by: Maya Mikdashi
When the revolutions began in March of 2011, I was envious. It is not easy to admit this. Back then, before the revolutions turned bloody, before Libya and Bahrain and Syria and before the continuation of a military state in Egypt, the possibilities seemed contagious. But even then, while in the fever of January, beneath a desire for revolution, I understood that I would not see a similarly broad based and successful uprising in Lebanon. Watching the swell of people in Tahrir Square on television, I was envious of the memories they would have of that moment. Where were you the night Mubarak was finally overthrown? What were you doing when Ben Ali finally boarded that plane? These “lightbulb memories,” translated into Lebanese, usually refer to political assassinations, invasions, and outbreaks of civil violence. Watching a million people celebrate in Cairo, I understood that we in Lebanon can never emulate the Tunisians or the Egyptians for two interlinked reasons: (1) the Lebanese state is not authoritarian or brutal; and (2) instead of coalescing against a common enemy, Lebanese of different factions are pitted against each other and fear each other more than they fear any one ruler or regime. Each of these factions has a different narrative of the past, and thus they have different desires and possibilities of a future. These different pasts, each inviting a different desire for the future, are old. But they are potent.
When the war began in 2006, I was swimming laps at a beach in North Lebanon. My phone was beeping incessantly as I exited the pool and walked towards my towel and towards my friend. The first text message I received read: “Israelis in Lebanon!” Minutes later, we were watching Israeli tanks rumble through South Lebanon on television, churning the ground as they moved centipede-like into the country. Lebanon was being invaded. A war had begun. We were not surprised, but for a few minutes, watching Israeli soldiers cross a border they had last fled in 2000, I felt I was sleepwalking, dreaming another Israel-Lebanon war. I called my father and asked him if we should return to Beirut or wait for a few hours in a beach club that suddenly felt like a compound to me. He said a sentence that I remember from my earliest memories: “This is nothing. There is nothing to be scared of. You will see.” My siblings and I describe my father as cold blooded and for us, it is a compliment. During the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War it seemed as if ice water ran through his veins as he shrugged off nearby violence to his three young children and their American mother. Two weeks into the 2006 war, our roles would be reversed. Hearing rumors that a bridge near my childhood West Beirut home would be bombed, I packed a bag for my parents and herded them into their car, promising to follow them soon to our rented summer house in a mountain overlooking the city. I think they knew I was lying, but they allowed themselves to believe that I would follow them. They left me on the road, waving at the windows of their passing car. I felt like an adult that day.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Memory is not linear. Instead, it folds against, moving through time and space gracefully, revealing the past, present and future to be the feedback loop that is. Less gracefully, memory also stumbles across the five senses. A vision of a memory is closer than its taste, smell, feel or sound, yet it takes all of these senses to be there, or here. Memory shares the impossibility of repetition, this sense of incompleteness, with the medium of film. I remember, three weeks into the war, walking through the ruins of Beirut’s Southern Suburbs (Dahieh) with a camera connected to a microphone connected to a friend. I can see myself now, standing with a camera, but perhaps, now as I write, I am actually remembering myself on camera, on a screen somewhere in New York City before an audience assembled for a “panel” on war. As we walked, then, through roads lined with the insides of fallen buildings, it was the smell that most effected us and those few that were around us. During one scene, I was standing on a pile of concrete entrails filming an interview with a man standing on the street. He waved my friend towards where I was standing and spoke of his neighbor who was (probably) rotting silently below my dusty puma sneakers. The smell, flesh and garbage and death and sewage and burning-the inescapable scent of the human and the nonhuman mixed together in their decomposition- was everywhere in Dahieh. When I think of the war, I think of that smell and can see myself fighting the urge to wretch in front of people looking for loved ones within the ruins of a life world. But I cannot smell that stink of war, here as I sit on my desk in Beirut and write these words five years later. Words can only point to what cannot be said, seen, heard, smelled, or touched. And so we write and we remember and we speak, knowing that we can never convey this presence of absence that is the past. Memory and film are both desires for recapture, and through them we try without hope to defeat the impossibility of being there ever again.
