Some Thoughts on Remembering the Lebanese Civil War, Literature, and History

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  • The Civil War 

Fifteen years ravaged Lebanon under the unwitting clouds of a mindless civil war fueled by sectarian violence and geopolitical struggles which found their perfect battleground in the small patch of land on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean. From 1975 to 1990, “144,000 killed; 184,000 injured; 130,000 kidnapped; and at least 17,000 missing…175 towns were partially or completely destroyed” (Ghosen & Khoury 382). Fifteen years and it ended in a hasty reconciliatory settlement named after the Saudi city in which it was agreed upon: the Ta’if accord. The consequences, however, of the Ta’if accord would include an amnesty law forgiving all (war) crimes committed before its date; and consequently, all the war lords, with large powers and larger egos now in their grip—they did not “lose” the war after all— constituted the political spectrum after the war, controlling the tripartite division of power. All will be well, it was thought. In other words, all shall be forgotten. This aim to forget shall not be read in any way other than an attempt to erase debt in an economy of guilt. If Nietzsche taught us anything, it is precisely that the interplay between debt and guilt are preserved through a strict mnemonic strategy for remembering.

The attempt to wipe out the restricted economy of debt failed. Residues—waste matter—were discarded and only came to sting back in the inevitable recoil of a general economy that subsumes exactly that which we wish to exclude. The assassinations and killings have since come back sporadically, like spasms of a revisiting trauma; simultaneously, a waste-garbage problem grew in the city in the form of large mountains of garbage along its seacoasts; if the nation could be read psychoanalytically, then calling-cards would’ve been an apt description of this phenomenon. In all cases, something was owed; something was forgotten, or better yet, repressed. (Is this not also the excessive charge which returns with Nada Sehnaoui‘s 2008 installation: “Haven’t 15 Years of Hiding in the Toilets Been Enough?)

Nada Sahnaoui

However, while politicians favored the suppression of the civil war, a budding civil society including artists and writers were challenging the forceful impression of collective amnesia supported by the unchanging political landscape. Experimental media and writing have emerged to challenge the status quo and present the subject of the civil war in strategic ways so as recuperate and fill the gap in Lebanon’s recent history: “This body of experimental media provides a critical historiography of Lebanon’s recent past, particularly in regards to the country’s fifteen-year civil war” (Westmoreland 176). These new ways battle the general status quo of Lebanon’s history as a land based on erasure and reconstruction:

Beirut-based journalist Robert Fisk notes, the mythology of Lebanon’s history is premised on a recurrent destiny of destruction and revival. North of Beirut at Nahr al-Kelb (“Dog River”), “inscriptions, steles, cuniform reliefs and plaques” commemorate 2500 years of conquesting armies, from Nebuchadnezzar II to the British army in 1941 (53). The Lebanese spirit of rejuvenation that is quick to say “Beirut will rise again” fails to mention that by the same premise it will likely fall again, too. (Westmoreland 177)

This new trend of art readjusts the switchboard so as to disable an erasure and enable a re-memberance of the events of the civil war, a remembrance which disallows another famous dictum in Lebanon from happening: “history repeats itself.”

  • Architecture, Writing and Memory

“Both the novelist and the architect,” says Khoury in “The Memory of the City”, “sculpt the relationship between a space and its living memory” (142). This relationship is based on the Arabic literary tradition which etymologically links the word bayt—Arabic for house—with the verse of a poem. Accordingly, the rebuilding of the city is linked directly to writing. In other words, writing after the war in itself becomes a bildungsroman. However, the direction of architecture and that of the writer do not necessarily parallel each other, for as Khoury remarks, the reconstruction of Beirut involved an erasure of the past and a look to the future which forsake the present. Consequently, architecture effects a kind of cultural amnesia. On the other hand, writing emerges after the war as the only viable way of survival during as well as after the war. Therefore, even though there’s a relationship between architecture and writing in Arabic literary tradition, this relationship is an antagonistic one:

Where an architect works to establish differences, organize relationships, and define limits, a writer works to tear down these limits, to transcend definitions, to open spaces onto one another. As literature tries to carve doorways between the declared and the undeclared, architecture seeks to hang the doors which come between them. (Khoury, “The Memory” 139).

