Alex Rowell

Another Memory

hile plenty of noise is made by Lebanese civil society groups and NGOs about the need for national post-civil war reconciliation, the issue is rarely tackled in concrete initiatives by political parties themselves. One exception is this week’s Another Memory at Solea V in Jisr el-Wati, an interactive exhibition of war memories born of a new partnership between Lebanon’s Tajaddod (Democratic Renewal Movement) Youth and the Danish Radikal Ungden (Social Liberal Youth) party, which aims to force attendees to “[confront] other narratives of the war than one’s own,” on the grounds that “knowing and trying to understand each other’s perspective on the past is the first step of working together on creating a common future.”

To that end, for each of around a dozen key dates of the civil war, from the Ain al-Remmaneh massacre of 1975, to the Ta’if Agreement of 1989, the front pages of the An-Nahar and As-Safir newspapers have been reprinted and juxtaposed on large hanging displays. Nearby tables supply pens and post-it notes, with which viewers are invited to add their own annotation, observation or memory to the exhibit. The result is both an archive of previously unseen history and a depository of contemporary public emotion toward the war.

As fascinating as the newspaper extracts are, it’s the comments that truly animate the walls. “The hysteria is still going on!” reads one on the day after the sectarian massacres of what became known as Black Saturday  in 1975. “The year my life ended,” says another. “I can’t believe this is EXACTLY where my office is!” reads one affixed next to a photo of a bombed Achrafieh street in 1978. “Why were they killed?” asks one, referring to the Sabra and Shatila massacre. “What made the Lebanese that sectarian suddenly?” And so on.

Intriguingly, many comments slated the journalistic scruples of the time: “Why were the journalists not objective?” “The terminology used by journalists was provocative and contributed to enduring conflicts.” Whether or not this lesson has been heeded today is surely a question worthy of rumination.

Particularly arresting are the personal details some were moved to share. For instance, next to a headline from the 1983 Mountain War: “My grandfather disappeared from Bhamdoun. We were told later by a Lebanese Forces militiaman (my mother’s cousin) that he had been killed in Deir al-Amar. RIP Halim Aboukhaled, 1907-?” And Ayman Mhanna, the Tajaddod Youth coordinator, described to NOW Lebanon an extraordinary scene from Saturday: “An-Nahar sent a photographer this morning to cover the event, and when he reached the Sabra and Shatila display, he just froze; he became visibly emotional. He explained to us that there, on the front page, was the photo he himself had taken 30 years ago. He said he had had to stand on human corpses to take it.”

At the end of the exhibit stands an empty wall with the words “What now?” written above. Suggestions posted by attendees varied from “Reconciliation” to “Independence from Syria” to “A history book” to “Finding the missing persons.”

NOW Extra spoke with Yunus Adams, head of the Radikal Ungdom delegation and overall project coordinator, about his party’s ties with Tajaddod Youth and the build-up to Another Memory. “We met with several Lebanese youth parties over the past year or so, and ended up partnering with Tajaddod Youth because we found their values to be very close to ours. We felt they believed in true democracy, and were one of the few that didn’t only say they were secular but were able to prove it.”

“So they suggested the idea of dealing with the civil war, because they told us that in Lebanon you have no history curriculum beyond 1943, and so as a consequence students aren’t confronted with versions of history other than their family’s or community’s. We agreed that this was one of the means by which sectarian divisions are perpetuated. So Another Memory is our attempt to get people to look at the other side of the story – to at least be aware of it even if they will never agree with it – because we believe that only by this mutual acknowledgment is it possible to move forward.”

Mhanna elaborated that “there are so many signs these days that the wounds of the war haven’t healed. The fact that we still use violence to solve problems; that we’re ready to defend the party leader even at the cost of our lives; the fact that the issue of the disappeared [persons] is still where it is; all of this shows that it’s not over. Because we never speak about the real thing, and every time we talk of reconciliation, we’re talking about political leaders striking deals. But does this trickle down to the people? We doubt it.”

“Therefore we, as Tajaddod Youth, are promoting a new slogan, that ‘This is also politics.’ Projects like this are usually undertaken by NGOs, but this is a political issue that has been abandoned by mainstream parties.”

The overall impact of Another Memory, a project launched on a meager budget and with attendance in the low hundreds, may well be limited in the short term. But already, small signs of progress are forthcoming: “On Saturday we had the head of the Hezbollah youth branch here. On Sunday we’re having a delegation from the Future Movement, and on Monday there’ll be one from the Progressive Socialist Party Youth. I don’t think that these people usually go to civil society events like this,” says Mhanna.

“Ayman has already had people from schools tell him they want to bring the exhibition to their students,” added Adams. And one of the post-its may have spoken for many of the attendees when it said, with emphasis: “PLEASE make this exhibition PERMANENT!”

Another Memory is showing daily at Solea V, opposite the Beirut Art Center in Jisr al-Wati, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. until Monday, May 14.