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

  • 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

-Ziad Dallal is a PhD candidate in the comparative literature department at NYU. In general terms, he seeks to bridge the intellectual histories of different parts of the world.

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: