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I’d like to write this entry in a slightly less belligerent tone that usual. Not that I think it will offend anyone in particular, but because I should really practice calming down once in a while.
Lebanon will soon be remembering the 35th anniversary of the beginning of its disastrously famous civil war (April 13th), and an article I read today on NowLebanon inspired me to think over the issue a bit. NowLebanon is an independent news site that leans towards the March 14th end of the political spectrum, and so what it says has to be taken with a grain or two of salt, but nonetheless I found the article, which was about memorials and memory in Lebanon, fairly spot-on.
In general, Lebanon is not very gung-ho about remembering its Civil War – it’s a touchy subject. Unfortunately, the end of the War did not really coincide with any sort of meaningful change of relations or attitudes between the parties involved – it was more like an end to killing. While nice enough, the Taif Accord did not really change the political scenery enough to prevent another war in the future. Furthermore, it is the older generation – those who experienced the war – that is least interested in violence, but the newest generation has been raised in an environment in which it hasn’t really been public discussion. Their discussions have been mostly private, and (if they’re anything like mine were) highly partison, which simply hands down old prejudices instead of rethinking them. The current generation, then, remembers very little or nothing of the War and its effect on the country. This is very, very dangerous.
In the developing world, the million dollar question has long been simply, ‘how do we move forward?’ The reality is that everyone has different ideas of what sort of future they want for their country, and Lebanon – a pluralistic society to some extent – is no exception. A country that cannot agree on the legacy of its past is crippled in the present, and so the task of moving forward, of making life better for the people now and in the future, is shelved or dead in the water. It is therefore important, one way or another – through public or private initiatives – for the Lebanese to address their past.
Possibly the worst thing the country did when it began reconstruction after the Civil War was to hire an architect to design the downtown area (now Place de l’Etoile) who essentially recreated the French mandate in architecture. Rather than hiring the famous Bernard Khouri, who had grand plans for Beirut that aimed to create a city space ‘of the future,’ Solidere recreated Lebanon as people wanted to remember it before the War, looking towards a moment of past glory that is in no way in sync with the present reality. Now, I will be the last to say that Place de l’Etoile is not pretty – it is beautiful, in fact. But instead of creating an urban space to orient Lebanese towards the future, it merely traps them in grandiose memories of a lost past – the French mandate and the Maronite hegemony associated with – whose power inequalities are simply untenable today. It was the easy way out to construct this, because it essentially forgot the two decades of war. Personally, I’m glad some neighborhoods of the city are still gutted and flame-charred, because at least young passersby will look, shudder, and contemplate.
As the NowLebanon article notes, there is very little in the way of public art of memorials to form a coherent national history of the war, accessible to all Lebanese. The paucity of memorials is awful, but it should be acknowledged that memorials are almost impossible to agree upon, even when everyone is happy. Germany has had an awful time erecting monuments to the Holocaust, but there they are – and they are some of the best ones in the world. Without addressing its dark past, Germany could not move forward, and move forward it did. Lebanon, though not a mirror of Germany, will find its path ahead through this very lesson.
Why am I writing about this? Well (and here I’m going to mention that I am Lebanese-American again), it touches me pretty directly. On the other hand, Lebanon is often called the microcosm of the Middle East, and the lessons learned there might be applicable to its regional neighbors like Egypt and Iraq. So if I’m talking about a ‘lesson,’ it’s more or less something everyone already knows: there can be no future if you are stuck in the past. So please, let’s do ourselves a favor and get out of the past.
In the latest step in the on-going conflict over memory-rights and the Holy Land, Benjamin Netanyahu decided today to include two shrines located in the West Bank – among them the Cave of the Patriarchs – in the list of Israeli national heritage sites. For those of you unfamiliar, the Cave of the Patriarchs is considered holy by the whole Abrahamic tradition and is thought to be the resting place of Abraham and a few others of Biblical note. The stories can be read here, here and here. As is its wont, the New York Times ran a story that you had to know existed to read.
