How the arts serve justice in post-war Lebanon


Many artistic efforts have failed to create the breeding ground for true reconciliation in post-war Lebanon because they continue to rely on the construction of exclusive narratives, says political scientist Ruth Artiles Valero for Justiceinfo.net. Lebanon is an excellent example of how performance art can serve justice and peace efforts better than museums.

In recent years, significant funds have been devoted to the creation of artistic and socio-cultural projects and institutions in Lebanon, both by the government, civil society, NGOs and private international entities. It has been argued that "peace funds" are more easily accessible than mere "arts funds", and there is no doubt that Lebanon is an excellent example of how artistic initiatives can better serve justice and peace-building efforts than aesthetic initiatives.

Historically, multi-faith Lebanon is a fascinating post-conflict case study. Not only was the confessional and conflictive nature of the country one of the main factors in the outbreak of the 1975-1990 civil war, but it is also the main reason why the country has not yet moved from a negative to a positive peace. The complexity of this deadly conflict has only been surpassed by the level of complexity of its memory.

This multifaceted Lebanese civil war has nourished an extremely wide range of experiences. As noted by academic Sune Haugbolle, the physically fractured public sphere of the war years also "created an ambiguous basis for post-war nationalism, where memories of fraternity and confessional separation intermingled, competed, and were manipulated by social and political actors".

These ambiguities shaped memories and interactions in post-war Lebanon and added to the sense of being intimate strangers. After the conflict, neighbourhoods in Beirut remained heavily ghettoized, as did interpretations of the war.

Hariri's new nationalism and historical amnesia

Beyond the extreme difficulty posed by this myriad of competing narratives, not everyone wants to talk about "the truth" or "their (personal) truths". Moreover, when they are expressed, words regularly take on a completely different meaning as they are transformed by different media. On a more personal level, many Lebanese may have been discouraged by this right to the truth, as the discovery of facts could deconstruct many of their beliefs that have for generations formed a large part of their identity.

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Former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri tried to ease the current tensions arising from the lack of a unanimously accepted and accessible truth by devising a new nationalism for Lebanon that would truly live up to the words of the national anthem: Kullunalil-watan (We all belong to the nation).

Essentially, it is about cultivating a nostalgic memory that focuses on the turah (heritage). Haugbolle explained the logic of this approach: " While they may vehemently disagree on the causes of the civil war, members of all faiths and parties eat hummus, listen to Fairuz and dance the dabkeh.« . However, this fine example of reality flight, also present in the architectural plans of downtown Beirut, has opened the way to a new historical amnesia, the implications of which continue to be counterproductive. For, to put it simply, how is a society supposed to reconcile if it has difficulty in agreeing on what happened in the past?

Has contemporary art deconstructed confessionalism, or the opposite?

Responding opportunistically to calls for peace and justice inquiries, as well as a reinvention of the memory of war, contemporary art in Lebanon provided a platform that could give much meaning to the complexities so characteristic of national and inter-ethnic conflicts, and was thought to be better equipped to bring together the multiple experiences, narratives and understandings of war.

The remarkable works of artists such as Akram Zaatari, Walid Raad, Joana Hadjithomas, Khalil Joreige, Marwan Rechmaoui and Lamia Joreige are admirable in their efforts to educate and reconcile. Nevertheless, the modes of representation that have been used by contemporary artists deserve further examination. After all, it is not surprising that the arts have something to do with the fact that many Lebanese still feel that they are experiencing war even though peace has been declared. Unfortunately, it is highly doubtful that contemporary artistic efforts have crystallized a genuine restoration of relations within Lebanese society.

Because of their general accessibility, public museums and monuments were considered more appropriate for forging a collective memory that could invoke a common consciousness and emotions necessary for reconciliation. It was said that if public, pluralistic and open art continues to deconstruct confessionalism, "it will be possible to achieve true Lebaneseity".
But others have pointed out that even these efforts continue to "indoctrinate" the population, that this approach is ill-advised and that it actually reinforces sectarian and exclusive affiliations.

