Looking the beast in the eye
Collective memory of the civil war in Lebanon (1/2)

by Sune Haugbølle

The Lebanese civil war revisited
Collective memory in theory
Narratives and the social structure of Lebanon
Collectives and individuals in Lebanon
Filming the Lebanese war: In the shadows of the city and West Beirut
The public apologies of Assa’ad Shaftari
Download the thesis
[52pages - 88k]
Thesis for the Master of Studies
St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, June 2002
© Sune Haugbølle 2002 -2021
Sune Haugbølle is working on collective memory of the Lebanese Civil War and public and private spheres in the Middle East in general. He is currently D.Phil. student at Oxford, St. Antony's College. In 2000 he got a BA in Arabic from Copenhagen University and in 2002 a Master of Studies in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from Oxford University, St. Antony's College.


top of page


"Whenever a shell fell the candle would be blown out. It was very frightening: so frightening that I thought I couldn't go on. After a while you begin to feel sure that the next shell will get you, that you can't possibly survive. You just hope it won't be too painful. Then oblivion sets in. There's a mechanism in the human mind, which obliterates terrible memories. I sometimes wonder now whether it really happened." [1] ­ Kamal Salibi, 1994.

After a period in the early 1990s when all effort was focused on recovering from the chaos of civil war, the Lebanese have in the last few years witnessed a number of attempts to try to deal with the memory of the war. Gradually, the collective amnesia and the silence, which marked the early years of recovery, are being broken. Although this does not take place on a state-sanctioned basis, civil society in Lebanon is rich with examples of groups and individuals who come to the fore to share their memory and discuss the legacy of the war years. Examples can be found on the web, in memoirs, in novels and poetry, in the press and in films as well as in less obvious forms of "popular history” such as actual historical works, the architectural reconstruction of Beirut and commemorative ceremonies. All of these different expressions create and reflect what the historian Carl Becker once called "the history that people carry around in their heads”[2], and what today has become known in scholarly terms as collective memory.

The ambition here is to establish a framework for the study of collective memory of the civil war in Lebanon. It is my assumption that more than being instructive in the contested rewriting of modern Lebanese history the many different ways people relate personal history also amount to a sociological portrait of the Lebanese. The focus of a study on memory of the war must therefore be to examine how the memory is being constructed, both on a personal and a collective basis. Who produces it and what are the political, social and ethical implications of collective memory in Lebanon? Two examples from the last few years will give suggestions to what the memory landscape looks like, the first case study being two recent Lebanese films about the war, and the second example the public confessions of the former Christian militiaman Assa’ad Shaftari. These examples by themselves cannot give more than a vague idea of the entirety of the topic. However, they are only meant to serve as guidelines and introductory suggestions for a more inclusive survey of collective memory of the civil war in Lebanon.


[1] Quoted p. 209 in Dalrype, William: From the holy mountain, London: Flamingo 1997

[2] Becker, Carl L.: What are historical facts?, pp.41-64 in Phil L. Snyder (ed.), Detachment and the Writing of History: Essays and Letters of Carl. Becker, Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1958



top of page

The Lebanese civil war revisited

The end and the immediate aftermath of the war in Lebanon was something other than peace.[3] After 1990, a fragile truce among the Lebanese replaced actual civil war, while the struggle between Hizbollah and Israel continued in the South. Society was still plagued by a sense of disorder, heavy fluctuations in the economy, an unsustainably bad infrastructure and frequent power cuts, to name just a few of the less serious trials of daily life that the Lebanese had to live with in the early nineties. Apart from the two Christian leaders Aoun and Ja’ja’, post-Ta’if Lebanon has been shaped by the warlords and politicians - not that the line is at all clear between the two categories - who built high positions for themselves during the "second" phase of the war, after 1982.[4] These people include Hobeiqa, Berri, and Junbalatt, to list some of the most bloodstained and prominent in the post-war system.

A law of general amnesty was passed in order for the morally deprived Lebanese to give each other a chance to wipe the slate clean, and for the leaders to remain in their seats. The official justification for this lack of justice is the magic formula of la ghalib la maghlub. There is no victor and no vanquished, so the argument goes, all Lebanese were equally guilty and should forgive each other and go on with their lives. This situation has left the memory of the war unresolved.

