x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Forget about it

As Lebanon lurches from crisis to crisis, amnesia is the only constant.

Down the tubes: Nada Sehnaoui's installation commemorating the anniversary of Lebanon's civil war came to an end a week before fighting in the streets of Beirut resumed anew.
Down the tubes: Nada Sehnaoui's installation commemorating the anniversary of Lebanon's civil war came to an end a week before fighting in the streets of Beirut resumed anew.

Given the tumultuous twists and turns of its history and the multi-confessional make-up of its population, Lebanon observes an extensive list of national and religious holidays. April 13 - the day in 1975 when Phalangist militiamen ambushed a bus in Ain al-Rummaneh, killing more than 20 Palestinian passengers and sparking 15 years of civil war - is not among them. But the date is unofficially commemorated, year after year, by an assortment of organisations and cultural groups who consider remembrance essential to the process of reconciliation that has eluded Lebanon for decades.

This year, various groups marked the passing of 33 years since the start of the civil war with activities ranging from festive to sombre. The cultural centre Umam Documentation and Research launched a year-long-project seeking justice and accountability for crimes committed during the conflict with an exhibition of posters bearing photographs of some 500 people who disappeared during the war (a fraction of the total, as estimates range from 7,000 to 17,000 missing). Nada Sehnaoui, an artist who stages public art projects about the war with admirable regularity, orchestrated two weeks' worth of performances, screenings and discussions to accompany an installation of toilets arranged in a neat grid beneath the Starco Center in Downtown Beirut. Next door, in a temporary art space managed by the real-estate giant Solidere, Zeina Maasri mounted an exhibition titled Signs of Conflict, exploring the ways in which the production of political posters from 1975 until 1990 translated the violence of the war years into a visual language of codes and symbols.

But at the start of May, as these memorials to Lebanon's violent past wound down, the country's violent present emerged. On May 6, the cabinet of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora passed a pair of decisions to dismantle Hizbollah's private communications system and airport surveillance network. A political party and highly disciplined militia in one, Hizbollah responded by blocking roads, forcing the city's airport and seaport to close. Adolescents with machine guns and ski masks stalked such cosmopolitan districts as Hamra and Verdun and ransacked the media outlets of Saad Hariri's Future Movement. Future's own security detail-turned-ragtag militia put up a sorry fight and suffered a swift, shameful defeat. The violence that erupted on the streets of the capital spilt into northern cities and mountain enclaves southeast of Beirut. By the time a week had passed, 67 people were dead.

To those observing the country's latest crisis from a distance, Lebanon may look like a primordial soup of ancient hatreds, a place where resentments hold steadfast over time, where everyone is obsessed with a history of persistent strife and where no one can let go of the wrongs suffered in the past. But on the ground, it would be more accurate to say that Lebanon suffers from chronic amnesia; it is a place where every new crisis erases the one that came before, and where every new attempt at resolution, dialogue, national unity, whatever is predicated on wilful short and long-term memory loss.

Lebanon's political leaders treat the country like an Etch-a-Sketch: give it a good shake and they've got a clean slate on which to scribble meaningless lines anew and the same old knobs to tweak again. Ever since the civil war ended in a precarious truce, forgetting the past has been elevated to the level of national policy. There is no memorial or monument to the civil war, no official list of those who were killed or went missing during the conflict. For ordinary families of the dead, there have been no reparations, no investigations and no commissions on truth or reconciliation. History textbooks taught in schools across the country stop at independence in 1943. When it comes to learning about Lebanon, the curriculum for children today is unchanged since the time of their parents and even their grandparents.

Some analysts have argued that a measure of amnesia is required for the Lebanese to endure their own leaders. In the summer of 1991, the government signed into law a general amnesty for all crimes committed during the civil war. Warlords, thieves and profiteers were recycled back into the political system, where they were given ministerial portfolios rather than jail time. Many of them remain among the ranks of Lebanon's ruling class today.

A combination of exhaustion and expedience has caused the Lebanese to invert the usual dictum that one should "forgive, but never forget"; in Lebanon, where every conflict must have "no victor, no vanquished", people forget without forgiving. The grudges that appear to divide Lebanese society starkly between, say, Muslim and Christian or Sunni and Shia are in fact shifting and muddy, complicated and contradictory.

Lebanon isn't split by archaic animosities. It is joined by the common experience of psychic whiplash, where residents suffer traumatic ruptures to their routine, return to "normal" and repeat, without ever having the time to reflect on what happened, or to consider the causes and consequences of a conflict that is perhaps serial rather than singular. Chronic amnesia was supposed to make Lebanon move forward, but it has paralysed the country instead. The number of disasters that have piled up over the past few years is alarming. What happened after the assassinations of Rafik Hariri, Samir Kassir, George Hawi, Gebran Tueni and many others? After the 2006 war with Israel? After the resignation of cabinet ministers allied with Hizbollah? After the opposition set up a tent city in Downtown Beirut that lasted for a year and a half? After Black Tuesday, when kids clashed with rocks and guns outside a university in Tariq al Jedideh? After the fighting between the Lebanese Army and Fateh al Islam? After additional rounds of targeted assassinations and random explosions and sporadic street skirmishes and strike actions and 19 failed attempts to elect a president? Each event effaces the one that came before. Nothing resembling real resolution is achieved. In the process, crucial issues - many related to socioeconomic class rather than sect - drop out of the political discourse. (Who is talking about the reconstruction of Beirut's southern suburbs or the Nahr al Bared camp now?) Otherwise, the only movement is Lebanon's brain drain, which is steadily emptying the country of talent and promise.

After each violent episode, the country's political leaders call for dialogue, forgetting that the last round of talks went nowhere. Then they plunge into the same minutiae - the electoral law, the composition of the cabinet - for the sake of divvying up future political power along sectarian lines, forgetting that the one clause of the Taif Agreement that has yet to be implemented calls for the abolition of political sectarianism and the creation of a special council to steer the country toward the start of a sane, secular and sustainable third republic. Time after time, they reproduce and recycle the same sectarian system that fails to safeguard, much less advance, Lebanon's citizenry.

Amnesia isn't a tool for progress. It's a bromide for the status quo. Not coincidentally, what quieted the conflict that began in Beirut on May 7 was a consensual pledge to return to the state of affairs that prevailed before the cabinet decisions on May 6. The abolition of political sectarianism wasn't on the agenda of the crisis talks in Doha, nor was civil marriage, an education system in shambles or an economy in free fall. Some hard work on those subjects might give the next generation a reason to invest in Lebanon's future. For now, though, the country's young and disillusioned have learnt nothing from the past, and are living the present in a manner that is dangerously compulsive and gallingly repetitious.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports from Beirut for The National.