The Ghosts of Lebanon’s Present

Claudia (Julia Kassar) reaching out to the ghost of her missing husband in Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s A Perfect Day (2005)

This is an excerpt of the book chapter I wrote as part of the book “The Social Life of Memory: Violence, Trauma, and Testimony in Lebanon and Morocco” edited by Norman Saadi Nikro and Sonja Hegasy and published in November 2017.

It’s available on (if you have university access) and you can buy it here.

Abstract for book chapter “The Civil War’s Ghosts: Events of Memory Seen Through Lebanese Cinema”

9783319666211Contributing to the existing literature on memory studies, this chapter approaches the topic of “the disappeared” in Lebanese cinema. Ayoub focuses on the films Sleepless Nights (Raheb in Sleepless Nights. Itar Productions, Lebanon, 2012), Here Comes The Rain (Hojeij in Here Comes the Rain. Online Films-Beirut, Lebanon, 2010), and A Perfect Day (Hadjithomas and Joreige in A Perfect Day. Mille et une Productions, Lebanon, 2005b). These three films thematically circle around the still pressing issue of the civil war’s “ghosts”—some 17,000 missing people still unaccounted for. Discussing memory as an intergenerational dynamic, Ayoub observes how Lebanese cinema has played a major role in fashioning memory of the civil war as a thematic concern. In doing so he demonstrates how these three films can help us understand the ways in which memory, trauma, and amnesia are portrayed and managed in Lebanon.

The section below is the first one after the introduction, before the other sections “Sleepless Nights: Confessing Without the Confession” and “The Perfect Day Will Never Come: Restlessness in a Perfect Day and Here Comes the Rain” and the conclusion.

The Ghosts of Lebanon’s Present

According to Lina Khatib (2008), cinema contributes to “imaginings sustaining the nation.” In the case of Lebanon however, a country which cannot be said to have a definition of “nation” to begin with, where “the nation” often appears “smaller than the sect” (Mackey 2006), a “country whose vulnerability to outside powers […] and internal divisiveness make it impossible to assert a unified narrative of the nation’s history or to confidently draw causal connections between historical events” (Marks 2015), cinema played the additional role of “commentator on the development of sectarian conflict in Lebanon; on the normalization of war; on the reconstruction of Lebanon in the post-war period; and on the way the war still lurks in every corner in today’s Lebanon” (Khatib 2008). Laura Marks (2015) noted that the lack of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (such as the one in post-Apartheid South Africa) following the war normalized “the divergence (in Deleuzian terms, incompossibility) of accounts of the war,” leading to the development of what Craig Larkin (2010a) called “inherited sectarian historiography.” This was all the more exacerbated by the privileged access to foreign powers that Lebanon provides, a legacy of its status as a “Merchant Republic” (Khalaf 2012), to the extent that the very question of whether countries such as France, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia can be considered fully “foreign” is a very valid one. Indeed, “Lebanon has always been a battleground for someone. And each conqueror has deposited something of itself with a segment of the population, creating a people fragmented into groups possessing no common identity with the whole” (Mackey 2006).

Given that the different dominant accounts of the war all depend on violence—both structural in the form of clientelism and direct in the form of regular outbursts of armed conflicts and political assassinations—to maintain their narratives, the presence of mass graves throughout Beirut and beyond can be said to represent a permanent “threat” to the dominant regimes of truth—one can say that from a clientelist perspective, mass graves are “bad for business.” They are like open secrets that everyone knows about and yet agree not to talk about. And given that, as Foucault (1977) noted, “truth isn’t outside power, or deprived of power,” but quite the opposite, it can be concluded that the conflicting powers in Lebanon attempting to monopolize truth have created an environment in which “truth” cannot be determined by any recognizable social tool. The reason for it is that, with the wider fear of renewed war in the general population being quelled by those responsible for the mass graves, the agents of war become the de facto agents of peace. This puts Lebanon in a sort of Catch 22 situation: “the very enabling forces which are supposed to offer the ordinary Lebanese social support, coherence and autonomy are also the forces which disable him, undermined his civility and sense of well-being” (Khalaf 2012). The civilian population is left with no choice but to navigate through the resulting restlessness with no end in sight. Within this context, the various components that Lebanese cinema engaged with as commentator—sectarian conflict, normalization of war, the “reconstruction” period and the war’s haunting—are all inexorably linked.