Another legal effect of the la ghalib la maghlub dogma was a law passed against any incitement to sectarian behaviour. Effectively this has meant that a discussion of the war has become impossible. If it does not make sense to speak of justice, then how can it make sense to speak of the war at all? After all, there can be no getting around the fact that the war, at least in parts, was a sectarian war with an unjust outcome, in the sense that un-convicted murderers walk the streets of Beirut as well as the corridors of the Parliament.

There is also a more psychological explanation of the amnesic state of mind in Lebanon of the 90s. In the words of the Lebanese artist Naji Zahar, "the generations who lived through the 17 years of Lebanese civil war developed their own means and ways of surviving it (...) based on a very short term vision of existence. People’s daily objectives were concentrated purely on fighting with and against emergency.” After the war ended, Zahar explains, "these basic instincts lost significance. From then onwards the future represented the vast unknown for those who had endured it. Emptiness replaced danger, while fear of war was translated into fear of freedom (...) To escape the burden of recent past, a ‘collective amnesia’ erased the memory of war.”[5] However there are also those, like the commentator Omar Boustani, who would claim that collective amnesia is a luxury problem, which only few Lebanese can afford to deal with. The lives of well-off young Beirutis, many of whom only returned after the war was over, give them little reason to complain: "Woodstock, Bénarès, ou un méga-rave à Berlin? Au choix. Ninities ou seventies? Amnésie. Oh, come on.”[6]

Whether for or against remembering, all Lebanese must admit that any discussion of the war and its lingering memories is painful and is bound to have political consequences. With all this muddle in mind, the question poses itself whether it is at all desirable that the Lebanese should remember. Perhaps it would be better to just let the memories rest in peace along with the 150,000 dead and 17,000 missing. Extreme sensitivities surrounding the memory of the war run high in any public discussion. It would seem that the biggest impediment to the establishment of a national dialogue is the lack of consensus and the conflicting historical narratives that exist within the different Lebanese communities. To quote the sociologist Samir Khalaf, "had the war been a heroic or redemptive experience, through which Lebanon sought to recover its lost integrity and virtue or transformed itself into a secular and more viable entity, then there would be no problem in representing such a "glorious” national event. The war, alas, in both its origin and consequences, has been neither a source of collective inspiration nor consensus.”[7] Therefore it is no surprise to find an equal lack of consensus when it comes to how to deal with the memory.

The Lebanese basically divide into two camps: one composed of people who want to let it be and another of people who want to facilitate a process of public remembrance and soul-searching.[8] For the latter group, there is a fear that forgetting the war will lead to an ignorance of the roots of the conflict, introducing the possibility that it may repeat itself. It is important, they argue, that the stalemate holding the Lebanese in its grip be dealt with. Although this might destabilize the present system, speaking the truth about the past is the only way to face up to the social and political problems in Lebanon. In a sense, this is a Freudian, traumatic approach to memory. The war experience has been so traumatic that for years the Lebanese have been incapable of responding adequately to it. Instead they have repressed it, and as we know, in Freudian terms repressed material has a permanent tendency to re-emerge into consciousness. In the apt words of Desmond Tutu, and here he is speaking about South Africa but his words apply to Lebanon quite neatly: "None of us have the power to say, 'Let bygones be bygones' and, hey presto, they then become bygones. Our common experience in fact is the opposite - that the past, far from disappearing or lying down and being quiet, is embarrassingly persistent, and will return and haunt us unless it has been dealt with adequately. Unless we look the beast in the eye we will find that it returns to hold us hostage."[9]

Some Lebanese are simply tired of the war and want to escape the depressing and humiliating association with abductions and car bombs, and focus on the future. Time will heal the wounds and no therapy is needed, so they claim. To quote the historian Kamal Salibi: "Thankfully we are a very forgetful culture. Those who committed the worst crimes and atrocities have long been forgiven. Few people in Lebanon can afford to bear grudges for too long. Who remembers Sabra and Chatila? At the time it was terrible: who could ever forgive mass murder like that? But twelve years later even the unfortunate Palestinians have probably forgotten and forgiven.”[10] Other Lebanese simply do not believe that there can be a shared national history; to them a debate about the civil war is paramount to a renewal of actual warfare. Or to put this perceived Gordian knot bluntly: Forgetting the war might make it repeat itself at some point, but remembering it will most likely make it happen again right away. What good will it do to look the beast in the eye if it is going to bite your head off?

