Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

"Don't Mention the War?": The Politics of Remembrance and Forgetfulness in Postwar Lebanon

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

"Don't Mention the War?": The Politics of Remembrance and Forgetfulness in Postwar Lebanon

Article excerpt

This article explores the divergent ways in which the state, the political society, and the civil society in Lebanon have addressed the Civil War (1975-90) in the postwar era. More specifically, I explore the interplay between actors operating within these spheres concerning three contentious questions: a) Should the war be remembered and commemorated? b) Who is responsible for the war? c) How to consider Lebanon's modern history in light of the war? The discussion highlights both the possibilities and constraints of civil society groups in post-conflict settings.

We should not forget the war, but we should also not become its prisoners, nor should we impose it on the new generation. Today's youth have a right to forget and we have a right to remember. I am concerned that they will make the same mistakes because we have not studied all of the war's consequences. Perhaps we abandoned this more quickly than what was needed. We should find a balance between the right of remembrance and the duty of forgetfulness.

- Ghassan Salamé to al-Nahar, April 7,2004

In a classic episode of the British sitcom Fawlty Towers? in which the actor John Cleese plays the role of Basil Fawlty, the inept owner of a family-run guesthouse in the heart of the English Riviera, German tourists are due to arrive. Although initially instructing his staff to be polite to their German guests and not "mention the war" in their presence, Fawlty/Cleese, who is accidentally knocked down with a frying pan by a member of his staff, ends up prattling about the war in front of the Germans, who become irritated to the point that they get up and leave. As this episode suggests, the memories of war cannot be brushed aside: They lurk beneath the surface and turn up unexpectedly, defying "official" attempts to suppress them.

Postwar Lebanon is one place where the above anecdote seems pertinent. From the termination of the country's long and devastating Civil War (1975-90) until the dramatic events induced by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005, many Lebanese have evaded an open discussion of the conflict, leading a prominent Lebanese scholar, Samir Khalaf, to speak of a "collective amnesia" in this respect.2 But while the state and its institutions, as well as the bulk of the country's politicians, were doing their utmost not to "mention the war," civil society groups in Lebanon vowed to keep its memory alive.

The fact that various actors in postwar Lebanon have addressed the war in diametrically opposed ways calls for a reconsideration of widely held assumptions about this country, and especially the notion of a "collective amnesia" with regard to the "inglorious events" of its past.3 The "collective amnesia" thesis is even more suspect in light of recent studies on collective remembrance and commemoration, which challenge the notion of a "collective memory" and seek to "disentangle the behavior of different groups within the collective" towards the past.4 In sum, one should ask exactly which actors in postwar Lebanon have engaged in what type of behavior with regard to their country's problematic past, and what interests, motivations, and constraints helped shape their behavior.

This article provides preliminary answers to these questions by differentiating between three types of actors in postwar Lebanon - those operating within the state, the political society, and the civil society5 - and asking how they have dealt with three war-related questions. First, should the war be remembered and commemorated? second, who is responsible for the conflict and for the atrocities committed in its course? Finally, how to consider Lebanon's modern history in light of the war and how to pass on this knowledge to its youth?

As I will show, the conflict quickly became one of the major contested areas among the supporters and opponents of the political and socioeconomic order in postwar Lebanon, and by "mentioning the war," civil society groups managed to assert themselves vis-à-vis both the state and the political society. …

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