The Lebanese civil war ended when I was eleven years old. Back then, downtown Beirut was still a frightening place filled with rabid dogs who had, it was rumored, perhaps liked the taste of human flesh. The buildings and shops of Hamra street were still pockmarked with bullet holes, the city still stunk of garbage, the streets were still veined with cracks, and billboards did not stare down at you from every vantage point. West Beirut was much less crowded than it is today, and I remember being surprised by all these people who were suddenly coming back, many of them now fleeing to Lebanon from the war in a different country, Kuwait. I remember feeling disoriented as the landmarks of my childhood were replaced with shiny new restaurants, cafes, and advertisements. As Downtown Beirut was remodeled into a living postcard, it was difficult to talk about the structural violences that pervaded the post-war “reconstruction” of Lebanon. It was difficult to resist the seduction to not remember, just as it was difficult to resist the desire to fill a nation-wide scar with promises of a shiny new future that would come to us if we would just blame “outsiders” for the war and above all, remember to buy things, things, and more things. But writing this essay, I remember the first time I travelled with my friends (and without my parents) across what used to be the “Green Line” separating the warring “East” and “West” Beiruts in order to go to the cinema. I now live in an apartment on that Green Line, but now, instead of being shorthand for “Christian-Muslim” tension, my section of the green line is riven with Sunni-Shiite tension. I am skipping ahead of myself again. In 1991, it was the first time I had been to a cinema in Lebanon. As the car, filled with twelve-year-old girls and owned by an expatriate family that had returned after the war, entered Jounieh, I remember being silenced by how clean everything was. I was shorter then, with long blonde hair, and I can see myself now feeling like a stranger then, unrelated to the shops and the roads and the people around me. I was angry, seeing these shiny shops and restaurants and clean streets pass by my window. Even then, I knew what the price of Jounieh’s relatively peaceful existence had been for the past fifteen years. I was a foreigner there, and it was not until much later that the strength of this feeling abated and I knew that in 1991 “West Beirut” produced just as much of a child’s anxiety for others as “East Beirut” did for me. But as a child, I felt that the country was an interlocking and shifting terrain of places where I was safe and where I was not safe. These places mapped easily into where I felt I belonged and where I did not. In 1991, I did not belong in Jounieh.
Twenty years later, as the uprisings succeeded in Egypt and Tunisia, a group of Lebanese citizens came together under the slogan “For the Fall of the Sectarian Regime in Lebanon: Towards a Secular Regime.” Soon their enthusiasm ebbed and flowed over their Facebook page and onto the streets of Beirut. Thousands of people walked through the city demanding an overhaul of political sectarianism in Lebanon. Inspired by the broad based uprisings that were happening across the Arab world, Lebanese of all ages, genders, classes and regions came together to try to at least force a debate on the Lebanese political system. However, this movement had a fatal flaw; in order to preserve a broad coalition the group decided to ban any discussion of either the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) or the question of Hezbollah’s arms. With this decision, a group that was dedicated to highlighting and changing the political and economic injustices endemic to the system of political sectarianism censored debate on the two most salient political issues in Lebanon today. Any discussion of the STL or Hezbollah, it was said, might splinter the group into the polarized (and overtly sectarian) camps of March 14, headed by the Mustaqbal Party, and March 8, headed by Hezbollah. In addition to this crippling self censorship (and finally, the coalition did implode when established political parties infiltrated it and there was no common political mandate to meet this infiltration with), many of these activists ignored what is perhaps the biggest lesson of Lebanese history: the individual does not alone determine her identity. We cannot ignore the roles played by other people, institutions, and histories in the formation of who we are. We can not “choose” to unbecome these classes, genders, and sectarian identities that have been forged through law, life, and the liminal space between killer and victim that saturates the war scape of Lebanese history. At least, we cannot expect to succeed at this unbecoming, particularly if we keep trying to forget and suppress all that tears us apart in order to imagine a horizon that appears at the edges of a mirage where the only causal factor in life are one’s autonomous “choices.” We cannot change the political system in Lebanon if we refuse to explore and understand how the breakdown of that system is fought, lived, and remembered differently by Lebanese citizens.