To more concerned people, like the novelist Elias Khoury, this sort of mieux vaut laissez-faire discourse only goes to prove that "the most tragic thing about the Lebanese civil war is that it is not a tragedy in the consciousness of the Lebanese.”[11] Or to quote the historian Farid al-Khazen: "This wound has not healed. The idea is that we should forget the war, turn the page and move on. It’s a scandal.”[12] Or finally the film director Jean Chamoun, who is even more concerned: "The question isn’t whether we should talk about the war, but how. It’s important to not only see the atrocities, but also that the responsible people still walk the streets (...) remembering is the only antidote to a relapse”.[13]

Of course, there have been different attempts to stare back at the beast, but these have all been private initiatives. There is no state sanctioned memorial, apart from a few scrappy attempts such as a pile of tanks heaped upon each other in a roundabout near the presidential palace in Baa’bda, and there is no war museum. There is simply no official discourse on the one historical event that constitutes the basis for the present regime.

Naturally, one could argue that there is no need to remind people who live in a city dotted with ruins that they just went through a war, but the fact is that Beirut is being rebuilt, at an awe-inspiring speed and in a way that with very few exceptions fails to incorporate the war. Secondly, naked ruins by themselves do not facilitate a process of collective remembrance, rather it would seem they exacerbate the spatial division of Beirut today along sectarian lines. The physical landscape of Beirut is a landscape of private memories for all Beirutis who, like the author Jean Makdisi, lived through the war: "The streets of Beirut, even those that are relatively intact, provide a shifting landscape of memories and sorrow. Whenever I walk by one house, for instance, I remember with fresh pain my friend who lived in it and who was killed one night years ago. At a street corner, I remember when the shell landed and killed the mother of my son’s friend. By another house, I think of the family that was kidnapped and has not been heard of since, and by yet another, I remember the friend who left the country and never came back. Each of these physical landmarks, and many others like them, are milestones in my inner journey of pain. Memories wash over the map and layers of time alter its shadings.”[14] Placing at least some of the ruins in a monumental context would make them symbols of the will to remember the national disaster that was the war. As things stand, there is no common public space for the Lebanese to gather around and remember.


[3] For an account of the political developments and public debate in post-Tai’if Lebanon see Monde Arabe Maghreb Machrek No. 169 and Dagher, Carole: Bring down the walls...

[4] The distinction between the two phases of the war, 75-82 and 82-90, being made by Samir Kassir in his book La guerre du Liban. De la dissension nationale au conflit régional (1975-1982), Paris/Cermoc 1994

[5] From www.111101.net/Artworks/

[6] From the essay Anamnèse in Boustany, Omar: Etat Limite - Lebanese dream fin de siècle, Beirut: Layali Editions 1998, p. 22

[7] Khalaf, pp. 146-147

[8] Dagher, p. 50

[9] Tutu, p. 31

[10] Dalrype, p. 211

[11] Interview in Washington Post, 20 December 1999

[12] Idem.

[13] Interview in DS, 16/11 2000

[14] Makdisi, Jean Said: Beirut Fragment ­ a war memoir, New York 1990, pp. 77-78



top of page
Collective memory in theory

The question of how people remember as collectives has become the focus of an increasing number of studies in the last ten years, owing to the fertility of the insights provided; in cultural studies, studies on nationalism and public history, the process in which societies, communities or groups perceive and represent their history is being scrutinized.[15] This wide field of studies is not easily summarized, and it will not be the ambition of the following to provide an inclusive overview. Rather, the relationship between history, memory and the different means of representation will be examined to the extent that these questions appear relevant for the present study.