The problem can be approached from a more productive angle if one realizes that such approaches to art also have another point in common: they consist in considering post-Civil War art and socio-cultural projects as products. They are socio-economically privatized and artificially constructed. However, some arts, mainly in the form of participatory performances, have managed to escape from this field.

Museums: more of what you want, more of what you already knew

Although exhibited in public spaces that are technically open to all, the art of the White Cube - a gallery aesthetic characterized by its square white walls and a light source usually coming from the ceiling - is private and privatized. Visiting a museum is best described as a leisurely, for-profit cultural activity, particularly in the Arab world, because simply getting there takes time and, more often than not, money.

Lebanon is no exception. For example, Beit Beirut (The Yellow House), a museum and urban cultural centre located on the former green line of the capital, has been described as a place used more "for commercial rental than for educational conservation". Some complained that it "seems to be open only for special events" and that exhibitions focused on challenging the only historical event that forms the basis of the current regime in Lebanon - namely the civil war - have simply not been made available to the general public.

As a result, those who can afford it become educated and can internalize some understanding of the past. But, in doing so, the Lebanese seem to have internalized divergent understandings of the past depending on the institution from which they acquired such knowledge. For example, at the tourist resort of Mleeta resistance, run by Hezbollah in South Lebanon, Hezbollah presents itself as the national defender of Lebanon against Israeli aggression, a so-called "consequence of the military failures of the state apparatus". On the Internet, critics point to the bias that is clearly rooted in the memory of the conflict in the museum. Many Lebanese, especially Christians and Druze, are reluctant to visit such a "propaganda place".
In the end, the recipients of the Mleeta "information", from the Lebanese Shiite majority, receive more of what they wanted and more of what they already knew, or, more accurately, thought they knew. Academics have argued that the museum plays an important role in creating an "Islamic environment".

This epistemological approach makes us see the world." not as he is, but as we are...« . As American philosophy professor Michael Patrick Lynch brilliantly put it, " In a bubble, knowledge means always being right...« . The danger is that by giving only one dimension to the issues and events addressed and trying to understand them from one perspective, the possibility of genuine interfaith understanding disappears.

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The Resistance Tourist Museum, run by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, is criticised as a "place of propaganda". Frode Bjorshol

The limits of a conservative approach

The common conception of museums as temples of knowledge and information, which pushes people to look through the filter of narrative tools without appreciating their own power in representing the past, is also problematic. These dynamics exert a conservative pressure on the collective memory without showing it, which unfortunately makes it very resistant to change. It should therefore come as no surprise that the Lebanese find themselves in the paradoxical situation of thinking that by visiting these museums they know much more, when in reality they still disagree about what they really know.

By distinguishing action (praxis) from fabrication (poiesis), by linking it to freedom and plurality, and by showing its link to speech and memory, Hannah Arendt was able to articulate a conception of political life in which questions of historical meaning and identity could be addressed in new and original ways. Dialogue and social action become sources of reflection and self-awareness, consensus is never forced and dialogue is truly free. This phenomenon does not seem to have much future in the contemporary arts in Lebanon as we have known them until now. However, there is great potential in the performing and participatory arts.

Talking about the new Beirut through interactive living art

The Dictaphone group, a Beirut-based "living" art and urban research collective, is a perfect example of how these arts can compensate for the counter-productive shortcomings of "orthodox" contemporary artists in a context such as Lebanon.

As part of one of their many performances and for ten consecutive days in 2012, the group performed at a specific location exploring the ideas of access to the sea and to public space in general, through an analysis of the Beirut waterfront. Twice a day, five randomly selected members of the public were invited to participate in a trip on a fishing boat.

In an effort to re-examine the understanding of public space in Beirut and to re-imagine the city, the performance encouraged a lively conversation about Beirut's waterfront land ownership, the laws that govern it and the practices of its users, during a journey from the port of Ein el-Mreisse to Ramlet el-Baida beach.

