a jerk? I wonder if Sonia would have returned to Palestine. Perhaps we’re wrong, and no justice can be delivered on any of these peoples, perhaps it is like the Book of Job, we can’t be redeemed even if we do everything to be redeemed. There’s no insurance.

This should have never happened. I told myself so many times as I drove alongside the road to Jericho, and I saw the Israeli soldiers strip searching the Palestinian women clad in abayas. This should have never happened. I told myself when I had to watch on TV the soldiers stabbed, their eyes gouged out and their bodies disemboweled in a square in Ramallah. This should have never happened. I told myself when a friend who bragged about having killed many Arabs was himself killed in Lebanon. I buried him too.

But the truth is that all this did happen and a lot more. Who are these Zionists that burnt Sonia’s father house and that she could never forgive? Perhaps some of them were simply dreamers, running from the Soviet Union, running from poverty, running from death. Perhaps they were born, like Sonia, to people whose houses were burnt too. Perhaps they didn’t have enough time to read Herzl’s “Jewish State” and barely had enough time to reach a boat and leave their entire families behind.

All of them, those people who built that country in which I lived and where I paid homage to Sonia’s parents; they were not murderers, they were not thieves, they were not criminals. They just wanted to live. Those Zionists. Once I heard Tim Hetherington say that wars are something very human – people are put with weapons at two sides of a mountain and asked to defend their comrades. This is how this country was born, in a war. People do terrible things in wars, in order to survive. Even good people.

What if Ali and I went to war? Would he kill me to survive? Would he burn my house? I don’t know, but probably I would. All I learnt from Sonia – in between the lines – is that this war already happened, and we shouldn’t fight the wars of other people. Forgive me, friends, if I can’t un-make the past of my people, since I’m only an individual. This is one tragic story, so countless our dead. But it is a tragedy of two. There’s no innocence to be had in tragedies. Not yours and not mine.

Forgive me if I think you border on hate when you think they’re innocent and we’re guilty; forgive me if I think you border on hate when you think we should have never come; forgive me if I think that you have a problem with me when only my people has to bear all the blame. Forgive me if I think you’re unfair when you label me a jerk for defending myself from generalization. Please forgive me. Forgive me for thinking this is a world made only of individuals, who love and hate, who do good and evil, who have grace and cruelty, all at once.

The only important thing is that I will not die for my country, perhaps for you, but never for my country.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

