Book Reviews: The Social Life of Memory. Violence, Trauma and Testimony in Lebanon and Morocco.

Norman Saadi Nikro and Sonja Hegasy, eds. The Social Life of Memory. Violence, Trauma, and Testimony in Lebanon and Morocco. Palgrave, 2017.

The volume is a part of a book series exploring the relationship between cultural heritage and conflict. It derives from the research project Transforming Memories: Cultural Production and Personal/Public Memory in Lebanon and Morocco (2012-2014). The volume brings together scholars from various theoretical backgrounds, including social anthropology, geography, comparative literature, Middle Eastern studies and cultural studies, to contribute to the field of social-memory studies. The key theme of the volume is the different meanings of memory in its relations with time and place. In eight chapters, the reader finds examples from literature, journalism, films and urban landscapes that constitute the social life of memory in various aesthetic forms, political mobilization and intergenerational relationships.

In the introductory chapter, the editors provide a rationale for studying Morocco and Lebanon together. Despite their distinct political and social contexts, Morocco and Lebanon have similar experiences of violence that were often characterized by enforced disappearance and direct clashes. The editors argue that, despite the different trajectories of the respective postcolonial histories of Lebanon and Morocco, the people in both countries have experienced repeated violence, patterns that persist despite many positive initiatives in education, cultural production, the economy and public welfare. In both Lebanon and Morocco, the political situations are characterized by protest movements of new generations, who discover new forms of preserving and transforming memory in both private and public realms. These practices show that dealing with the past is not a prerogative of the states and cannot be limited to formal practices of commemoration.

Chapter two suggests a novel understanding of waiting as a prolongation of violence after the period of political repressions during the reign of Morocco’s Hassan II between 1961 and 1999, known as the Years of Lead. On the other hand, waiting is also conceptualized as a political position taken by the family members of the disappeared. By giving a detailed account of one disappeared political activist’s and his family’s experience of waiting, Laura Menin brings to the fore the potential of waiting as a form of protest and political mobilization. She shows the multiple meanings of waiting in order to capture the effects of the politics of disappearance.

Temporality is a key theme in the intergenerational transformation of memory. Chapters seven through nine approach what Marianne Hirsch calls “postmemory” from different perspectives, partly through the storytelling and testimony of older generations who bear witness and new generations that have different (if any) knowledge about what happened. The authors show how sectarian narratives reveal different layers of memories (within family, political parties and sectarian communities, cultural memories and students’ own reinterpretations) and influence the intergenerational transformation of memory.

In Chapter nine, dealing with local activism in the Rif region of Morocco, postmemory takes another form. The narratives of those who experienced and participated in uprisings (including the uprisings in 1984 and 1987, known as the Bread riots) constitute a foundational ground for the contemporary activism both in Morocco and among the Moroccan Berber diaspora.

The comparative mode of the volume emerges in the two empirical contexts of Morocco and Lebanon and within the conceptual level. The foundational conceptual discrepancy originates from Pierre Nora’s thesis that memory has become concentrated as lieu, that is a formal practice of commemoration. Contrary to Nora’s thesis, the contributors to the volume suggest that their research shows, firstly, how different social and cultural practices put forward a broader understanding of memory as social environment or milieu. Secondly, they suggest that memory takes place as tensions between lieu and milieu, i.e. tension between official practice of commemoration and other practices of preserving memory that are initiated in societies.

Several chapters of the volume contribute to the field of memory studies by bringing a critical perspective on the ways that memory is understood and how the past may be reinterpreted through the future. A number of “how” questions are stated in order to specify the focus of the volume: e.g., “how emerging, local practices of social exchange and cultural production involve re-socializations of memories of trauma and violence” (p.8).

The diverse theoretical backgrounds of the contributors lead to various methodologies being applied and some authors are more transparent with the way they approach the material than others. Pamela Chrabieh in Chapter seven is particularly clear, while the others are less well articulated—Chapter three is an example. Some chapters are more theoretically substantive than others, which augments their contribution. Chapter eight, written by Norman Saadi Nikro, offers an excellent example bridging the conceptual and empirical domains, as he analyzes interviews of an older generation conducted by high-school students within the oral history project Badna Naaref (we want to know) through the relational prism of bearing witness.

Even though each chapter provides insight into the studied contexts, it may be challenging to draw conclusions about the conceptual relevancy of individual experiences, works of art and other examples for a broader context of managing postcolonial history. Moreover, the volume offers controversial and diverging evaluations of one and the same entity, including, for example, the Moroccan Equity and Reconciliation Commission (ERC). While Laura Menin focuses on the shortcomings of the ERC’s failure to name the perpetrators and the absence of criminal prosecution, Sonja Hegasy and Brahim El Guabli describe the positive effects of the ERC on the Moroccan civil society, media landscape and its potential for bringing mnemonic justice. Those different approaches to the same process exemplify the core thesis of the volume. The chapters of the book do not provide guidelines for historical judgements, instead they show the multiple ways of interpreting and engaging with the past, where it is not truth that shapes the history, but the future and its needs.