This performance addressed the fact that, since the end of the Lebanese civil war, and within the framework of the reconstruction and memory erasure project already mentioned, Beirut has also suffered new exclusions through the gradual disappearance of publicly accessible coastal land. More recently, this was seen in the context of the extension of the waterfront, the Zaytouna Bay in Solidere, a new marina area created on the rubble of the city's historic fishing port, which has now been transformed into one of the most expensive real estate projects in the region.

Engaging other audiences in the national conversation

In an interview, the Collectif explained that it has long been very careful to differentiate between politics as content and politics as form: "... the policy as content and the policy as form. We are not only interested in the residents/inhabitants of the spaces or the public. On the contrary, we collaborate with them. The personality and interests of each individual affect the course of the performance. We encourage this and do not try to control it.« says Tania El Khoury, co-founder of the Dictaphone group.

Control, according to El Khoury, "imposes a discipline of participation, such as telling the public: '.We're in a conversation, but you can't talk'.« . There is a notorious parallel here with Arendt's emphasis on human action as an innovative means of addressing issues of truth, history and identity, as it facilitates peaceful plurality in many ways.
Self-understanding and the identities of different groups become free and can be expressed in the public arena. The methodology follows a bottom-up approach to the memory of conflict(s). Beyond the healthy inclusion promoted by this approach, there is the "surging" mode of these performances. Situated in busy urban spaces, interactive living art exposes society at large, including citizens who would not attend a museum or who would only attend specific art institutions.

In fact, comparable studies on the Balkan region have concluded that dealing with the past (and its reminiscences in the present) behind closed doors no longer works and that, statistically, it is as a result of public workshops that people are much more likely to accept and include the other in the national/regional narrative of past conflict. As Lynch pointed out, understanding involves more than simply 'downloading' information. It involves, in his words, "doing a little work for yourself: getting creative, using your own imagination, going out into the field, experiencing, working on the evidence, talking to someone".

Emotions and peaceful understanding

The inclusion of physical, emotional and spiritual communication, and thus not requiring full oral or grammatical compressibility, also makes it possible to reach a wider audience, especially in "developing" countries. In sum, this art requires only societal interaction rather than societal integration with prefabricated narrative(s). While accepting the pre-established interests of the different groups, the possibility of bringing them together under an additional common identity (as they all participate together in this discovery process and this generates a new general sense of belonging) is promoted. There is no idea to cling to for fear that its elimination will suppress or delegitimize part of one's identity, which also facilitates the recognition of "the other" and his or her experience. This can help to create a sense of solidarity rather than compassion and courage rather than fear - emotions that are truly linked to the idea of understanding and reconciliation.

It now seems natural that the search for truth should focus on the constituent element of the post-conflict narrative: people. Socialized people can deconstruct the self-centred and self-dependent meta-narratives of the past. In its natural similarity to the practices of social discourse, this art consists of knowing the narrator as much (if not more) as the narratives. After all, truth is never unanimous or exhaustive. It is only by breaking it down and understanding its constituent elements (the experiences of individuals) that survivors (and the generations that succeed them) can flourish in true understanding. They deserve this, more than an artificial concoction. This is the closest we come to the false notion of universal "reality" that we have enjoyed fantasizing about for too long. And it is the closest we come to the beginning of a process of peaceful understanding.

Ruth Artiles Valero, research political scientist
Political scientist from the Canary Islands, Ruth AZrtiles Valero recently completed a master's degree on "The Politics of Conflict, Rights and Justice" at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. Her interdisciplinary research combines politics and the arts. Her areas of expertise include peace-building, reconciliation, violence remembrance, migration and diaspora studies.

The original of this article was published by Justiceinfo.net (CC)

Header photo Postcard of Beirut extracted from the Wonder Beirut project (1997-2006), by Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige © Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige / Galerie In Situ - Fabienne Leclerc

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