First of all memory is not history. It could be highly interesting for example to look at the debate around the rewriting of history books in the Lebanese school system[16], or to look at the more scholarly debate around the interpretation of the war. Suffice it to mention here that the comment which is often being made that the peace in Lebanon is "the continuation of war by other means”, seems just as applicable to history as it is to basketball; just like the frantic games between the Maronite Sagesse and Sunni Ansar clubs reflect a political-sectarian involvement of the youth that was previously played out with bullets instead of basketballs[17], so the historical debate reflects sectarian and political divisions going back to the war, and in that sense "objective” history is of course not completely independent of "subjective” memory.[18] Furthermore, the academic history of someone like Kamal Salibi is widely read and discussed among Lebanese and in that sense helps to shape the collective memory.

Still, memory is something other than history. The French historian Pierre Nora has written about the difference between memory and history, that whereas "memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is a representation of the past.”[19] Or to put it another way: history is the rational way in which we make sense of our past, whereas memory is the emotional means at hand. History is relative in its attempt to remain objective towards the past; at heart of history is a critical discourse that is antithetical to spontaneous memory. Memory, on the other hand, is absolute and highly subjective. However, certain places, things and narratives (lieux) embody a common memory, that is, a memory on which a whole group of individual memories bestow a shared meaning. To Nora these lieux de memoire define the national, ethnic or other social commonalities in a given social group; "an unconscious organization of collective memory.”[20]

The ultimate subjectivity of memory is exactly what makes it intriguing to talk about collective memory. Taking the individual as the point of departure, memory first of all belongs to the realm of psychology, which should be kept in mind when lending memory to an analysis of the social sciences. Unless we believe in a common impulse beyond the personal, a Volkesgeist or similar unfashionable notions, it seems clear that societies as such do not acquire knowledge and experience. Individuals do, but their experiences have sufficient overlap for us to speak metaphorically of the social production of knowledge and hence of collective memory, that is, groups of individuals who remember within the same social framework.

One of the first to study the phenomenon of collective memory was the French sociologist of the Durkheimian school, Maurice Halbwachs. Instead of viewing memory as the past working its will on the present, Halbwachs explored the ways in which present concerns determine what of the past we remember and how we construe that memory. In Halbwachs’ view, the way in which we remember tells us more about present needs and concerns than it actually does of the past. Furthermore, Halbwachs said, human beings are entirely social beings, no man is an island and our memory is always affected and in turn always affects the social group or groups to which we belong. Or, to let Halbwachs summarize himself, "the mind reconstructs its memories under the pressure of society.”[21] So, when people enter the public realm to share their personal memories, they inevitably bring with them more general images and ideas from their social setting. When people step forward to remember in public they enter a realm beyond that of their individual memory and partake in a more collective memory.

The French anthropologist Bastide offers a slightly more dynamic view on the matter. Certainly man remembers as part of a social group, but it is the intermeshing of individual narratives, which creates collective remembrance, as a process, and collective memory, as a result. To Bastide collective memory is not an ideal entity with an existence of its own. Collective memory is the end result of that certain exchange relationship, which takes place within a social grouping ­ exchange of information, memories, values ­ between the individuals who compose the group. Bastide compares collective memory to a choir singing with different voices that join in the same song. Of course not all voices are equally heard, elites with access to and control of the public space will to a large degree determine what is being heard and what is passed by.[22]

Finally it needs to be taken into account that just as no man is an island no group is an island either. And here we are moving from the lofty abstractions back to the reality of Lebanon, where sectarian groups have long been key constituents in our understanding of the social structure of Lebanon.[23] That there is such a thing as sectarian communities in Lebanon today is undisputed. On the other hand, as Safia Saadeh has noted, there is also a group of Lebanese, what she calls "the secular middle class”, who transcend and indeed contradict sectarian boundaries.[24] Furthermore, such boundaries are floating to say the least. Due to the tortured marriage between politics and cultural identity during the war, expressions of sectarian affiliation today come in forms of subtle symbols and codes, and as a consequence boundary formation of sectarian groups can be difficult to study. When is a Shiite a Shiite, in what social situations will a Druze act as a Druze and how are these, as it were, social codes perceived? Given the proximity of social memory to social identity, perhaps an understanding of memory will shed light on the shape of communitarian narratives and help us to get a clearer picture of the process of boundary construction, or of how the Lebanese create differentiations between each other.


