Hopes linger to teach a unified version of divisive history

Opinion and not fact is a primary source for Lebanon's pupils.

History teacher Roger Barakeh is teaching at Saint Coeurs Sioufi school. Although some subjects are difficult to treat in Lebanon, Roger is trying as best he can to make a change. This day he was lecturing on the holocaust and nazi germany to a class of "terminale" final year of high school in the french schooling system. It is necesary curriculum for the french exam.  In another class he is teaching about history of economics thoughts for younger students.
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BEIRUT // In Lebanon, school history books stop at the year 1946, when the country gained its independence. One way students learn about their country's history is from politically opinionated teachers, which perpetuates a divisive cycle across sectarian lines. "It all depends on who your history teacher is," said Gilbert Doumit, an activist pushing for election reforms and civics education in Lebanon.

"Students in Christian areas learn that the Syrians instigated the Lebanese civil war. Or the Palestinians. But if you're Shiite, you learn it was Israel or America, or some global Zionist conspiracy that manipulated America." For over a decade, since the end of the 15-year civil war in 1990, there have been numerous attempts at reforming the history curriculum in Lebanon. The aim is to teach all Lebanese students a unified version of the events that unfolded in their country, but so far nothing has come to fruition.

Now, with upcoming elections in June, and the inevitable exit of the Lebanese education minister, Bahia Hariri, some believe this change might finally happen. "Reforming the history curriculum is very politically charged, and none of the parties could agree on what to say in the history book after independence," said Mr Gilbert. "But Hariri has been pushing for it, and because she's leaving in June, she's not so much beholden to political pressure. So it really might happen."

But Dr Leila Fayad, president of the Educational Center for Research and Development under the ministry of education, said there would not be a new curriculum next year. "The subject of the history curriculum remains exclusively in the hands of the minister of education. No one else is qualified or authorised to discuss any particularities." Every school in Lebanon - with the exception of the American school - is required to teach the Lebanese curriculum. Even private schools must teach it alongside their own curriculum.

Roger Barakeh has been teaching history in private schools in Lebanon for over 17 years. He withheld the name of the school, but said it follows the French curriculum. His students, in their mid-teens, must attend two history classes; one that follows the French system and the other the Lebanese. "In my school, teachers of the Lebanese curriculum are teaching students that 9/11 was a conspiracy theory, and [Osama] bin Laden is really CIA," he said.

"Conspiracy theories are very popular here. There's certain vocabulary that's popular too, like blaming everything on international Zionism and the CIA." It was similar, he said, when he was at school in Beirut. "My history teacher was an anti-Semite. He taught us the Nazis were doing a good thing. I was the type to read a lot on my own, and I used to argue with him," he said. Lebanon is not the only country in the region that is at odds with its past. Many scholars say Arab countries generally follow an antiquated approach to teaching history.

"In Egypt, there is nothing much about the Pharoahs in school history books. You can learn more about Pharoahs in western history books," said Antoine Messarra, who contributed to a government report on reforming education in Lebanon. "Arabs in general don't know much about the Ottoman era, even though Ottoman history is extremely rich. Ottomans are dismissed as colonisers, so history is rewritten in the same way that the [former Soviet Union] rewrote the historical narrative to suit its agenda."

Some Arab revisionists are trying to introduce the idea that the Ottomans were not occupiers, but rather it was an empire of which the Arab world was part, both contributing and benefiting in the process. But the revisionists remain a minority. In Lebanon, the void in history school books also contributes to the confusion in the way many Lebanese think of themselves. It is not uncommon to hear Lebanese saying they are not Arab, but Phoenician, a reference to the ancient Phoenician cities on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea; or French.

Looking at the children's section of a bookstore shows a microcosm of the country's fractious society. One book for children up to six years of age shows a little girl introducing herself in French. "I am Phoenician," she says, her pet dog sitting by her side. Another book shows a small girl wearing the hijab. "I am a Muslim," she says. And although she does not mention it, a pet dog for most observant Muslims would be unthinkable.

Mr Barakeh taps into these divisions. "Every year I make a little survey in my classroom," he said, adding that the pupils are predominantly Christian with a Muslim minority. "I ask them: 'Would you marry someone of a different religion?' My rationale is they're still young enough that they parrot their parents' opinions." It turns out that every time he conducts this survey, the majority in his class say they would not.

Dr Messarra points to Europe as a way in which a country can benefit from learning its history. "Are you able to imagine that a European country would possibly repeat past mistakes and attack a European neighbour? Will France and England enter into war? Would Germany repeat its attacks?" he said. Dr Messarra has published dozens of articles in the Lebanese press and written several books on the importance of approaching history as a course in the humanities, rather than what he calls the historian acting as a judge.

One benefit of this is that citizens see the real results of what happened, rather than an opinionated view. "When you read the history of Switzerland and Holland, you get traumatised because it's very real. It talks about the cost to people and to society. "The Lebanese too should be traumatised when they read their own history." relass@thenational.ae