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Trapped in the ’70s, Dreaming about the ’40s: What about Tomorrow?

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

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.

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