artists confront legacy of civil war by Samar Farah
entire Lebanese civil war, which lasted more than 15 years, novelist
Hasan Daoud hunkered down with his family in West Beirut. On calm
days, he wandered the streets and took in his city's destruction
one cafe at a time, one balcony at a time, stone by stone.
Now, he says when he walks the central district, once a no-man's
land between East and West Beirut, "I see two things, past
and present" - except much of the past exists only in his memory.
That's because a frenzied plan to rebuild has re-envisioned the
"centreville" as a bubble of chic shops and trendy restaurants,
an unscathed jewel box of 1930s and '40s architecture. "There's
been an attempt to produce an artificial memory that was not burdened
by the war years ... a history-free space," says Ralph Bodenstein,
a research fellow at the German Orient Institute in Beirut.
But many artists, like Mr. Daoud, criticize the new downtown as
a cover for the country's war wounds. Through installations, websites,
and publications, they are trying to confront the past. One of the
latest projects is Transit Beirut, a collection of literature and
drawings - including four short stories by Daoud - released this
"I need to talk about [the war], to know more things about
it," says Reine Mahfouz, a photographer. But "it's not
very easy. Some people say we should never talk about it."
The Taif Accord, which ended the civil war in 1990, issued amnesty
for most war crimes - and permitted many warlords to continue in
top government spots. As a result, the country has had no war-crimes
tribunals or truth commissions. That's left many feeling that the
war ended with no real conclusion. "There's a general amnesty
which complies with a general amnesia," Mr. Bodenstein says.
But others attribute Lebanese reticence to more than just politics.
In the United States, sites of collective memory have become common
urban accessories, drawing criticism as therapy's equivalent of
shopping malls. If the belief that trauma requires an open healing
process is a pillar of popular psychology in the West, it has yet
to find wide acceptance here.
"You don't have this idea that if you had a very hard experience
you have to talk about it ... it's not a must," says Ms. Mahfouz.
Compounding this, says Daoud, is a Lebanese disregard for history.
He points out that Lebanese poets and writers can hope for no more
than two generations of fame. By contrast, "Go to Cairo and
read the name of a street there, and it's the name of an Egyptian
writer living hundreds of years ago."
The feeling of a cosmopolitan city in a conservative Middle East
is part of Beirut's charm and helps draw foreigners to its exuberant
nightlife. But these days, the city hums with a "nervous energy,"
says Roseanne Saad Khalaf, Transit Beirut's coeditor and a creative-writing
teacher at the American University of Beirut. "People are frantically
trying to make up for lost time."
Contributors to Transit Beirut and others say this nervous energy
belies persisting tensions. The divisions between Christians and
Muslims, Palestinians and Lebanese, are still pronounced, they explain,
pointing out that some cab drivers still refuse to cross between
the city's Christian East and Muslim West - and that every new mosque
must be matched by a new church.
"It's a very unusual postwar. The random violence has stopped,
but the hostility is still there," says Samir Khalaf, the coeditor's
husband and a prominent Lebanese sociologist.
Proponents say open dialogue about the war is crucial to prevent
future conflict. What the country needs to move forward, Mr. Khalaf
says, are venues where different voices can be heard and new ideas
about what it means to be Lebanese can take shape outside of creed.
Mahfouz grew up during the war in East Beirut, where Palestinian
refugees were faulted for hostilities. When the war ended, she risked
offending family and ventured into the camps with her camera. Her
pictures capture mundane scenes - a kitchen sink, sun-dappled pots
- and transform places with militant associations into ordinary
Last year, Nada Sehnaoui, who is known locally for her paintings
and art installations about the war, solicited memories of prewar
Beirut. Her exhibit downtown featured recollections typed and pasted
onto stacks of newspapers.
"I think we need everybody's narrative," she says. "We
all together at the end of the day destroyed the country and we
killed 150,000 and wounded 300,000.... Who started it, why, when
- it becomes secondary.
Copyright 2004. The Christian Science Monitor 7/26/2004
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