[15] Olick, Jeffrey K. and Robbins, Joyce: Social Memory Studies: from "collective memory" to the historical sociology of mnemonic practices, pp. 105-140 in Annual Review of Sociology 24, 1998

[16] Mobassaleh, Zeina: History, like beauty, is more often in the eye of the beholder, DS, 22/5 2000

[17] Moroy, Franck: Le sport, miroir de l’engagement politique, pp. 109-115 in Monde Arabe Maghreb Machrek No. 169

[18] As Eyal Zisser points out (Zisser, p. x), studies of Lebanese history fall into two broad categories. One holds the view that Lebanon is a natural entity and the war primarily stemmed from regional and global conflicts. In the famous words of Ghassan Tueni, Lebanese writer and founder of the Lebanese daily an-Nahar, the war was "une guerre des autres”, a war of others fought on Lebanese soil as a product of the ongoing clashes in the Middle East and the Superpower rivalries resulting from the Cold War. Another interpretation stresses the inter- and intra-communitarian aspects of the civil war, either from a leftist or Marxist position placing the blame with the Sunni and Maronite bourgeoisie, or from a sociological point of view situating the conflict within the framework of ethnic conflicts in weak states. Either way this is an explanation, which, unapologetically, sees the war mainly as a product of conditions within the Lebanese confessional system.

[19] Nora, p. 8

[20] Idem, p. 23

[21] Halbwachs, p. 51

[22] Winter and Sivan, pp. 27-29

[23] There is an ongoing discussion in Lebanon and in the scholarship of how pervasive, and indeed intrinsic, confessional identity is and what role it played in fueling the war. Surveys conducted by Hanf suggest that only a small group of the Lebanese got caught up in what Michael Johnson has called "romantic ethno-confessionalism” (Johnson, p. 228) during the war. Hanf as well as Gilsenan and Johnson have taken pain in their work to demonstrate how sectarian divisions are not the only dividing factors in Lebanon. Economic frustration, codes of honor and heroism, and a society, which promoted and still promotes sectarianism on a political level, led to a situation where "the values of individual honor were reproduced as confessional pride and vengeance” (Johnson, p. 229). Saadeh suggest that we call the phenomenon castes in stead of sects, signaling the tribal (the word used by Kamal Salibi in A house of many mansions to describe the social organization of Lebanon), non-religious nature of the coherence within the five main sects ­ Maronite, Sunni, Shiite, Greek Orthodox and Druze. Whatever the name and the constancy of its nature, confessional affiliation is a reality in Lebanon and needs to be treated as such.

[24] Saadeh, p. 65



top of page
Narratives and the social structure of Lebanon

Focusing on narratives of past events can be a valuable way of discerning popular concepts of history. Samuel Hynes in his study of collective remembrance of WWI makes the valuable distinction between two forms of memory, namely spatial and narrative expressions. Whereas the spatial lieux de mémoire, such as state-sanctioned monuments and museums, are frozen gestures meant to embody a certain interpretation of a historical event, lieux de mémoire in narrative form are individual stories that deal with causality and change.[25] The individual stories then blend together to form a collective narrative, not as a coherent unit, but as an amalgam of the individual voices. It is Hynes’ assertion that "in the construction of a myth of war, memorials play a very small role, and personal narratives a very large one. Not any single narrative alone, but narratives collectively.”[26] The narrative of which Hynes is speaking is a national (British) one, but every imaginable social group may be expected to have their shared memory. In the case of Lebanon it is obvious to imagine the existence of sectarian narratives.

To perceive of sectarian narratives or clusters of memory is bound to be a difficult enterprise, since they must be expected to consist of most everything that is daily life both in public and private, and to be subject to a constant fluctuation in terms of substance and size, indeed be the product of a constant exchange of opinions taking place both within and between the different clusters. In order to approach such complex phenomena it will be useful to make the distinction between public and private remembrance.