If architecture needs to destroy the ruins of the past in order to rebuild a future and/or a simulacrum of the past, writing, in a mythic sense, becomes the harbor for the memory of the past: “In this city systematically ravaged by civil war, the only space left for memory is literature” (Khoury, “The Memory” 139). In this distinction between architecture as the space for the future-to-be or the past-that-never-was and literature as the space for memory, Khoury is presenting his own critique of the reconstruction project of the post-war years: Given the polemics of reconstruction and deconstruction that the city’s architects and urban designers have introduced, Beirut may return, not as a city, but as a jail” (Khoury, “The Memory” 140). Architectural re-building becomes associated with a prison system to which writing stands in opposition. His argument is pivoted on this difference which subtly argues that the re-building of the city regenerates a myth which disregards the present and the recent past, namely the civil war and its remembrance. Faced with such an effacement of a traumatic period, the writer emerges as a survivor of and for memory. In other words, whereas architecture re-builds, literature re-members.  The very act of writing, however, should be done in a mythic discourse in order to allow the “civil war and its remembrance” to play a “role in the regenerated myth” (Khoury, “The Memory” 142).

  • Survival and Memory

In Politics of Friendship, Derrida posits: “Surviving – that is the other name of mourning whose possibility is never to be awaited. Nor does one survive without mourning” (Derrida 13). Perhaps, one can better understand this sentence if we refer to another book of Derrida, Demeure, in which he explains that “Death is not impossible but necessary, nor is death impossible and necessary, no, the impossible and the necessary are neither connected by an ‘and’ nor disconnected by a “but.” Death is, in a single stroke, the ‘impossible necessary’” (Derrida 47). Speaking on Blanchot, Derrida goes on to connect this impossible necessary death to Blanchot’s “unexperienced experience”. Connecting these two passages from Derrida, surviving, as living on after the possibility of death (and in its triggering of the possibility of mourning) becomes implicated in a temporal order which fuses past and future. Surviving, then, becomes exactly the living-on after the unexperienced experience in both cases: the survival of the experience of the unexperienced as well as the survival of the unexperienced in the experience. In other words, survival emerges as a co-lapsing of the immediate experienced past with the possibility of the unexperienced future: the co-lapsing of mourning with the possibility of your own death. As such, survival is distancing and keeping away from death while at the same time keeping it in sight. Freud writes on this relationship between survival and death in “Thoughts For Times On War and Death”:

“Man could no longer keep death at a distance, for he had tasted it in his pain about the dead; but he was nevertheless unwilling to acknowledge it, for he could not conceive of himself as dead. So he devised a compromise: he conceded the fact of his own death as well, but denied it the significance of annihilation…His persisting memory of the dead became the basis for assuming other forms of existence and gave him the conception of a life continuing after apparent death.” (Freud)

Through this Freudian intervention, we notice that death and its survival (or mourning) traverse both directions of the temporal arrow: the dead and the re-membering of the dead forces a future projection of one’s own survival after one’s inevitable unpexerienced experience of death. In Blanchotian terms, it can be said that this unexperienced experience occurs in the space between the living and the dead. The witnesses of the war, the fighters and the citizens don’t merely become post-war survivors, but wanderers between the living and the dead: undead people with broken subjectivities.

  • The Subjective Break and Fictional Histories

The subject is dialectically fluctuating between the symbolic that forces him to repress—not accept—and the Real—the events of History which the subject cannot grasp. However, the dialectical produces the subjective break that Deleuze and Guattari describe: “Like all other breaks, the subjective break is not at all an indication of a lack or need (manque), but on the contrary a share that falls to the subject as a part of the whole, income that comes its way as something left over…That is because breaks or interruptions are not the result of an analysis; rather, in and of themselves, they are syntheses. Syntheses produce divisions” (Deleuze and Guattari 44).  The syntheses of the dialectical relationship which constitute the subject, produces a disjointed subject, an inevitable multiplicity. Moreover, this multiplicity is indicative of a residue, of “something left over”; in other words, the unaccounted for waste of memory, history—the waste of the city. However, if “In this city systematically ravaged by civil war,” as Elias Khoury claims, “the only space left for memory is literature” (Khoury, “The Memory 139), then this literature is a schizophrenic one (in which syntheses are Deleuzian divisions) and traumatic (in which the memories are those of a Blanchotian unexperienced experience). A literature as a result of the dialectic between the Real and the Symbolic—History and the Law. The only way to historicize becomes through the writing of fiction. A history that is no longer straightly referential also requires a novel which is not straightforwardly referential—the historical novel becomes replaced by the traumatic novels such as Yalo. The only way to historicize and re-member is to do so immanently: in a time of lost referentiality, it is the return of the unexperienced, the repressed which indexes history, however fictional this representation of history may be.