The overall impression of the book is positive. Contributing to social-memory studies, the volume is also a contribution to the transitional justice literature. Even though the concept of memory takes central place, the chapters reflect on problems of justice, forgiving and living together. The book attempts to bridge gaps between the theoretical concepts and practice, where individual experiences from real people give a face and voice to the abstract notions of memory and history, time and place. After reading the volume, reader gets a palette of different meanings of memory as a social practice, as an event. Having shown different examples of the social life of memory in postcolonial Morocco and Lebanon, the authors succeed in elucidating the idea of memory as milieu and show the tensions between the formal official account of memory and radical social and political practices.

That said, in order to grasp the multifaceted contexts, methodological and conceptual nexuses, the reader would benefit from being familiar with the Moroccan and Lebanese contexts before reading the volume. Moreover, I wish there were more interaction between the chapters, specifically within the introductory chapter. Different methodological and theoretical explanations leave an impression of incoherency. Although the separate chapters have value in themselves, they are not happily assembled in one book. Alternatively, there could have been a concluding chapter that would tie together all the various ideas and projects the volume contains.

ALEXANDRA LEBEDEVA
Uppsala University– Source: historicaldialogues.org/2020/02/05/book-review-the-social-life-of-memory-violence-trauma-and-testimony-in-lebanon-and-morocco/

Book Review 2: (March 2019):Imai, H. (2019). In: International Sociology34 (2), 178–180.

Caravan project of the Order of Malta at Saint Joseph University in Beirut. Intensive course on Interreligious Dialogue in the Middle East.

Glad to be part of this amazing project – – Certificate of Study in the Historical and Religious Reality of the Middle East – “Caravan” Project of the Order of Malta with German students, at the Faculty of Religious Sciences, Saint Joseph University, Beirut-Lebanon, February 2020.

Expertise : Intensive course on Challenges, Opportunities, and Praxis of Interreligious Dialogue
in the Middle East: The Case of Lebanon.

With guest speaker Ms Nada Raphaël
Dabke session – Common cultural heritage in the Levant
Maamoul – Food as a tool of dialogue

Towards Building New Models in Lebanon?

The Ring – Beirut, January 14, 2020

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Buckminster Fuller

Fuller’s quote somehow makes sense. Indeed, should we work against establishments? Or should we help them transform for the better?According to Fuller, the second option is the best. I couldn’t agree more, but replacing existing models such as socio-political and economic systems of management as well as cultural norms with new systems and norms, requires a transformational journey – – both individual and collective, and therefore, deconstruction before reconstruction. Fuller went through such a journey before coming up with his famous quote.

It is clear there have been well thought and practiced alternative models on small scales (in classrooms and workshops, through activities organized by NGOs, in academic writings and artistic works, to name just a few of the many channels used in the last two to three decades), and that there is indeed a need for new large-scale models, but many Lebanese are not ready for them, or are simply not ready for change. And when people aren’t ready, they feel victimized, and they respond negatively. This behavior is called “resistance to change”. This resistance is the result of decades of wars and conflicts with their load of change which was inflicted on people, keeping them on the edge, nurturing their traumas. Many Lebanese lost trust in change, which makes it harder to think of and implement change in the present time.

In other words, changing existing entrenched and coercive models requires we all have to go through fighting/deconstructing them even if at different paces, in order to understand individually and collectively that the next step, whether tomorrow or in a few years, would be to build new models that are so desirable and so successful that most people will clamor for them.

For those of us who are unhappy with the way our country is managed now and has been managed for the last decades, and particularly for those of us who ache to see how much Lebanon is mired in painful poverty, inequalities and ignorance: let the deconstruction dynamics take place as they need to, and start working — if we want to and are ready to do it – – on the next phase, which is to build something new together. Nevertheless, before rebuilding systems of management, let us remind ourselves that we need to deconstruct then reconstruct the fundamental infrastructures of our systems of knowledge and mentalities that enable the different peoples living in Lebanon to become self-governing, empowered and ready to embrace change.

I don’t know exactly how we’re going to pull that off. I don’t know how long it will take. It might be our children or grandchildren who complete whatever we’re laying the foundation for, as coercive states, warlords and mafias aren’t going to suddenly go away, nor regional conflicts, but I know it’s worth it, because the future of our country depends on it.