Another aspect of memory that is pertinent to our case is the idea that the war, and violence in Lebanon in general, is not “our” problem but rather something that “we” are a victim of. Indeed, a relatively common occurrence in Lebanese cinema, itself reflecting several tendencies present in Lebanese society, is to see: the self-exonerating attitude of the Lebanese state and the sectarian parties that dominate Lebanese political life; the persuading perception that regional powers turned the civil war into a proxy war beyond Lebanon’s control; and the need to move on and rebuild the country. Consequently, Lebanese cinema, in its role as commentator, inevitably also became part of this active need to forget the past. In other words, “memory is an act of forgetting as well as remembering, and Lebanese cinema has engaged in a process of forgetting. Forgetting is articulated on several dimensions. Forgetting is constructed in political terms” (Khatib 2008).

To illustrate this dimension of forgetting, it is useful to note the staggering absence of Palestinians and Israelis in Lebanese cinema: “It is remarkable that the prominent roles played by Israel and the Palestinians in the history of conflict in Lebanon are largely marginalized in Lebanese cinema. Very few films have references to Palestinians, and even then the references are extremely marginal” (Khatib 2008). The reason why Israelis and Palestinians are largely forgotten in Lebanese cinema can be partially explained by the fact that neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians had any role to play in the “reconstruction” of Lebanon. Palestinians lost their political power in Lebanon with the expulsion of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1982 and, by the 1980s and especially the 1990s, Israel ended up largely being viewed by the Lebanese population as an occupying power until the liberation of South Lebanon in the year 2000; it remains an enemy of the state to this day. Lebanese cinema likely saw no real place for Israelis or Palestinians in its retelling/re-invention of the “nation’s” story. Most Palestinians in Lebanon remain in refugee camps and are socially excluded from everyday “Lebanese” life (Hanafi et al. 2012). As for Israelis, it is illegal for them to enter Lebanese territory and anyone, regardless of nationality, with an Israeli stamp on their passport is prevented entry and may be subject to arrest or detention.

With the absence of Israelis and the invisibility of Palestinians, “remembering” them served no purpose, so to speak. Memory can therefore be turned into a tool to be utilized when necessary. The past becomes at the service of the present. We are affected by the past, but we also wish to project our present desires on it. We forget because we want to forget. Reflecting on this tendency, Sune Haugbolle notes that: “Lebanese civil society itself has shown structural resistance to public memory, even if certain components have been more willing than others to look at the past. Thus for a long time, legal, political, and socio-psychological factors combined to create a situation where the memory was at the same time taboo and predicament; while the results of the war were evidently influencing politics and society, the memory of it was not publicly debated. In many ways this situation lingers on despite new openings” (2010, p. 193).

In addition, the relationships between the different forms of memory are notable when one looks at how the post-war generation, or the “hinge generation,” remembers the war. Marianne Hirsh famously coined the term “postmemory” to describe the transmission of memory from one generation to another. While she studied the Holocaust, how it is remembered and how, especially, survivors’ descendants “remember” it through their parents and older relatives, her analysis is applicable to the case of Lebanon as a “body politic” heavily influenced by its traumatic past and subsequent present manifestations (Hirsch 2012 ). Eva Hoffman wrote of a “guardianship” of memory which Holocaust survivors “passed on” to their descendants. This “living connection” meant that “the second generation is the hinge generation in which received, transferred knowledge of events is transmuted into history, or into myth” (Hoffman 2004). In all three films, and particularly in A Perfect Day , we see the hinge generation as one whose inherited restlessness can even surpass that of the parent generation. Furthermore, a useful concept to use is that of liminality, the quality of ambiguity or disorientation, that of being “in between” two worlds—a trait applicable to the Lebanese case, particularly as it pertains to the act of remembering or, in Susannah Radstone’s (2000) words, “the liminal space occupied by memory work lies between identity and its transformation or ‘re-membering.’”

To borrow Hoffman’s description of her generation, born in post-second world war Poland, the generation I belong to, the hinge generation which grew up in post-civil war Lebanon, was also defined by it: “In the beginning was the war. That was my childhood theory of origins, akin perhaps to certain childhood theories of sexuality. For me, the world as I knew it and the people in it emerged not from the womb, but from war. The theory was perhaps understandable, for I was born in Lebanon, in 1991, that is, on the site of the Civil War’s greatest ravages; and so soon after the cataclysm as to conflate it with the causes of my own birth” (Hoffman 2004). With the defeat of the Nazis however, there was no possibility of competing inherited historiographies. The Nazis could not become de facto agents of peace. But in Lebanon, the warlords-turned-agents of peace prevented the emergence of a unified narrative that would have at least allowed the post-war generation to start from “somewhere.” In Lebanon, with the war producing “no victor, no vanquished,” as Lebanon’s 20th Prime Minister Saeb Salam famously declared, the country became a free-for-all arena of competing narratives (Krayem, n.d.). Consequently, and perhaps paradoxically, it is the structural resilience to public memory that came to define the following two decades of Lebanese life.