Lebanese criminals order Dan Mcullun to leave or die when he saw the body of a young Palestinian Girl.

  • Sources:
  1. Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. 1st ed. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. Print.
  2. Derrida, Jacques, and Elizabeth Rottenberg. Demeure: Fiction and Testimony. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2000. Print.
  3. ————. The Politics of Friendship. 1st ed. London: Verso, 2005. Print.
  4. Freud, Sigmund, and James Strachey. The Standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud . 1st ed. 14. London: Hogarth Press, 1966. Print.
  5. Ghosn, Faten, and Amal Khoury. “Lebanon after the Civil War: Peace or the Illusion of Peace?” Middle East Journal. 65.3 (2011): 381-397. Print.
  6. Khoury, Elias. “The Memory of the City.” Grand Street. 54.Autumn (1995): 137-142. Web. 25 Dec. 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/25007930&gt;.
  7. Westmoreland, Mark. “Catastrophic Subjectivity: Representing Lebanon’s Undead.” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics. 30 (2010): 176-2010. Print.

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Kanz

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“Is not hospitality an interruption of the self?” Jacques Derrida, Adieu, p. 51.

ruben ireland sleep

April 5, 2009 – Beirut

The dreamy eyes had widened with ferocious excitement at the news of being accepted as a future student in the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. The family enjoyed a frenzy of jubilation. The daughter of a handicapped father and struggling mother had carved her way to one of the most prestigious universities in Europe.

“Derrida; Balibar; Foucault; Sartre; Bourdieu; Weil.” Kanz, the star daughter, screamed, her family around her in a wobbly circle, the unity of a promise fulfilled and a new promise being made bringing them together. Her mother cried; the news too strong for her to process with the same re-stricted attitude of her normal days.

“You’ll go there, you’ll be free. You be who you want to be and make us proud.”

There was no mention of what she wanted to major in. Nothing mattered except the departure with a promise; the commitment to a decision of being greater than her predecessors, of being as great as her potential allowed her to be.

April 11, 2011 – Beirut.

Kanz’s brother woke up and immediately called his sister in France. But no one answered. He woke his mother, who grudgingly told him to leave her alone. But he insisted that she should wake, so he bellowed.

“Mama! You have to wake up. It’s April 11! Mama. Kanz is in France and today is April 11.”

His mother’s eyes widened as if an ocular nerve had been pricked. Panicking, she got out of bed, at a loss and tried to call Kanz. But to no avail. No one answered.

“What do you want me to do now? Just worry? What do you want me to do?” she screamed at her young son who responded with a blank face and a shrug.

She turned on the television. There was no mention of anything happening in France, but a hysterical maternal hunch was laid heavy on her heart; Kanz is going to be in trouble. Kanz needs her. Kanz wants to be held tight.

April 11, 2011 – Paris

Dusk. Kanz, twenty-two, locked herself in the bathroom and sat in the water-full bathtub. She sat there, on her naked bottom, her feet close to her chest and hugging her knees with her thin white arms. The water submerged half her body, her breasts half floating atop the still water. This stillness permeated throughout the whole apartment. She made herself an enactment of a still-born foetus because she knew that the day would mark her as a stranger, born anew, demanding her, forcing her to obtain a new identity.

Three years ago, she had left Beirut with a baggage full of promises. The promise of a glorious and strong return.

She opened her legs and let her hair sink in the shallow depth of the bathtub. It started spreading, hair by hair, widening, opening up like a mushroom explosion under slow motion. She passed her fingers through it to see if it’s still strong, still thick, still solid enough to hide her if she needed it to do so.