Towards Inclusive Societies in the Middle East Conference Full Report

Our conference’s full report (“Towards Inclusive Societies in the Middle East”
Ayia Napa, Cyprus, October 31 – November 2, 2019) by Karis Ailabouni:
“Inclusive societies based on equal rights remain at a distance as the Middle East continues to face radicalized religious and political movements. In light of this, Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture and the Christian Academic Forum for Citizenship in the Arab World (CAFCAW) organized its fifth international conference entitled, “Towards Inclusive Societies in the Middle East”, held in Cyprus from October 31 to November 2, 2019. The conference gathered 47 scholars, activists, and experts from around the world with the aim of stimulating critical dialogue on the factors that hinder equitable societies in the region. In an effort to practice inclusion, 29 (61%) of the conference participants were women, while 9 (19%) were youth under the age of 35. In addition, participants came from diverse national backgrounds. The majority hailed from the region, namely Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and UAE. However, participants also joined from the USA, Canada, Sweden, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, and the UK. The conference provided also a forum for Arab scholars from the diaspora to connect to their peers from the region. The forum’s diversity of participation inspired an unparalleled interdisciplinary, ecumenical, and interreligious discussion, through which participants could explore issues from multiple perspectives.

Following a welcome dinner on October 31, the event consisted of eight sessions and 22 paper presentations over two days. Sessions I and II provided a theoretical framing of inclusivity in political and theological terms. This led into sessions III and IV, which tackled gender justice as a critical form of inclusivity. On day 2, the morning consisted of two sets of parallel sessions. The first contextualized inclusivity through specific insights from Lebanon and Egypt, while the second brought unique interdisciplinary approaches to the theme- from philosophy, to germ theory, to natural resource management.

The conference also made space to include a flash panel on the revolution currently unfolding in Lebanon. As a scholarly forum rooted in everyday realities, it was necessary to include this session given its relevance to the themes of the conference and to the sociopolitical context of the region at large. Lebanese participants shared their diverse perspectives from the ground, reflecting on the opportunities and challenges of the revolution as a platform for people to affect social and political change.

Several important themes emerged from the discussions surrounding these sessions. Firstly, the bondage of minoritization and sectorization in the Middle East poses a challenge to inclusive societies. Through histories of colonialism and authoritarianism, Christians have been constructed to think of themselves as minorities and, therefore, inherently disempowered. This phenomenon calls for a radically inclusive, popular theology that rejects sectarianism.

Inclusivity, then, requires societies in the Middle East to learn from local history so that they might deconstruct oppressive power systems inherited from colonialist and authoritarian regimes. Rather than reproducing exclusivist modes of authority, there is an urgent need to build new social contracts that empower the participation of all people in public life. This necessitates not only the building of new political systems, but also a sociocultural shift in which people begin to understand political participation not as a privilege, but as an essential dimension of their being.

Therefore, there is a need to pursue a collective journey towards inclusive societies. This was brought to light in discussions tackling gender justice, as many women’s movements are already carving a place for themselves as equal citizens. For example, women are at the front lines of the revolution in Lebanon. Meanwhile, women Islamic activists in Palestine are challenging the dominant culture by studying Islam and building their religious practice. In addition, women in the Evangelical Church in Egypt are struggling to become ordained leaders in their church through subversive ministry. Youth in the Middle East are also actively excluded from participation in public life. Research presented in the conference showed youth’s growing disillusionment with their future. Although they are eager to better their own community, many feel they must ultimately go abroad to realize their dreams. The problematic of Arab youth and women’s exclusion calls for participatory processes that allow the marginalized in society to make their voices heard.

Finally, the conference concluded with a discussion of pressing topics that might be addressed in future conferences. The recommendations emphasized by participants included the following:

Public theology of the religious other
Liberation from exploitation and authoritarianism
Technology, Religion and virtual realities
The role of education in social change, peace, and reconciliation

CAFCAW executive committee decided to choose the theme of Education for the next year with a working title “The Future of Education in West Asia and North Africa: Education for the Future.”

The conference was utilized as a platform to launch Telos magazine (www.telosmagazine.org), a new online magazine with a focus on public theology.

In addition to the stimulating discussions that surrounded these sessions, one of the greatest successes of the conference occurred informally. Academics and activists from around the world were able to build new connections with one another, creating a network where ideas and experiences could be exchanged. As one participant noted, the conference succeeded in developing a community of scholars and practitioners. This allowed not only for rich and critical dialogue, but also opened endless possibilities for future”.

Source: Dar al Kalima University of Arts and Culture

CAFCAW Executive Committee
Telos Wana Magazine Editorial Committee

Standing Together in a World Divided – Bangkok Consultation

My video conference has been screened a few hours ago in Bangkok – Thailand.

STANDING TOGETHER IN A WORLD DIVIDED – Consultation developed by the Presbyterian World Mission and the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), (PCUSA).
Bangkok – Thailand, November 1-6, 2019.
My paper will be available in due time (“Christian Responses in Western Asia: Case Studies”).

Full video here.

عن الحوار الإسلامي المسيحي، ذاكرة الحرب وبناء السلام في لبنان

Interested in the subject on Interfaith Dialogue, War Memory and Peacebuilding? This is the full version of my article, and you can have access to the PDF file on Telos’ site: https://www.telosmagazine.org/