Speak, Memory! Dissonantly

A book, cultural laziness and Lebanese postwar memory


In recent weeks, many Lebanese have been doing something they rarely do: reading a book. The tome in question was written, in French, by reporter Alain Ménargues and is titled The Secrets of Lebanon's War. The fact that it is a local bestseller has an intriguing moral in that the Lebanese are routinely accused of having forgotten their war, which lasted from 1975 until 1990. The indictment is mostly a fair one, but then Ménargues had to go and muddy the waters.

What is the big deal about the book? For aficionados of recent Lebanese history, it is full of interesting revelations about the rise to power of Christian militia leader Bashir Gemayel between 1981 and 1982, when Israeli forces invaded Lebanon and created the conditions for him to be elected president. Bashir was assassinated soon thereafter, before taking office, and his death was followed by an appalling massacre of civilians in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila. Much of Ménargues information comes from a large cache of documents he was given by a senior Christian militia leader, who has since been calling his friends in Beirut to apologize for the embarrassment the book has caused them.

The specifics of Ménargues' book aside, the Lebanese have lapped up his account. This is hardly the first time post-war society has been bewitched by a description of its late conflict "from the inside." A few years ago the former bodyguard of one of the more sinister militiamen, Elie Hobeika (the perpetrator of Sabra and Chatila, and later a turncoat who became a Syrian ally), wrote a tell-all book that blended fact and innuendo in an attempt to settle scores, apparently after a quarrel over money. (I reviewed it under a pseudonym, so ungentlemanly was the protagonist.) The book was banned, but the Lebanese exchanged samizdat copies, mainly to discuss Hobeika's reported bedding of several society ladies, and generally found the whole thing immensely entertaining.

Entertainment is the last thing on the mind of a group of Lebanese lawyers, writers, journalists and sociologists who intend to establish an association that will help refresh wartime memory. Among the aims of the group is to set up an archive center and a museum with data, objects and pictures from the war years. The person leading the effort, journalist Amal Makarem, argues that "we don't have a clear-cut situation in Lebanon: those who say they are victims were at some point torturers, and vice versa… But if at least everyone would admit his wrongdoings in public, then it is at least a first step toward reconciliation."

Whenever post-conflict societies are analyzed, the word "closure" is evoked. The image it conjures up is of former foes bowing their heads in collective catharsis. This is not to be mocked: South Africa and Guatemala established commissions to humiliate the guilty, even as they granted them immunity from prosecution. The quid pro quo was protection in exchange for truth. And as the fate of Chile's Augusto Pinochet showed, when truth is smothered, the anger of the victims of war or repression, or that of their families, burns on. However, there can also be an overdose of sanctimoniousness accompanying talk of wartime memory, so that "closure" becomes a ritualistic device, a convenient "the end" sign after years of killing. Like many rituals it can be drained of meaning.

That's because remembrance is one thing and reconciliation quite another. Most societies can remember, but may not have the social mechanisms to reconcile. In fact, acceptance of this dissonance may, paradoxically, be a source of social stability. Lebanon is a case in point.

Upon Independence in 1943, and even before, Lebanon's leaders had to imagine a political system that would somehow integrate the country's various religious groups. The first option was to impose a powerful state on all that would suffocate communal identities. The politicians realized this would contradict the nature of their society, so they opted for a system that granted the religious communities autonomy under a fairly weak state. Whatever else this did, and not all was good, it certainly ensured that Lebanon would be more democratic than its Arab neighbors.

However, by the end of the war in 1990, this autonomy also meant the Lebanese would have dissimilar ways of interpreting their war. Closure, which presupposes a measure of agreement on the causes of war, would have meant reconciling often-irreconcilable versions of Lebanese history. Instead of aspiring to such high-minded unity, the Lebanese have navigated through their post-war period by applying their individual narratives to the conflict. In effect they have accepted contending interpretations of the war, gaining strength by living and letting live. Were anyone to impose a single version of the war on all, the cracks in the society would appear.

It is true, however, that the Lebanese don't often talk about their war. This bothers the memorialists, who believe that a problem not discussed is a problem unresolved. Far more disturbing is that the ambient amnesia, whether willed or not, has meant a startling dearth of cultural works on a war that is a veritable goldmine for even the laziest of prospectors. The domestic illuminati—scholars, artists, filmmakers, playwrights and novelists—have mostly been cataleptic. And when they have not, one maneuvers through a mediocre wasteland indeed to reach an occasional oasis—for example, White Faces by the novelist Elias Khoury, Little Wars by the late filmmaker Maroun Baghdadi, Failure by the playwright Ziad Rahbani, or the flawed but daring West Beirut by filmmaker Ziad Doueiri. Why should this matter? Because the ecumenism that allowed Lebanon's various communities to interpret the war in disparate ways is also strikingly parochial. If culture can play any role at all, it should be as a midwife to something less narrow. In effect, it must take on the burden that truth commissions might in other postwar societies—but independently, flexibly, multilaterally, so it can become a channel proffering an array of post-conflict testimonies, without the weight of politics and bureaucratic agendas weighing them down.

What purpose would the testimonies serve? Like Ménargues' book and other works, they would allow the Lebanese to remember, to nourish their diverse narratives, but also, perhaps, to reach a level of common understanding of their previous predicament, though one that does not impose reconciliation or stifle the dissent of those who have little conviction that this serves any purpose.

In the fall of 1985, a friend, his sister and an uncle were kidnapped by abductors unknown, never to be found. My remaining photo of the friend, taken years before his disappearance, shows him with a ski mask completely covering his face. In a rare cultural effort to recall the war, the actor Roger Assaf staged a play by Elias Khoury titled The Memoirs of Job, which contains a scene in which, coincidentally, the face of a kidnap victim, based loosely on my friend and others, was hidden by a ski mask.

Few things could have had the impact of that accidental moment when the barriers of time, place and context were dissolved, when a play and an old photograph combined to create a sense of the absolute meaning of disappearance and death. It is miraculous for a society to forget such horrors, but no less so for a work of imagination to give almost transcendent meaning to reality and memory—without compulsion.