Lebanon's civil war from 1975 to 1990 not only wrecked the country's material and human infrastructure, but also shaped the way the Lebanese view the past and live in the present. Sune Haugbolle starts his new book with anecdotal fragments of Lebanese memory, noting, "I began to suspect that they were not actually dealing with the past but merely coping with it" (p.2). Do individual and popular stories reflect the reality of the civil war? What is remembered and what is not? How do certain fragments of memory survive, consolidate or erode? How were war memories translated into the sociopolitical reality of postwar Lebanon? The years between the civil war's end in 1990 and the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005 were a period of state-sponsored amnesia. For Haugbolle, memories pertaining to the war were the tip of an iceberg. In the absence of reconciliation commissions and faced with official indifference, Haugbolle analyzes the politics of memory in postwar Lebanon between 1990 and 2005 by examining the outlets of cultural expression: books, movies, graffiti, television programs, architecture and newspapers. Memories of the civil war, like the unfolding of the war itself, are multifaceted, changing and often contradictory.
Haugbolle argues that "renderings of the war operate with an intertextuality that encompasses and plays on interpretations, myths and narratives from previous times" (p.30). Accordingly, the book's second chapter charts Lebanese history with particular reference to the consequences of "social awakening" and "modernization" during the 1950s and ‘60s, the emergence of mass culture in an expanding public sphere, and corresponding calls for the liberalization of politics. In addition to setting the modern context and highlighting the rise of new Lebanese political actors, his discussion of the civil war, interwoven with personal narratives, provides an excellent background for understanding how certain memories were later constructed in relation to it. For Haugbolle, the representation of the early years of the war focused on villains and ideological heroes, but descriptions of the later years were about the Lebanese people trapped in "a war of others." In addition to pervasive sectarian loyalties that swept many to the forefront of the battle, the author also points out dissenting voices in the public sphere, civil resistance to militias, and women's opposition to the war. Thus, Haugbolle highlights different fragments of social representation about the war and suggests how the theme of "a war of others" emerged. When people embraced such a representation of the war, they avoided the question of why they participated in the war of others in the first place. Such questions, which made people uncomfortable, were lost in the magic formula of "la ghalib, la maghlub" (no victor, no vanquished). All Lebanese were equally guilty.
War memory was simply not marketable, either in Beirut or elsewhere. The rise of Hariri's vision of a commercial Lebanese nation supported by many sectors of society and criticized by some left-wing actors came at the expense of the social memory of the war. Some intellectuals labeled Hariri's vision a self-delusion or a short-term solution at best. The Lebanese state was not strong enough, in any event, to make costly judgments through reconciliation commissions and to punish war criminals. Thus, Hariri's capitalism seized the day. In the end, the Lebanese needed a vision of national unity, even if it was imagined or imaginary. Sectarianism was the elephant in the room that would undo the nation, and the official Lebanese discourse wrapped it in a cloak of nostalgia and reimagined what Lebanon was meant to be. On the other hand, regardless of generational factors, the attempts of artists, novelists and directors to forge a new critical memory that would counter the state-sponsored amnesia could go only so far. They were trapped within their own amnesia and nostalgia. Issues like sectarianism, the role of militias, the scale of violence and civilian participation in the war were marginalized in these accounts. In the end, they were also social constructions that selected their own material from the open archives of history.
As for the cultural constructs aimed at untangling the issue of organized violence and perpetrators, only a few daring proponents of critical memory, themselves with experiences of militia life, portrayed the violence of the civil war in its full intensity. At the same time, Beirut presented a less filtered version of the negotiation of the legacy of the war. To a careful gaze, the city offered clear demarcations of sectarian spaces that presented their own understanding of Lebanese nationalism. The city in a way epitomized the contestation between official memory and its sectarian slant, since the spatial boundaries of sectarianism that echoed the fronts of the civil war still existed in Beirut, in contrast with the high-rise downtown of Hariri's capitalism. While the reconstruction removed some of the debris and physical reminders of the war, each sectarian space in the city retained its own practices of remembering, through memorials and ceremonies.
Haugbolle ends his study with a discussion of the problems of "seeking the truth" about the past. He warns the reader that "hierarchies of national cultural production" simply cannot capture the memories of victims; in fact, they often gloss over individual experiences (p.194). The Independence Intifada, right after the assassination of Hariri in 2005, had a clear political goal of getting away from the Syrian orbit, but it also brought one reality to the forefront: sectarian subjectivities do not go anywhere in Lebanon. Every attempt at public reconciliation has caused the sectarian ties and biases to resurface. For Haugbolle, sectarianism is the limitation of memory-cultures in Lebanon and the Middle East; its existence in Lebanon should be acknowledged despite wishful thinking that it will wither away.
Haugbolle's study is very engaging and insightful. Its value rests on his ability to interweave political and cultural histories within the framework of an excellent discussion of memory, nationalism and sectarianism. Such cultural histories are a rarity in Middle Eastern studies, and his work fills a gap in the modern history of Lebanon. Central to his analysis of the postwar Lebanese culture is his awareness that every fragment of memory is a social construct. The most compelling chapters are the ones focused on the war, the city landscape of Beirut and truth telling in Lebanon. It is true that, in the immediate aftermath of periods of crazed violence, "forgetfulness plays a constructive role in social memory" (p.15). Yet, individual and collective suffering does not go anywhere. Memories stay there, open to more manipulation, to be passed on to the next generation, perhaps ready for the day when they can be excavated and renegotiated. Haugbolle's book is a great contribution to the modern history of Lebanon. It provides a refreshing and humanistic look at some very bloody years of political development.