The sun rose and the smell of bread emanated from the many bakeries surrounding her apartment. She gazed haplessly on the covers of the bed. The French sound of civilization slowly entered the room. The passing cars, the rapid French ranting, the high heels, the clatter of shopping carts, the music from street performers; and then the phone rang. She stared at the red light going on and off rapidly as the ringing echoed throughout the still room: another French sound which she did not want to respond to. She stared at the ceiling and imagined the course of her day: people staring at her, people thinking that she’s a criminal by birth, by indoctrination, by force, by root and stem. On the arm-chair next to the phone, she saw how the world outside finally found its way to the core of her private life.

The phone rang. Again, she did not answer.

The hour of departure had neared and she knew that she had to get dressed. Facing it will only make it go away, that monster of reality. She saw pictures which contained her now lost object of safety. A flux of memories rushed confusingly in her head, mixing with each other, all of them containing this object which she thought would be with her until the end.

The first days in university; the night-time walking and stares; the fear of losing it all. And fear made flesh. She lost her source of confidence.

April 5, 2009 – Beirut

After a lengthy time of celebration, cake eaten and pastries served, the father called his daughter from his room. He lay in bed like an old sage. Kanz sat on the tip of his bed, still smiling, and he looked at her, her big black eyes glaring at him.

“I’ve raised you the best way I could,” he began talking, his voice struggling to articulate his thoughts. “And I’ve never forced you to do anything.”

She nodded.

“And I do not want to start forcing you to do anything now. But I want you to know that if the time comes when you have to part with what you think constitutes you, you feel free to do it.”

She nodded.

“Open up and experience everything. Never hold back. The phoenix burns itself so that it’s born anew. And we should do the same. You’re going there to shine. And no doubt you’ll say a lot of goodbyes along the way, to people with lovely faces and strangers with curious gazes.”

She nodded again. He coughed.

“But the seasonal road ahead is only lit by our sight, and even though at some moments we might be blind, there’s always insight to find. The best thing I can tell you to do is to never look back. Be young and willing. Burn every bridge and don’t write back. Freedom is having nothing to lose. Don’t get attached to something that can be easily taken away from you.”

She got up and went outside.

Four months later, she packed her bags and travelled to Paris with everything to lose, the burden of a promise and the weight of a decision pushing her down to earth in a humility felt only by a slave in front of a master. But her father’s words echoed in the back of her head. Somehow, she felt safe.

And she could not, would not fail them.

April 11, 2011 – Paris

The phone rang for a third time, and this time she got up. Her dry body trotted heavily to the phone.

“Hello.”

“Hi Kanz. Are you alright?” Her mom breathed heavily.

“Yes. I’m alright. I haven’t went outside anymore.”

“How does it feel?”

“It feels like freedom.”

“Freedom?” a strong tone of confusion with a spice of betrayal marked her mother’s surprised question. “You feel free?”

“I have nothing to lose anymore.”

“What? Don’t say that. You still have everything to live for. Don’t forget what you want to do.”

“But. I can’t do it anymore.”

“It’s not the end of the world. You can do it. You can cope it.”

“I have no one here, not anymore. As of today I’m alone.” A pause, a silence fuelling an ominous feeling of suspension. “I have to go.”

“Just do what you have to do Kanz. Remain calm.”

“Ok. Bye.”

She hung up. Three years ago, it was an easy decision to go out, full of the confidence to be what she wanted to be. Now, the life outside made it impossible to do so. It has been explained to her as the price of independence.

And she looked at her burqa and found all the independence she wanted ghostly written on it.

It had been explained to her as the price of equality.

And she looked at her burqa and found all the equality she wanted emanating from it.

It had been explained to her as the price of freedom.

And she looked deep inside and knew that the freedom the world outside promised her is one that conditions her to be unaware of her origins. And she rejected freedom if it asked to be unaware of her origins, like being born from an egg thrown in the woods.

So she got up, wore the burqa and stepped out of the house. She walked down the street knowing that rapid French words are going to target her; that police whistles are going to sound at her sight. And she walked until that which was meant to happen occurred, the noose of French hospitality tightened on her neck, suffocating the spirit that had promised a family that she’ll do well; that she’ll do her best.

French words, and police whistles. Eyes glaring. She didn’t like the noose that she was hanging from. She went back to her apartment with a fine for wearing what she wanted to wear. She could not, would not accept the way she was accepted. She called her mother and told her that she’s coming back home.

Sergei Bizyaev defects