When the 2006 war began, I was with someone who had helped me put the pieces of this country together. We had grown up on opposing sides of the “Green Line” in the 1980s (back when that line denoted a Christian-Muslim divide) and met in the United States when I was eighteen and she was nineteen. I would often visit her family in Lebanon and there, I came to feel at home. We traded stories and were for years each others’ memory keepers. Stories of being children in a war, of the joys and eventual complications of having missed so much of our grade school education (bad spelling for me, less than perfect grammar for her), and stories of what life was like back then “for me” and “for you” “on this side” and “over there.” We sutured our memories together, and I felt the country whole for the first time. Her words and wounds enfleshed people, places, hopes, and fears that I had never truly, and honestly, wanted to feel. Driving to my family home in Beirut after having watched Israeli tanks on a black and white television in a beach chalet, we thought about other friends who had grown up in South Lebanon or in Beirut as refugees of southern Lebanon. We talked about how different memories of the wars had formed their childhood, and how children living in South Lebanon then would have a wholly different vision of the past, and thus the future, than their counterparts in other areas of the country. I thought of her nephews, who lived in the north and who were surely watching this invasion from the comforts of their living room. I realized that I was happy that the war was not likely to reach where they lived. I did not want them anywhere near war, and I was thankful that they were not from the south. Again, it is not easy to admit this because even then, one hour after watching Israeli tanks on television, I felt stronger knowing the war would not come to them in “their area.” The war would be elsewhere.
In Beirut that night, when it was certain that the aerial bombardment of southern Beirut would come, I was anxious. I did not want to leave this balcony that had been destroyed in 1987, until I heard the first bomb and felt its vibrations rubbing against the windows that had been replaced in 1989. I stood by the railing, craning my neck past other buildings and southwards, until the first announcement of fire. I then walked down the hallway and stared at my mother sleeping until she woke up, and together we watched the rest of the bombardment on television. Throughout 2006, this pattern would be repeated. No matter what I was doing during the day, working in displaced centers or filming, at night I would watch the war taking place one kilometer away on television. When there was electricity, of course. After the lights went out we would sit, my friends and my siblings and I, weaving fragments of information gathered from different sources into a Frankenstein of possibilities. We would talk about how different this war was from those past, guess the type of war machinery that was the author of the latest sound, and we would talk about who had left, to a different country or to a different part of this country that was still offering all of the promises of a summer in Lebanon. Our cellular phones would beep with the arrival of text messages, their information shaking our phones with urgency. When I was younger my father used to carry with him a red transistor radio. It was always in his pocket with its antennae peeking out, and he would press it to his ear to hear reports of what was happening around us as we slept in hallways and make shift bomb shelters/parking garages. And this is also how memory works, not only through incompleteness but also through time travel. Thinking of what happened five years ago will take you back twenty years. Sometimes it will you bring you forward, to two years ago or to the “mini” civil war of 2008. Sometimes a memory will even lead you to guess the future. One memory leads to another, and in Lebanon, one memory of war leads you to yet another memory of war. This impossibility of disentangling the history of the Lebanese nation state from a history of violence is precisely what inspires many activists to try to change the system of political sectarianism. However, it is important to remember that wars are fought for many reasons, by different actors, and for a plurality of incommensurate interests and ideologies. Sectarianism is not always the engine of violence in Lebanon, but it is (along socio-economic class and gender) one of the conduits through which violence is articulated, understood, planned, and executed in Lebanon.