It is easy to appreciate the significance of this move given the rhetoric and the people cheering for it, namely, that ‘…Our existence depends not only on the IDF or our economic resilience – it is anchored in…the national sentiment that we will bestow upon the coming generations and in our ability to justify our connection to the land,” to take that wholesale from Ha-Aretz. This is not new, but it is reflective of past policies of landscape and memory claiming that have taken place in Israel and the West Bank more specifically.
We know that historical memory is a touchy subject, but it’s especially touchy in this case because it maintains the tradition of mingling national identity with religion. While it is unclear what real effects will be felt now that they are on a register of Israeli historical sites, it is obvious that the Palestinian reaction has not been welcoming, again pointing to discrimination and an effort to wipe them off the historical map. That the government would budget 500,000 shekels for the ‘renovation’ of these sites struck me as particularly ominous.
If we want peace – two-state solution, one-state solution, whatever – it cannot be achieved by claiming sites of historical memory. It just can’t. If there is to be some modicum of peace between Palestinians and Israelis, it has to be on the basis of shared heritage, not cultural domination. Mark Regev commented that ‘the list was not meant to set borders,’ but it has already violated some of the most important borders, all of this even if we discount settlement activity and the fact that Hebron is smack in the middle of the West Bank. Israeli conservatives (and the Israeli government) should consider that strengthening the Israeli national narrative comes, sometimes, at the cost of prospects for peace with those troublesome Palestinians, who have their own legitimate historical connection to the land.
Look, I do not know what will actually come of this aside from the emotional responses (which are powerful enough on their own), but I cannot help but think of how beautiful this sight could be in the future: Muslims, Christians and Jews worshiping their shared forefathers. Instead, it has been a battleground for the soul of the Holy Land, and looks like it will continue to be so, at least in the near future.
This morning I stumbled upon an old edition of The Economist – which I do not typically read – from July, treating on an topic that is occasionally forgotten: Arab nationalism. The article was entitled “The Arab World Wakes,” and went on to treat the Arab world as if it were a functioning whole of sorts, with shared problems, shared achievements, and a shared future.
For those of us who have spent time in the Middle East, are about to, or have some other backhand form of experience with the region, suffice it to say that the idea of Arab unity has been something of a disappointment – look at the history of secular and semi-secular Arab nationalism if you are eager for information. Arabs are the first to admit that there have been complications on the path to decolonization, like Israel, but when measured against the historic dream of a unified political entity embracing all Arabs has proven unrealistic with the departure of the British and the French and the establishment of disparate centers of power.
But is that true? As an Arab-American, I am inclined to be skeptical of the rhetoric of which my father (who is Lebanese) is so very fond, and to focus on what divides the Arab nation today – political boundaries, economic might, patron-states, religious identity – the important stuff. The sad fact that a politically unified Arab state is so unlikely in the offing has made me conflate statehood with collective identity more than is healthy, especially given my academic focus in the discipline of political geography.
After I read that article, I noticed that celebrations had begun in Doha, which has just been crowned Capital of Arab Culture for 2010. For those of you who are not familiar, this is an annual endeavor begun in 1996 with Cairo that sought to give a formal edge to Arab cultural identity and unite the Arab peoples beyond their borders – in addition to non-Westerners – in appreciating the contributions that Arabs have made to world civilization. The opening operetta of the ceremony was entitled “بيت الحكمة” or “The House of Knowledge,” after the legendary library of Baghdad that produced so many vital translations for Arab and, eventually, European scientists of the Middle Ages. A clip (in Arabic, sorry) from Al-Jazeera is available here.
Watching the performers dance about I was moved to appreciate what I should have already known, which is that political power is not the same as collective identity or nationalism; what the Arabs as a people have done in Doha is create a program to remind the world of this. As much as we may believe that Lebanese, Egyptians, Syrians and Emiratis do not get along politically, they are bound by something much more significant than mere politics, which is the belief that their ties are something that matter. That is why Gulf states invest so heavily in Arab business across the region, that is why they have funded the rebuilding of towns across Southern Lebanon, and that is why the people continue to express what my father has told me since childhood – that all Arabs are brothers.
So when you read this article, try not to be too skeptical. Arab nationalism is not dead – it’s simply dormant.