Youth Citizenship in Divided Societies

The Fog of Memory

In Lebanon, as in other societies with deep divisions, there is a great deal of disagreement about what role memory can play and how it can play those roles in overcoming division. Questions about 'whose memories?' abound, as do debates over the ways and settings in which memory should be discussed. In our interviews with leaders of NGOs that we have conducted as part of the YouCitizen project, we have sensed a growing conviction amongst some that it is necessary to confront the past if there is to be any possibility of moving beyond division.

Yet as we look across the set of interviews, we can see tensions or differences emerging between many international, western NGOs and organizations, and NGOs that were described by respondents as being local or Lebanese. Even though most NGOs thought it was important to address the unresolved issues from the civil war and the 2006 and 2008 wars, there were differences in terms of why they thought it was important, how it should be addressed, how reactions to memories should be managed, and even, it seemed, the ownership of memory.

Some of these debates were brought home to us on the 30th of January, while one of the research assistants and I sat at a café in Badaro, a neighbourhood that abuts Dahiya, the largely Shi'a populated area of south Beirut. Badaro is undergoing gentrification, with a number of new cafés serving a youngish, professional, often international crowd. As we were chatting about an interview, we were startled to hear the sound of automatic gunfire. And not just a little gunfire, but a steady stream of it, punctuated by a series of explosions. Both of us were unsettled, given that Israel and Hezbollah had engaged in fighting along the border, with soldiers killed on both sides. Yet for all that we were nervous, we noted that there were no sirens and that life on the street continued as though nothing was happening. At the carwash across the street, for instance, police washed their car without looking up. Two women in their 60s or 70s walked by with their groceries, chatting as they passed the café. A grandfather was cajoled by his impatient grandson to hurry up while they walked. The only people who seemed concerned were the people in the café, most of whom seemed to be in their 30s and 40s; they kept walking to the sidewalk, looking toward the explosions and gunfire, talking on mobile phones. We soon learned that the gunfire and explosions were celebratory, part of a large commemoration to honour the Hezbollah fighters who had been killed in the skirmishes and to rally support for the on-going resistance to Israel.

While gunfire might be distressing for people who had lived through the wars, that certainly did not seem to be the case. Instead, what was most striking was the way that gunfire had become normalised, ordinary, perhaps a little curious to some, but utterly unremarkable and forgettable. Perhaps long-time residents of the area – as opposed to the younger and probably more international crowd frequenting the café – knew what was going on; perhaps maintaining a calm façade was important to managing memories of war and current fears; perhaps they suppressed all memories. But it seemed that making violence and the memory of it ordinary and unremarkable is a way of ordering daily life and making it bearable.

Memory, as our interviews suggested, can be invoked to achieve very different ends. Some believe that discussing memory is necessary in order to build a collective understanding of what happened and to work toward reconciliation. Some believe that it will only inflame hostilities if not handled very sensitively. And others point to the way it is used to refresh memories of war and of resistance. All of this, of course, plays out against he learnt memory of everyday routine and habit, in which violence is normalized.

Memory is contested. While some of our respondents talked about 'collective memory,' that possibility was challenged by some (often local) NGOs and by the celebrations of some memories. So our questions about memory are unresolved. Is it a salve? Is it an irritation? Does addressing memory clarify the present, or occlude it? Can it be used to draw people together in a sort of collective? What is evident in our interviews, in the celebratory memorial service, and on the street is that memory is ineluctably political and as likely to divide as to be a new source of reconciliation, never mind solidarity.


Lynn Staeheli  - Durham, UK

18 February 2015 

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