One night in 2006, I was sitting on my favorite chair on my balcony. I was watching, and listening, to the Israeli war machine. I was not afraid. I knew that I-living in a middle class West Beirut neighborhood, was not their target. Once again, I was reminded of the lack of control one has over both their identity and their safety. I knew that despite the fact that I was an agnostic supporter of Hezbollah in 2006, I was being “read” by the Israeli war machine, the international community, and even the Lebanese government as a “Sunni Beiruti.” Moreover, I knew that this metaphysically violent misrecognition was in fact keeping me safe from the direct violence of yet another war. I had never felt so implicated in the violence wrought upon others. And yet, despite the intent to fragment and target particular sections of Lebanese citizens, there was a countermovement led by what a political scientist would call “civil society.” People from all classes, regions, and socio-economic communities raised money, bought supplies, distributed food, blankets, diapers, baby formula and sanitary napkins. They worked through days and nights trying to provide for the quotidian needs for the quarter of the Lebanese population that had fled their homes and lived in crowded apartments, schools, community centers, and public gardens both in and outside of Beirut. But this solidarity was fleeting. Soon political arguments took root, different groups refused to work together, international aid groups came in with resources that we could only dream of, and finally, the state was shamed into acting. People fought about the war, its causes and its consequences. People worried about the strain these displaced people would have on them financially, morally, and spatially. Memories of past refugees fleeing the destruction of South Lebanon to Beirut and building lives there made people anxious in 2006. Would they go home? Would they leave “our city”? Was this another form of invasion, a poor horde that would change the city’s demography and blemish its image as an open, fun, and well dressed playground for the rich? Finally, when a cease fire was declared, in Beirut the war ended. But in South Lebanon, the war continues until today, with Israeli mines still killing and maiming people and separating people from their homes and their lands. In 1990, when the civil war ended, I remember being happy. It was later that I realized that as my life moved into what others told me was “normalcy” the war continued in South Lebanon until 2000. Peace had not come to the whole of Lebanon until the Israeli army withdrew from the occupation zone. And today, the 2006 war continues, as long as Israeli weapons of destruction lie in wait under the ground, concrete and grass. Sometimes they achieve their purpose and destroy. Most of the time they lie there, smirking in the sun as the world says that the war is over.
When you have been through several wars, it is no longer cause for much excitement. Only later is there time to be still, to be afraid, and to question the way that one’s autobiography is interlaced with a history of violence. You can find evidence of the interstitial nature of autobiography and violence in the unthought mechanics of a reflex. One night in Beirut, I was in a deep sleep when an Israeli plane dropped a four-ton bomb less than a kilometer away. My friend was awake, reading next to me in bed. I shot up, pushed her to the ground and shouted non-sensically, “go go go.” I pulled her down the hallways and into the apartment’s foyer, the scene of many nights spent as a child because my parents believed (or perhaps they wanted us to believe) that the lack of windows there made it safer than a bedroom or living room. After she was in that windowless room, I went back to my brother’s bedroom and with one hand lifted his queen sized mattress (I am not, by any account, a large woman) over my shoulder, dragged it to the foyer, lied down on it, and fell fast asleep. The next day I asked my war partner why my shoulder was sore, and she gave my sleepwalk a memory, a consciousness.
During a war, it seems impossible that life will ever go back to being normal, but there is also the bitter knowledge that it will and that it must. That life will go on, and all of this will one day be a memory that will always be failing to capture what happened, and how it felt, to be there, to be here. It seems impossible that you will again chat lazily with your neighborhood baker on a sunday morning, to feel a freedom of movement around the country, or to go out for food and laughter with friends and not feel the nagging of guilt. But somehow, beneath this subcutaneous layer of thought, you know that when wars end, routine returns to the living-that this will be the past one day. You also know that you are not alone in this, that in fact you live in a country full of people whose biography is also a history of war, of being sometimes victims and sometimes perpetrators, and of being afraid of both foreign states and Lebanese militiamen of all political persuasions. These stubborn pasts pose challenges to people working towards a common future. If the the project is to fashion a common future, then what do we do with the weight of all these different pasts, different historical injuries, and different memories? Do we shrug them off and hope than the next generation will somehow be immune to them? Do we dwell on the past and pick at our scabs until they bleed catharsis? These are questions that have not been publicly debated yet, and yet these are the debates that determine the field of possibility for an alternative Lebanon. And so from here, writing from my room in Beirut, the “Arab Spring” does not marshall images of revolution. Instead, in my room in Beirut, I wait, listen, and feel lethargic. It has been five years since I wrote some of these thoughts in a black notebook that I put in a drawer when the 2006 war officially ended. It has been a year of hope, of possibility, and of disappointment throughout the Arab world. But sitting at my desk in 2011 and trying to remember war and trying to separate one war from all the others that came before and after it, I think of the way you cannot smell death on film or in memory. I think of how these words can only gesture at what I cannot say. I think of how my memories, the archive of my life, are implicated in the violence wrought against others. I think of how the memories and archives of friends and lovers are implicated in violence wrought against me. I think of the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings, I listen to the news spilling over from Syria, and my body, that once felt envious, now feels heavy. Too tired to experience jealousy.