I grew up in the post-Civil War generation. The year of my birth was the year all war criminals received exoneration for atrocities committed during the war – the so-called Amnesty law, giving the sadists, the torturers, the rapists and the murderers a “second chance”, a chance not one of their victims ever received. The underlying message was simple: forget.
Between 120 and 150,000 people died, 17,000 disappeared – a country left in ruins by ideologies that fought to death; and worst of all a silent agreement pretending it never happened.
For the privileged few such as myself, the civil war had little more meaning than its weird role in making Lebanon the mess that it is today. We somehow associated it (and still do) with the corruption of the political class, the incompetencies of public servants and pretty much anything in between without really knowing how and why. Adults never talked about it. It was, and still is, a taboo subject drenched in the fear of history’s repetitions.
Enter Maryam Saiidi. This extraordinary woman is the mother of a 15-year old communist militant who was officially listed as missing after a university battle during the 1982 war. He was either murdered or kidnapped by right-wing Lebanese allies of Israel – the Lebanese Force and/or Phalanges. 31 years later, Maryam is still searching for her son. She isn’t in denial, she just knows she’ll never get closure until she found him, dead or alive.
In Sleepless Nights, Maryam is one of two figures at the center of the story. The other is Assaad Chaftari, a senior intelligence officer of the Lebanese Forces during the war. A close associate of mass-murderer Elie Hobeika, Assaad has since come out and apologized for atrocities he committed during the war. He still refuses, however, to release crucial information that might help countless families get closure, notably the location of mass graves. Maryam knows, and we do too, that Assaad knows more than he admits.
Assaad is followed throughout the documentary. Eliane Raheb, the director, seems to try to talk to the viewer through Assaad. He is, after all, a good reminder of how a good deal of the population thinks. The Muslim vs Christian divide still reeks in public and private discussions. That’s why men and women like Assaad matter – whether Christian, Druze or Muslim. As Lebanon is trying to ease its pains, Assaad’s lot cannot be ignored, if only to know how to fight the mentality they left behind.
Maryam represents those who cannot forget the past. She refuses to let go of her son’s memory and rejects all attempts to make her feel better. She knows that her pain is justified and has a raison d’etre. The pseudo-psychological crap pulled by Alexandra Asseily cannot fool someone like Maryam. I was surprised Maryam didn’t punch Alexandra when the latter started saying she should “learn to forgive herself”. To forgive what? Maryam is a victim, not an equally criminal participant of the war.
On a more personal level, I understood where Assaad came from. It was easier for me to ‘understand’ him than it was to understand Maryam. I was born in France and speak French as my native language. Growing up, I was raised Christian. My friends, families, neighbors and classmates were Christians. I never chose any of it, that’s just the way it was. I can still name people I know who, like Assaad’s parents, can’t seem to get over the fact that they’re not French and, like Assaad, seriously think that Phoenicians somehow turned into today’s Christians – which apparently means something. You can thank my religious upbringing for that. It wasn’t until I turned 16 that I really started to get to know Muslims on a more-than-first-name basis. You can thank my third school – the only secular one – and my current secular university (AUB) for that – and the fact that I’m now an Atheist.
That being said, I do not under any circumstances justify nor support such pathetic crypto-fascist beliefs that leave room for certain kinds of people only. Assaad’s ‘vision of Lebanon’ is wrong, and a threat to any civilized society worthy of the name. I wish to make that clear.
The hardest scene to watch is without a doubt the confrontation between Assaad and Maryam at a photo exhibition on the missing. Weirdly enough, Assaad seems to invite Maryam’s yelling as (perhaps) a way of cleansing himself of his culpability. During the war, he reported making a deal with a priest to receive absolution for the murder of 500 people, allowing him to murder a further 500 before their next session together.
Eliane Raheb teaches us a lesson – that is is better to face the truth than to ignore. Despite a few needless shots here and there, Sleepless Nights works as a smooth rendition of a truly troubled era of Lebanese history. Featuring in-depth coverage of little known facts and interviews with previously unknown men and women, Sleepless Nights ends up being a clear and devastating documentary that is a must-watch for every Lebanese citizen, student of Middle Eastern history and/or .