Following Halbwachs, memory is not just what happened in our past, it is constantly being reshaped and expressed in a process of remembrance. The memory that is never or rarely expressed outside informal networks one could call private remembrance. Informal networks of people who remember will often be structured around kinship, religion or, in Lebanon, simply sectarian ties. These people’s memory will not necessarily find an outlet, or a voice, which is able to transform the abstract forms of personal memory into articulate forms of public expression. Much is forgotten, indeed there seems to be a mechanism of oblivion at play; the more pain, humiliation and embarrassment the greater the need to forget.[27] Other memories simply never find a voice, be this because of social, political or emotional constraints and censure, and they die unuttered.

Michael Hertzfeld in his book Cultural Intimacy has explored similar processes of remembrance. As a counter to the top-down approach of elitist discourse analysis, Herzfeld emphasizes that "rethinking the tangle of multiple pasts often happens in the intimate spaces of culture”, rather than in the public spaces of the medias.[28] Cultural intimacy is the social and cultural language employed by a social group to makes sense of its past and present, often in response to the misrepresenting generalisations of the nation state. Quite often, these codes are informal and unconscious patterns of habitus as opposed to the detached, conscious "cultural production” of national elites. Therefore it takes an able scholar to translate the "social poetics” of cultural intimacy or private remembrance. An example of these processes from a Lebanese setting is Michael Gilsenan’s study Lords of the Lebanese Marches, which examines private remembrance of family and clan history and the role memory plays within the informal networks of everyday experience. In Akkar in Northern Lebanon, narratives of past glories and misfortunes serve to bridge discontinuities in the present.[29] Narratives of past events on the personal (intimate) level - not narratives of historical events ­ preoccupy the peasants in Gilsenan’s book, creating a common, albeit immensely confined sense of collective memory and hence identity. In fact, without Gilsenan the stories would probably never have made it out of Akkar.

Accordingly, the agency of producing collective memory needs to be examined. The private remembrance in a given society might roughly correspond to the sum total of collective memory. Yet in effect, personal narratives are only collective to the extent that they are shared in public. For the same reason much attention has been paid to the manipulation of memory by elites, who can take the memories beyond the confines of the "cultural intimacy” of informal family, sectarian or other networks, and make them widely accessible through the mass medias ­ but who can also manipulate the memory in whichever way it suits them. For our purpose an important correction of this Bourdieusque idea of elitist hegemony must be added, namely that in Lebanon as in many other places the medias are not necessarily national. For the state this of course constitutes a particularly difficult obstacle in the attempt to arrive at a shared nationality, which has been a declared goal of all Lebanese governments after the war.[30]

As for the memory that does find an outlet we shall call this public remembrance. Here it is important to be aware that there can be a number of objectives ranging from the mere therapeutic to profit or other gain, or artistic expression. These "actors” of remembrance shape the collective memory by communicating in the public sphere. Public remembrance can take the artistic form of films and novels; or find a voice in the medias through journalism and TV programs; or in forms of commemorative ceremonies; or, as we have seen, it can take the form of architecture. Communicating in the public sphere necessitates an artistic, or at least articulate, expression. This means that what Foucault calls "subjugated knowledges”, "knowledges that have been disqualified as inadequate to their task”[31], stand the chance of losing their voice in the shaping of the collective narrative. In the Lebanese case subjugated voices of private remembrance could be translated to the Palestinians, women, Shiite peasants or other "wretched” groups. However, to add a second balancing note to the power of discursive hegemony, "engaged” artist do tend to represent the memory of those who are deprived of a voice, and therefore the picture is in effect less top-down than the dichotomy of public/private remembrance would immediately suggest.[32]

To recap, in an Halbwachsian train of thought we maintain that the way the Lebanese remember the war is revealing of their social situation. A study of memory will not necessarily bring a clearer picture of what actually happened during the Lebanese war, but given how closely memory and identity are related, it can be assumed that analysing examples of active remembrance will serve as a means to better understand some of the fundamental self-perceptions, which structure Lebanese society today. We may also assume that public remembrance is mostly the work of cultural elites, whose different voices, in the image of Bastide, compare to a choir singing a narrative. The nature of this singing in Lebanon is one of the fundamental questions this study seeks to shed some preliminary light on.


[25] Hynes, Samuel: Personal narratives and commemoration, pp. 205-220 in Winter and Sivan, p. 207

[26] Idem.

