Lebanon's movement to remember

Instead of trying to forget its violent past, recent art projects in Beirut draw thoughtful attention to a national trauma.

4/9/2009 Beirut, Lebanon.Lokman Slim and his wife Monika Borgmann photographed at their UMAM center in the Ghobeirey neighborhood in Beirut's southern suburbs. ..Credit: Bryan Denton for The National *** Local Caption ***  bdenton_IMG_8792.jpg
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BEIRUT // The Lebanese have a word, basita, meaning roughly "forget it, doesn't matter, no problem". And when it comes to the country's crippling 15-year civil war, the Lebanese are themselves a bit basita. "We forget ? We do not want to talk about the past, but to look to the future," said Bassam Njeim, 28. This tendency not to dwell on their warring past, said Mr Njeim, "is good if they really forgive and forget, but they do not".

It is this characteristic of forgetting, if not forgiving, that many see as the reason that while Beirut has been largely rebuilt, there has never been a public civil war memorial. But this week, as the outbreak of the war is remembered on Monday April 13, a site will be unveiled in downtown Beirut by President Michel Suleiman and a group called Memory for the Future. The site has been earmarked for "the creation of a war memorial. We are creating a project to make the Lebanese remember, and that is important", said the group's spokesman, Amal Makkarem.

The exact nature of the memorial, commemorating the day when a group of Palestinians on a bus was massacred in the Christian neighbourhood of Ain el Rummaneh in 1975, has yet to be decided. But it is part of a movement by artists and intellectuals, among whom there is a belief that the Lebanese need to have some way to remember the civil war in order to put the country's divisions behind them. "We feel for sure that there is a need to talk," said Monika Borgmann, who with her husband, Lokman Slim, has created a group called Umam (Nations), which is building up an archive of civil war material, works on issues like the lack of civil war history books and makes war-related art projects.

Their latest show, Missing, currently touring Lebanon, consists of hundreds of photographs and stories of those who disappeared during the war. People are encouraged to bring pictures of their own loved ones, and add the tale of their disappearance to Umam's archive. "It's a memory project," said Ms Borgmann, "to raise consciousness in Lebanese society. Every missing [person] is part of this exhibition ? everybody was the perpetrator and everybody was also the victim."

At the show's most recent stop, in Tripoli, in the north of the country, people could be seen clustering round a scanner with their pictures, mostly of young men with shirts and haircuts from the 1970s and 1980s. Hundreds have offered their stories for the archive. "Families say that it's relieving for them to tell their story and to feel that their loved ones are not forgotten," Ms Borgmann said.

Tony Chakar's 1996 piece, 4 Cotton Underwear for Tony, which addressed the 1976 death of his father in crossfire, has just been re-exhibited at the Beirut Art Center. "It's not even conscious," he says of the many modern Lebanese artists who address the war. "This is our experience. We lost practically all our childhood and our adolescence - it is natural that it leaves a mark and you try to talk about it.

"I do not think the idea of working on memory issues is futile." Like many people, he believes that by 1990, "the war wasn't really over ? in the sense that we did not come to grips with what happened. I am convinced that it takes time." In Lebanon, the sectarian divisions that fuelled the war are still very much in evidence as the country heads towards elections. This modern political dimension to remembering the war partly drove the artist Zena el Khalil to write her memoir, Beirut, I Love You, published this month. She did not live in Lebanon during the civil war, but writes about the continuing political impact on the country.

"The Lebanese cannot remember," she said, "because the people who created the war and the killings and the massacres are in government and they cannot afford to have people remember how evil and corrupt they are." This feeling is widely expressed, that commemorating the war would be impossible while many of the main leaders of the warring factions - Nabih Berri, Walid Jumblatt, Amin Gemayel, Samir Geagea and Michel Aoun - still dominate Lebanese political life.

The Lebanese now lack, said el Khalil, a sense of community and responsibility. Mona Hallak, an architect, has been calling for a museum of Beirut, which would help document the civil war and Lebanon's modern history. Beirut's only large museum exhibits artefacts from the country's relatively uncontroversial ancient history. "The least we can do is leave something so that if people want to remember, they can," Ms Hallak said.

Ms Hallak is also against the post-war reconstruction of Beirut, which she said has taken away much of its character and memories. The reconstruction of the downtown region of Beirut was spearheaded by billionaire Rafiq Hariri in the 1990s, and the process destroyed many old buildings which may have been pockmarked with bullet holes but which she feels were part of the city's identity. "It's not OK," she says, "to cause yourself amnesia."

Ms Hallak has campaigned to turn one French Ottoman Art Deco house in central Beirut, known as the Barakat Building or Yellow House, into a "memory museum". "That building served as a sniper hideout in the war," because it was precisely on the dividing line between the clashing areas of East and West Beirut, she said. The once-elegant house was perfect for snipers because the architect, Youssef Aftimus, built it with the idea that it should be open to the city, so every room in the building is open to the street.

"It has such a beautiful architecture which still shines despite all it has been through ? Everyone who goes into that building cannot but stop and think about what war means." Not very far from the Yellow House, one woman, who spent 43 years living next to the hospital where she was director of nursing during the civil war, recalls tending to wartime casualties in hospital corridors and the shots fired through her apartment's windows.

The Lebanese "don't talk about it ? we Lebanese like to live, this is in our nature, we want to enjoy life." And yet, like the artists and memory movements, she agrees this national trauma will not go away. "I can never forget what happened," she said. "Just because you don't talk about it, doesn't mean it's not with you." * The National