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".