Amid the threatening talk in the past month or so of a return to civil war if the opposition continues demanding a Syrian withdrawal, it is remarkable that there has seemed so little patience in Lebanese national culture during the past 15 years to investigate that war. It was particularly ironic that the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, an event harking back to the war years, targeted the very man who more than any other defended this amnesia in order to satisfy the national passion to pursuit of profit.
If one were to catalogue the cultural works on Lebanon’s war, the results would be anemic. By and large, scholars, artists, filmmakers, playwrights and novelists have mostly been asleep. And when they have not, one must navigate through a mediocre wasteland indeed to reach an occasional oasis; for example the novel White Faces by Elias Khoury, Little Wars by the late filmmaker Maroun Baghdadi, Failure by the playwright Ziad Rahbani, Roger Assaf’s theater production of Elias Khoury’s The Memoirs of Job, or the flawed but daring West Beirut by emigrant filmmaker Ziad Doueiri. Why is that? Why is the single most overpowering event in modern Lebanese history so rarely grist for the country’s mills of imagination? Trauma is hardly a sufficient explanation: wars, no matter how devastating, have long produced reams of texts, films, novels, plays, documentaries and other cultural artifacts, on the implicit understanding that such manifestations represent part of the “getting over” process; or, at least, an effort to learn from a conflict’s lessons. Invariably, the therapeutic or educational are invoked, but also a sense that big events must naturally produce great works.
In Lebanon, at the end of the war precisely the opposite justification was offered up, and underlining it once Hariri came to power was a hefty dose of capitalist pragmatism. In effect a swap was effected, where the need to secure profits was regarded as incompatible with raking up memories of the war years, since that threatened to undermine confidence. However, in that context, the former prime minister’s death has put an end to the bizarre zero sum game between confidence and wartime memory.
In February, CNN aired a report on Lebanon’s basketball league, in which it highlighted the fact that the sport was a repository for wartime divisions. The argument was surely overstated, ignoring, for example, the fact that there is virtually no animosity between players of different religions or political persuasions. However, as any follower of the sport will admit, there are often disheartening examples of confessional behavior among spectators. But odder still is the average age of those behaving this way: by and large most were children during the war years. If culture has little room for wartime memory, Lebanese sport apparently has a lot.
Hariri’s death has changed that.
How so? Lebanon’s economic appeal was always based on its ability to allow an open economy, a direct result of the country’s democracy, itself a product of the sectarian system. As Michel Chiha, a leading ideologue of independent Lebanon, wrote: “Countries [like Lebanon] that don’t have natural wealth must be given economic freedom as their wealth …” He grounded his reasoning in a subtle understanding that a country of different confessional minorities could not, logically, be one where an all-powerful state could limit freedoms, whether political or economic. In effect, sectarianism helped make Lebanon’s capitalist culture inevitable, and in avoiding talking about the war, Hariri showed that he understood this intimately.
However, with Hariri dead, and Lebanon in the midst of a divisive debate on its own future, the role of the war in national culture has morphed. In the face of a government that has repeated the mantra that war might be inevitable if the opposition raises its demands on Syria, a large number of Lebanese have vindicated Hariri posthumously by publicly expressing their disdain for such reasoning. In a way, then, they have declared their war truly over, and the multi-confessional turnout at Hariri’s funeral confirmed this. That’s perfectly acceptable, even admirable, but it raises two observations: with respect to cultural manifestations, there will be even less public tolerance in the future for possibly divisive references to the war, which means that that great gold mine of inspiration will remain largely untapped; and this dearth will no longer be exchanged as easily, as it had been, for economic confidence, largely because the man who symbolized that tradeoff now lies dead, his promise of better times far less convincing in the hands of his successors. With culture having lost a past to feed off of, and the economy having temporarily lost a future, Lebanon finds itself at an ambiguous crossroads, devoid of both memory and desire. And yet for some reason, for the first time in a long time, that loss actually seems to spell hope for change.