This structural resilience is something I have experienced myself growing up in post-civil war Lebanon. It was strictly forbidden to “talk politics” at home, to the extent that the word “politics” or, even worse, the word “political” were infused with negative connotations. Neither I nor my sister had heard of the warlords that have, depending on who one speaks to, terrorized or inspired whole segments of the Lebanese population for the fifteen years prior to our births. It was only with the advent of the 2005 Cedar Revolution that our classmates at the school we went to suddenly started talking about the war. In that same year, we witnessed the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the return of Michel Aoun from exile in France and the pardon and release of Samir Geagea from prison. I progressively learned who those figures were, before more names entered my consciousness between 2005 and 2006: Hassan Nasrallah, Walid Jumblatt, the Gemayels, Nabih Berri and so on. But some names appeared in my life more than others. Later in life, when my group of friends became more diversified, I found out that other Lebanese inherited different sectarian historiographies than mine, and that even self-described seculars would have a tendency of identifying with a sect, if only to denote one’s origins. It soon became clear that the order in which one would learn about those figures, the general feeling towards a politician and one’s general political outlook with regards to national or regional matters highly depended on the specific surroundings one grew up in. Depending on whom I talked to, my account of the present and the past could either be similar or radically different to someone else.

Furthermore, when Kamal Abouchedid and Ramzi Nassar surveyed seven major confessional schools in Lebanon, they concluded that “the manner in which historical events are interpreted and described in history textbooks might deepen existing divisions among Lebanese” (Abouchedid and Nassar 2000). They also noted how textbooks “avoided discussions on sensitive topics on which confessional communities might disagree in their interpretation” (Abouchedid and Nassar 2000). Finally, they added that “the Ministry of Education denied students the opportunity to learn about the post-Second World War years by removing chapters encompassing such important events as the formation of political parties, the administrative reforms, and the 1958 civil war. For the remainder of the official textbooks, students learn nothing about the Israeli/Arab conflict and the problems to be address” (Abouchedid and Nassar 2000). Needless to say, the event with the most relevant ongoing impact on modern Lebanese identity, the 1975–1990 civil war, is also omitted.

With the combined de-politicization of society at home and the abolition of history in school, our hinge generation grew up with an inherited prism exclusively through which we could understand our surrounding world. “State-sponsored amnesia” could therefore be seen as part of a wider phenomenon that did not merely rely on state incentives. Indeed, and in many ways, “state,” “society” and “the family” could be said to be conspiring together, or trying to, to force an escapist worldview on reality. Edward Said (1999) reflected on that when he said in 1986 that the Lebanese population “must have secretly connived, one feels, with the leaders who have kept the war going. Otherwise, how could it have continued for such a long time?” Ghassan Hage (2012) noted that “if there is something that characterizes popular forms of Lebanese sociality in post-war Lebanon, it is the remarkable way that they have immunized themselves from the conflict” as though Lebanese society somehow collectively agreed to pretend.

This is what Craig Larkin found in his “Remaking Beirut: Contesting Memory, Space, and the Urban Imaginary of Lebanese Youth.” When he sat down with Rola, a 22-year-old Lebanese university student in a cafe in Beirut’s Hamra district in March of 2006, she told him:

Memory of the war: I don’t know if I can even talk about it. I mean, if there is something in society that helps you to think about it—but everything encourages us to escape. Nothing encourages you to deal with it, to face it, nothing! They don’t even talk about it anymore and even if they do it’s from different perspectives: a theory and idea—not specific facts. I mean, it’s very dangerous to awaken something that is not yet ready to be awakened … It’s not easy to remember, and it’s such a blessing to forget sometimes. But if you want to remember and you want to deal with it—and I hope each one of us will want to face something, and when he is ready, then it will help. (Larkin 2010b )

This lack of a “something” in society that can be of use to those wishing to remember is an expression of what is called “the amnesia game” in Ghassan Salhab’s Phantom Beirut, released in 1998. In Phantom Beirut , Hannah is sitting with Khalil on the beach and they’re both looking at the remnants of a train track that “used to go all the way to Egypt and Palestine.” Hanna, reflecting on the significance of that train track—a gateway to Lebanon’s past, back when the Lebanese could actually travel to Egypt and Palestine on land, prior to Israel’s establishment in 1948—declares: “Soon we will all play the amnesia game. To pretend that we are not responsible for anything” (Salhab 1998). The urge to forget the past is, therefore, very strong. And as we will see below, each of the three films provides an insight into how memory is a lived experience that is experienced actively rather than passively. All three films emphasize the inability of many to simply “move on” despite the world around them urging them to do so as well as showing the different lived experiences between two generations of Lebanese—the generation that grew up during the war, and therefore remembers it, and the generation that grew up after the war and had to “remember” through the previous generation.

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