War and Memory in Lebanon

First published on HANNAH ARENDT CENTER
Also available on Tajaddod Youth
Cultural memory is a concept – albeit in vogue always in periods of amnesia – that is deeply intertwined with identity. The link between the two is something as simple as what Agnes Heller observed in 2001: “Without shared cultural memory there is no identity”.
She says elsewhere in “Cultural Memory, Identity and Civil Society”: “Cultural memory is rather embodied in objectivations which store meanings in a concentrated manner, meanings shared by a group of people who take them for granted.”
Heller makes the argument that civil society has no cultural memory. The explanation is plausible and clear: Civil society is a heterogeneous mosaic of sometimes conflicting cultural memories and activities or institutions that are in no need of cultural memory.
Civil society – unlike the old community – can smoothly operate through clashes of interest and cooperation limited to short term future and without utopia. The question of identity then is nowhere raised with more rigor than when the cultural memory is challenged.
The Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) remains a textbook case of this challenge. My contention is that the preoccupation with the actual content of the Lebanese identity arose only when the shared cultural memory – once taken for the granted – was eroded through the war.
Of course many would challenge this view arguing that the ground was fertile for the war since the 1860’s under Ottoman rule and that only intensified in the years leading into the war. But in the realm of history, as moderns know well, theory is but a realm of consolations.
Every postwar society is faced with the enormous challenge of re-writing its own history and this is particularly difficult in the case of civil wars in which different cultural memories, often hostile to teach other share a legacy that came to them without a testament.
Over twenty years after the end of the Lebanese Civil War – in which neighboring countries, Western powers and Israel were at some point involved – the actual challenge of the memory in general remains a tense battleground of ideological and political conflict.
It is precisely this challenge that the interactive exhibition “Another Memory” has come to tackle: An open archive of Lebanese memory throughout the war years that aimed to confront the public with narratives about the war other than their own.
A number of key dates of the civil war were selected and front pages of the newspapers An-Nahar and As-Safir reprinted and juxtaposed in large displays. The public was encouraged to interact with the exhibit by adding their own footnotes to the articles in post-it notes.
An interesting article published in NOW Lebanon has pointed out how the exhibit – organized by Lebanon’s Tajaddod (Democratic Renewal Movement) Youth in partnership with Danish Rakidal Ungden (Social Liberal Youth) – has gone where few others have:
While plenty of noise is made by Lebanese civil society groups and NGOs about the need for national post-civil war reconciliation, the issue is rarely tackled in concrete initiatives by political parties themselves.
The question of post-war reconciliation brings up a number of issues that were addressed in a dialogue between Hannah Arendt and Jacques Derrida established by Cláudia Perrone-Moisés in her “Forgiveness and Crimes Against Humanity: A Dialogue between Hannah Arendt & Jacques Derrida”, providing us with a framework to understand why initiatives like “Another Memory” are issues of the first order of relevance for Lebanon and any post-war society.
Derrida’s argument on forgiveness is that in the “globalized” market of human suffering that emerged after the horrors of the world wars, it is institutions and governments who are asking for forgiveness.
In this sense the spectacle of forgiveness is nothing but a simulacrum and he brings up the example of a South African woman whose husband had been imprisoned and tortured, who, before the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, said: “A commission or a government cannot forgive. Perhaps only I could do it. But I am not ready to forgive.”
Derrida and Arendt agree that forgiveness has the power to interrupt the flow of events and to create new beginnings – a paradox of cultural memory: how to begin anew with and in spite of the past?
But they differ in that what for Derrida is an essentially divine gesture, for Arendt remains a purely human experience.
Yet to forgive the unforgivable (and here we are dealing with war crimes and crimes against humanity) it seems, is something that remains outside the limits of the law, and this is what the poet W.H. Auden articulates in a letter to Arendt: “The law cannot forgive, for the law has not been wronged; only broken; only persons can be wronged. The law can pardon, but it can only pardon what it has the power to punish”.
Arendt replies to Auden saying that he’s right (and she was wrong) in that punishment is only an alternative to judicial pardon, but that accordingly, not everything is punishable. Derrida stays here at the level of forgiveness merely in the service of noble or spiritual ends.
Hannah Arendt goes further to establish a critical difference between forgiveness and reconciliation: In her journal entries from June 1950 – at a time when she was probably still working on “The Origins of Totalitarianism” – she writes that “forgiveness and revenge are a unity of opposites that correspond to each other”.
According to her, forgiving takes place only among those who are “infinitely unequal” and that the mere act of forgiveness actually destroys the human relationship:
“Forgiveness, or what is normally understood as such, is in reality only an apparent success; in it one takes a higher ground and the other demands something that men cannot grant each other… Reconciliation instead has its origin in being averted with the mission that has been given to us.”
Reconciliation – beyond forgiveness and judicial pardon – isn’t based on the understanding that I could have done this as well, a quintessentially religious mistrust of human nature, but on the acute realization that “this should have never happened”.
Forgiveness breaks the relationship in its adamant refusal to share the burden for what has happened and rather prefers to “look the other way”. Arendt better articulated this several years later:
This vicarious responsibility for things we have not done, this taking upon ourselves the consequences for things we are entirely innocent of, is the price we pay for the fact that we live our lives not by ourselves  but among our fellow men, and that the faculty of action, which, after all, is the political faculty per excellence, can be actualized only in one of the many and manifold forms of human community.
What “Another Memory” tried to do – even though it was open only from May 12th to 14th and with a rather limited attendance – was to open the vaults of memory not in order to sit in judgment but the afford the possibility of the antinomies in cultural memories; those probably are not to be overcome but rather accepted and understood. It is a facing up and resisting of reality.
Its enormous success in rehabilitating the public sphere isn’t necessarily something quantitative but the sheer quality of opening a space in which the past isn’t closed off – as the many postwar courts and tribunals often assume in many countries the world over.
It was a space of hope without promise since promises can only be delivered between one man and another; the living proof of what Lebanese painter Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui remarked to me in a conversation:
For me the Middle East is life: Vibrant and pulsating, stupid and loving, cunning and wise, kind and cruel, simple and mysterious. A place where cold mathematics could be proved wrong, a place where God and the Gods have chosen to appear. Life has the power to overcome when coupled with love.
(*) Hannah Arendt’s “Denktagebuch” is not translated into English. Excerpts above I translated from the original German. Any mistakes in the translation are entirely my own. For an essay on Arendt's idea of reconciliation as opposed to revenge and forgiveness, click here.