Saturday, April 18, 2009

Forgetting our civil war, but not quite

This week Lebanon commemorated the 34th anniversary of the start of its civil war, amid gestures designed to prevent that Moloch from ever returning. There were those demonstrating in favor of removing the sect from identity documents, while others, such as the Aounists, handed out fliers rejecting the very idea of a new domestic conflict. These initiatives, regardless of their shortcomings, were necessary, even useful.

However, what do we really know about our war? Certainly, for a certain generation, let’s say of 35 and over, we will sometimes find ourselves entering into conversations about the war at the dinner table, though never too much to spoil the evening. If you look around, you might find some books on the war years, particularly memoirs. However, when it comes to histories of the war written by Lebanese, they are not very many, perhaps less than a dozen or so are memorable, and almost none was actually written after 1990 when the war officially ended.

Much the same holds for cultural works. Of the films on the war, for example, only Maroun Baghdadi’s Haroub Saghira (Little Wars) and Hors la Vie (Out of Life), Ziad Doueiri’s West Beyrouth, and maybe two or three others that escape me, are both interesting and have reached a wider audience. In theater, Ziad al-Rahbani’s plays, particularly Shi Fashil (Failure) and Film Ameriki Tawil (Long American Picture), are classics, as is Elias Khoury’s Muthakaraat Ayoub (The Memoirs of Job), as directed by Roger Assaf.

Novels? Again, Khoury’s Al-Wujuh al-Bayda is excellent, Amin Maalouf’s Le Rocher de Tanios, which in many respects is really about the post-1975 civil war under the guise of a novel on the upheavals of 1832-1840, is commendable, if flawed. There are doubtless other good works that I haven’t read, but the difficulty in identifying very many means we cannot really speak of a national literature of war known to a general public.

That’s about it. What is it about our society that, over three decades after the start of the defining event of modern Lebanese history, makes us so incapable of producing a systematic corpus of work on our own conflict? A museum of memory is set to be opened at the Barakat Building in Sodeco, along the old Green Line, within two years’ time, with help from the city of Paris. That’s good news, if it comes off. However, like much else involving the war, there is considerable official lethargy in advancing such a project.

Best ignored, however, is the notion that Lebanon should have set up some kind of truth and reconciliation commission. This has long been a beef of those who say there never was closure on the war years. Indeed, there wasn’t, but an officially-sanctioned mechanism to arrive at some kind of consensual final committee document was always bound to fail. The Lebanese got over their conflict pluralistically, dissonantly, so that attempting to arrive at even a broadly-unified interpretation of the war would have been tremendously divisive. In some respects, the 1991 Amnesty Law, while much condemned, was a necessary mechanism. How else could we have realistically moved toward a postwar order, given that virtually all the political leaders, and many in society, in one way or another participated in or condoned the worst crimes of the war years?

So that is where recollections of Lebanon’s war lie today: between an averse public and an unhelpful state. However, is this really amnesia, as we so often hear? In some ways, yes. However, there was no amnesia in May 2008, when for a few days Lebanon returned to civil war. A mask of death descended on the society, and nobody really wanted to wear it. The Lebanese remembered, especially those old enough to remember. In the absence of wartime mnemonic devices elsewhere, we should rejoice that there are lingering museums of memory in our minds.

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