issue 258 - August 1994
Seventeen years of war in Beirut inflicted deep psychological wounds on its citizens.
Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab records the painful process of recovery.
A huge black hole stands out at the very heart of Beirut. It was once the old city centre. With its historic squares and monuments, modern commercial centres, hotels, restaurants, cafes, brothels and cinemas, this was the focal point of the city, indeed of the whole country. Lebanese from all social and religious groups mingled here and contributed to what was called the ‘Lebanese miracle’: the quick ascendance of the young Republic to economic prosperity after its independence in 1943.
Before the war Beirut embodied a certain view of the Republic, albeit a controversial one, as a prosperous free market built on individual initiative and as a harmonious haven for many different religious and ethnic minorities. The war ruined and depopulated the old city centre and transformed it into a ‘black hole’, erasing it and all that it stood for. Instead it became a black-out in the memory of the Lebanese and of their country.
The city centre was emptied of its inhabitants and businesses, its buildings were confiscated, destroyed and burnt down, and the whole area was then transformed into a dangerous military zone, a frightening no-man’s land. People no longer had access to their shops and offices, nor were they able to meet with their colleagues and neighbours.
Today the Government has grandiose plans for a new futuristic city centre. In the meantime a budding entrepreneur has set out bright plastic chairs and tables as an improvised coffee-shop for viewers of the ruins. Hawkers sell postcards and illegally procured Lebanese cedar carved into improbable shapes. The war has ended but the legacy of the war remains intact, especially in people’s minds and hearts.
While acts of violence during the war were generally carried out by a relatively small number of Lebanese and non-Lebanese, war did not take place ‘out there’, on some front away from civilian life, but in the heart of it: in the apartments, shops and houses of its inhabitants. The ever-present threat of violence in its many forms – random and sudden shelling, sniping, kidnapping, car bombs – was everywhere and nowhere.
The general atmosphere of constant insecurity transformed the Beirutis’ environment into a minefield: car bombs or other devices could explode anywhere, shelling could start at any time, any armed militiaman could impose his will on anyone else, and in-fighting among militias could break out at any moment. Beirutis were permanently conscious of these dangers and thus tried to reduce their movements to a bare minimum. The Beiruti felt like a hostage in his or her own city. As Lebanese poet Nour Salman put it: ‘We are the inhabitants of the cages’.
In times of truce Beirutis remained constantly aware of the possibility of renewed outbursts of violence. They walked in the street knowing that any of the cars around them might explode. They took their children to school knowing that shelling might start while they were on the road or on their way home. They sat in a cinema hoping that a time-bomb would not go off. They knew they could be catapulted within a split second from a state of pseudo-normality into a state of apocalypse where totally different rules applied.
Journalists often presented photographs of Beirutis during the war lying on the beach or having dinner in restaurants as evidence of their unshakeable pursuit of the dolce vita, their indifference or habituation to war. The photographs could not tell how precious those moments of calm were to the woman on the beach, perhaps after the night of shelling she endured. Nor could they show her nervous exhaustion, her permanent anxiety for her loved ones, her acute worry about tomorrow. Engaging in their activities under the most difficult conditions was for Beirutis almost the only way of defying the rules of the civil war. Besides, they did not have much choice.
In this situation of permanent threat perceptions developed into defence mechanisms. Sight and sound became particularly important to estimate potential or actual dangers. Apartments, rooms and offices were perceived in terms of their exposure to possible shells, walls were checked for their resistance to possible blasts, and squares and seaside promenades, once recreational areas, were looked upon as highly exposed and dangerous places. Empty streets provoked uneasiness. One became nostalgic for traffic jams and the state of normality they symbolized, in spite of all the anger and hostility they caused. The sight of running people still inspires panic.
The generally tense atmosphere also gave rise to perceptual errors. Umbrellas, for instance, are still mistaken for machine guns. Auditory perceptual errors are more frequent still. The most common case is confusing the sound of banging doors or thunder with exploding shells or bombs. In times of shelling, it became vitally important to listen for exploding shells or rockets and to identify their direction in order to estimate potential danger. The war created a new sonic landscape.
Geography too came to play a major role in shaping the social life of the city. Even though Beirutis tried hard, and at great risk to themselves, to transcend barricades, check-points and demarcation lines to meet family members, friends or business partners, the elements shaping the face of the city imposed themselves very strongly. This led to the discovery and development of a new social life within one’s immediate spatial environment; but it also led to the loss or disturbance of another social life, based on familial, personal, professional, intellectual or other affinities. This loss is not renewed overnight, even though the barricades are now down.
Beirutis are also isolated from those who have not lived through the same violence. No matter how open and eager they may be to establish friendships with foreigners, they often feel a gap they cannot bridge because of the burden of the dramatic experience they carry within them. When asked to describe the crisis of their country or their daily life, Beirutis often do not know where to start.
The difficulty in talking about the war lies on the one hand in the pain and sorrow which often accompany the experiences lived through during the war. These are so traumatic that they are removed from the usual range of experience, thus lying beyond the framework of normal verbalization and expression. And yet, because of their traumatic nature, Beirutis feel the urgent need to talk about them and to express their shock, pain and exasperation. They remain torn between the wish to forget their war experiences and the need to communicate them to others.
How is it then that the people of Lebanon tolerated all the years of brutality and misery without rising up? The answer is that they didn’t. Several mass rallies and demonstrations, especially after 1984, were organized against the fighting by trade unions, peace organizations, artists, women’s groups and relatives of kidnapped and handicapped people. But every time these demonstrations were neutralized by the many local and regional ‘warlords’ who had an interest in pursuing the war. Even though the demonstrations were unable to stop the war, they laid the foundation for a new consensus. Society was brought together through common grief and the recognition that after 17 years of war, no party could eliminate the other: if living together was difficult, separation was even harder.
This consensus still remains to be built; but not through sentimental pathos accompanied by a renewal of the problems which nurtured the conflict. There are more fruitful alternatives than the opposing poles of shooting one another and falling into each other’s arms. The first duty of the Lebanese today is to be honest toward ourselves, for at stake are our lives and our future. The regional and international game of power has offered us a break from the madness of violence. It is up to us to take advantage of this opportunity and make it a new start for a healthier future.
The war started and ended without the explicit will of most of us, but fed on our fears, wishes and dreams. Now is the time to examine these together if we wish to become less vulnerable to the demons of collective aggression and collective suicide. It is time to set up civil forums of debate about our past, our present and our future. It is also time to cry out our wounds and our fears. We live in a region where ethnic and religious conflicts have caused cumulative injuries throughout the ages, and Lebanon seems to have inherited most of them, with Beirut as their epitome. Unless we are honest about our fears and fantasies, we won’t be able to take the first step towards reinstating democracy. The biggest challenge to Lebanon today is to move from the ancient and recent wounds of its different groups to the democratic duty of mutual respect and understanding. This is something that no-one else will do for us. It is in our vital interest to do it as properly and as thoroughly as we can. We are the guardians of the ruins but also the builders of the future.
Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab teaches philosophy at the American University of Beirut. This article is adapted from The Beirut Review.