[27] After the Algerian war 1956-62 the memory of the French soldiers involved remained private because "soldiers without victory, without good causes, and without enthusiasm cannot become positive figures” (Claude Liauzu quoted p. 172 in Proust, Antoine: The Algerian War in French collective memory, pp. 161-176 in Winter and Sivan). The same mechanism of embarrassment seems to constitute an important impediment to public confessions in Lebanon.

[28] Hertzfeld, p. 12

[29] Gilsenan, p. 137

[30] Dagher, pp. 169-181

[31] Foucault, p. 82

[32] See for example Cooke, Miriam: War’s other voices: women writers in the Lebanese civil war, Cambridge: CUP 1987



top of page
Collectives and individuals in Lebanon

Various aspects of the memory of the war have been subject to studies. However, an attempt to view each of these examples in the broader sociological perspective of collective memory is wanting. Extensive research has been done on how Hariri’s rebuilding of the Beirut Central Business District (CBD) recreates or obliterates the connection to the past. Since 1991, this research has been running parallel with a heated debate in the Lebanese medias, between two different "geographical imaginations” of Beirut. On one side the imagined Beirut of Hariri’s Solidere has been dubbed "Hong Kong of the Middle East”, a vision of Beirut as a forward-looking, blossoming centre for international commerce. On the other side, large parts of the opposition feel that the far-reaching demolition of old buildings is an unhealthy expurgation of the past, and have subsequently opted for a recreation of "Paris of the Middle East”, seeing the restoration of the old buildings and the construction of new ones in the image of the pre-war style as a symbol of the peaceful coexistence of fore. The CBD which is now emerging, seems to be landing somewhere in-between the two visions, but with few or no references to the war.[33]

Another active field of research is Lebanese literature, where the war is omnipresent.[34] The younger generation of writers in their works on memory stress the trans-national, non-confessional aspects of the Lebanese condition, in that way reflecting the life of those who left the country during the war. These count authors like Najwa Barakat, Elias Abou-Haidar and Tony Hanania, whose first novel, Homesick, characteristically deals with an adolescent Lebanese’s exodus, dual identities and total alienation from the war.[35] The book is telling of the post-ideological outlook of a young generation of writers, who are ironic and often cynical, but forward-looking and therefore less preoccupied with a war, in which they do not feel they had a part safe for that of the victim. The older generation, who were involved in a more direct and ideological fashion, are also more directly preoccupied with it in their work; with the madness, violence and moral deprivation that the war inflicted on the personal level. In all these books, critique of society is always allegorically expressed in form of individual war-memories. The more direct social and political comments on the memory of the war can be found in the public discussion, which I have previously sketched.

The rather fractured memory landscape of opinions and voices, which we have painted so far, does not in any convincing way point to a division of the memory into sectarian narratives, such as the literature on the social structure of Lebanon would suggest. One reason for this apparent discrepancy between theory and practice could be the methodological problem of extricating a private remembrance from a towering public remembrance and the people who produce it. One is left to focus on what can be studied in the public sphere. However, this should not be done without due consideration of the private remembrance, which is the breeding soil of the public remembrance.

The civil war was a historical period of considerable length. Obviously, every Lebanese has his own set of memories related to his own tragedies and trials concerning certain historical events. For example it would be interesting to study how Lebanese of different observations remember the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982 or how Druze and Maronites remember the Mountain War of 1984. But there is also a memory in the wider sense of a narrative of the war. Can we really assume that as a product of the communitarian nature of Lebanese society during and after the war, the Lebanese have different conceptions of the war? Within the intimate sphere of private remembrance, how do the Lebanese relate their memories, how do they tell the war? It is hard to say since no anthropological examination of the memory of the war has taken place. Is it really so different what for example Maronites in Jounieh, Druze in Aley or Shiites in Bint Jbail hold of the war? Is it true what the pessimists claim that in Lebanon, there is no collective memory but only collective memories; simplified antagonistic discourses hostile to the ambiguities of the perceived protagonists’ ideas and memories?

