The unbelievable true story of the ‘Lebanese Rocket Society’

“Before the United States went to the moon, Lebanon had a space program,” wrote IndieWire. At a time when Pan-Arabism was at its height, when Nasserism embodied the Arab Dream, students at Beirut’s Haigaizian University and their Maths and Physics teacher, Manoug Manougian, launched the 1st rocket in the Arab World. Back then, dreams felt achievable, for some reason.

Group portrait taken before the launch of Cedar 3, 1962. Image from the Lebanese Rocket Society Archive, ©DR.
Group portrait taken before the launch of Cedar 3, 1962. Image from the Lebanese Rocket Society Archive, ©DR.

It seems unbelievable. People pause in disbelief when I tell them, but it’s true: Lebanon participated in the 60s’ Space Race.

The Lebanese Rocket Society (2013) tells that story. Directed by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, it follows the surreal tale of a group of students lead by their charismatic teacher, Mahoug Manougian, a Mathematics teacher at the then-young Lebanese-Armenian Haigazian University, and their successful attempt at launching the first rocket in the Arab World.

Initially called the Haigazian College Rocket Society (HCRS), the Lebanese Rocket Society (LRS) would end up launching a total of 10 rockets between the years 1960 and 1964 with their most impressive ones being Cedar III (Arz 3) that weighed 1,250 kg (2,755 pounds) and measured 6,80 meters (22 feet) and, of course, Cedar IV (Arz 4), the 8 meters-long (26 feet), 1 ton (2000 pound) rocket that reached a height of 200km (124 miles), a little lower than where the International Space Station is today.

cedar-rockets

Armed with nothing but a ‘naive’ conviction and a 750 LL donation by then-deputy Emile Bustani, these descendants of the many Armenian survivors of the genocide that found refuge in Lebanon (Manougian himself was born and raised in Jerusalem) built the materials from scratch, experimented with chemicals and tried over and over and over again until their first successful attempt happened. It wasn’t until later in their journey that they received logistics support from the Lebanese Military (initial experiments were done in the country side and were therefore deemed unsafe) and financial aid by President Fouad Chehab himself (10,000 LL for 1961 and 15,000 LL for 1962).

But sadly the project was cut short. In 1964 an accident occurred and 2 students were hospitalized. Regional tensions were rising and the idea of Lebanon potentially using the rockets for military purposes was too threatening for the surrounding powers. And so, after 4 years of daring innovation, the scientists were forced to give up on their dream.

But is it too late to dream?

Here lies the beauty of this movie: it makes you believe. Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige crafted a wonderful movie where each spectacular claim is followed by documented facts to support it; the ‘That can’t be true!‘s are followed by confused pauses that are themselves followed by amazement.

They were all true.

LRS-CahierCed3-06exIMG_0095MRes

“Lebanon launched the first Middle-Eastern rocket and forgot about it.”
Joanna Hadjithomas

How did we forget? And why? More than anything, the narrative of memory plays a crucial role in Lebanon’s collective consciousness (or unconsciousness?). We seem desperate to remember certain things, and desperate to forget others. It may be that our Space Program was too good for the post-Civil War era of despair to accept. It’s easier for us to remember the military victories and defeats because they fit the current narrative. It’s harder for us to remember our artistic and scientific accomplishments, because they don’t.

Call me subjective, but I am extremely grateful for what Hadjithomas and Joreige have just accomplished. Were the movie badly made, I would have still loved it, if simply for its intentions. But it just so happens that this “prodigiously researched” movie is simply beautiful.

Not only does it tackle the very sensitive issue of memory in Lebanon, but it does so with an exceptionally well-crafted mixture of modern day imagery, old photographs and historical footage. It is also followed by a short “What If?” movie in which an alternative reality where Science was allowed to progress is imagined – needless to say, that ‘reality’ is happier than ours.

This movie will become an instant classic and will move a whole generation of Lebanon’s increasingly vocal activists. “How soon is now?” Hadjithomas and Joreige asked us during last year’s exhibition of the same name at the Beirut Exhibition Center.

Indeed, how soon?

The avant-premiere will be hosted by Ayam on the 16th of March at 7h30pm at Metropolis Empire Sofil. Event
Another avant-premiere will be hosted by Nasawiya and The Anti-Racism Movement (ARM) also at Metropolis Empire Sofil on the 28th of March at 7:00pm. Event

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