Sune Haugbølle reviews Lebanese efforts to pursue reconciliation and deal with the past. He explores issues of memory and remembering: Lebanon’s ‘state-sponsored amnesia’ over the war years; and the role of culture and of civil society in documenting and discussing them. Haugbolle considers options to integrate civil and national reconciliation initiatives and to involve political elites, as well as the potential of rural and traditional conflict resolution structures to engage grassroots in national reconciliation processes.
Strong initiatives exist to foster reconciliation through memory work. All possible avenues for creative participation between civil society and the Lebanese authorities should be explored.
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Dealing with Lebanon's past
Twenty years after the official end of the civil war, Lebanese society is constructing memories of it in ways that are not necessarily conducive to reconciliation between the country’s sectarian and political groups. This problem is related to a kind of state-sponsored amnesia that coexists with the widely differing and strongly politicised narratives of the war that are central to the identity of particular political or sectarian groups. The challenge is not so much to break with amnesia, but to find a way to accommodate existing peace, reconciliation and memory initiatives – in art, culture and civil society – with the political and social powerbrokers in the country.
Memory initiatives since the civil war
Lebanon’s collective amnesia, resulting partly from the general amnesty law of 1991, has been fostered by political elites who played a role in the civil war and have refused to foster public debates that could implicate them. In protest against this, the country’s intellectuals, artists and activists have since the mid-1990s campaigned for a public process of memorialisation. They point to the fact that there are very few national monuments to the war, too many sectarian commemorations, no official research centres and no political will to support critical discussions about the war.
The legacy of wartime activism
Civil war memorialisation began during the war. Films by Maroun Baghdadi, Jean Chamoun and Mai Masri, novels by Elias Khoury, not to mention the rich genre of wartime songs or the Lebanese press, all deal with the social and individual effects of war. After the war, other genres like experimental video, collective research projects, installations and web-based art have added to the huge body of war-related work.
Reconciliation: experiences and recommendations
On a local level, there are often long-standing customs and norms where the interventions of older authority figures have led to peaceful, non-violent mediation and arbitration. Particularly in rural Lebanon, a blend of civil law and tribal codes has long been an intrinsic part of the justice system. While these customs are no guarantee for just arbitration, national reconciliation projects could improve their outreach by overcoming their anti-sectarian bias and communicating with existing modes of reconciliation.