Some intellectuals, who have given answers to this crucial and rather sweeping question, firmly believe that although there are opposed clusters of memory, there is also a shared memory of an absurd war with no winners. But, to put it a bit tautological, this shared memory is just not being shared or debated. To quote Theodor Hanf, the war was "the death of a state but the rise of a nation” ­ the idea being that the war has produced a new sense of nationality, or indeed a nationality where there was none before. Whereas this might be true, the war certainly also reiterated patterns of sectarian mistrust, and created divisions which are yet to be overcome or even accommodated. One could hope that sharing the memory of the most basic things that wars do to civilian populations would bring out the precarious nationality that so many Lebanese talk about and wish to see. Uprooted families, orphaned children, traumatized parents; the muting anguish of loss does not differentiate between sectarian orientations.

Perhaps the idea of a shared memory is strongest with articulate people, who belong to the educated middle class with a secular worldview that transcends sectarian identities. The idea of Lebanese as muwatin, secular citizens, was relatively strong before the war, when Beirut became known as the Paris of the Middle East and Hamra and AUB as the intellectual hothouse of the Arab world.[36] When the war broke out these people were amongst the first to leave, and so quite a lot of those who would brand themselves secularists today spent the war years outside of Lebanon. Unfortunately most of those who communicate their memory seem to belong to this group. And this is unfortunate, because the chance that memories are turned into myths of unquestionable validity is certainly greater within the private sphere of informal, communitarian networks, since here the memories are subject to less discussion and critical exchange between other clusters of memories or sectarian narratives. As an example one could mention the yearly, Maronite commemoration of the death of Bashir Jumayil.[37] These people communicate in a symbolic language addressed to each other and have no intention of reaching a larger public beyond their "cultural intimacy”.

The commemoration of Bashir Jumayil has a surprising parallel in the commemoration of the outbreak of the war, which does not take place anywhere in society, but does take place in the press. It has thus become an almost ritual practice for journalists each April 13 to bemoan the lack of any commemoration of the outbreak of the war. "Le Liban tout entier semble atteint d’amnésie” was the verdict in 1999[38]; in 2000: "On ne peut sortir de la guerre de 1975-1990 amnésique, sans contribution nationale à transmettre à toutes les générations futures afin que la guerre de 1975-1990 soit la dernière dans l’histoire passée et à venir du Liban. Sinon, cela signifie que nous sommes un peuple inapte à fonder une patrie”[39], and in 2001: "l’heure du grand déballage n’a pas encore sonné. Plus le temps passe, plus le réveil sera douloureux."[40]  This collective practice suggests how, concerning the war, the intellectual or detached elites constitute a social group to be reckoned with just as much as any Maronites or Shiites. Keeping this in mind will serve as a useful balance to the valid, but not exclusive, notion of sectarian narratives.




[33] Khalaf, Samir and Khoury, Philip S. (eds.): Recovering Beirut : urban design and post-war reconstruction, Leiden: Brill 1993, and Peter G. Rowe and Hashim Sarkis (ed.): Projecting Beirut : episodes in the construction and reconstruction of a modern city, Munich: Prestel 1998. For an up-to-date assertion of the CBD, see http://www.lebanon.com/construction.

[34] Neuwirth, Angelika (ed.): Agonie und Aufbruch ­ neue libanesische Prosa, Beirut: Dergham 2000, and Khouri-Dagher, Nadia: Paysage littéraire d’après-guerre au Liban, in Culture-Société no. 569, 1995

[35] Hanania, Tony: Homesick, London: Bloomsbury 1997

[36] Salam, p. 41 ff

[37] Matar, Liliane: Une Genèse mythique: le phénomène Bashir Gemayel, Beirut: USE Kaslik 1984

[38] Haddad, Scarlett : 13 Avril 1975 ­ 13 Avril 1999 ­ Les fantômes de la guerre et l’amnésie officielle, LOLJ 13/4 1999

[39] Messara, Antoine: Commémoration - Pour que la guerre de 1975-1990 soit bien la dernière - Le 13 avril, ou la contrition nationale, LOLJ 12/4 2000

[40] Haddad, Scarlett: Le Liban après la guerre ­ Une memoire en souffrance, LOLJ 12/4 2001, and Young, Michael : War wounds still open on the 26th anniversary, DS 14/4 2001

Sune Haugbølle

top of page