Beirut's artists confront legacy of civil war

Through the entire Lebanese civil war, which lasted more than 15 years, novelist Hasan Daoud hunkered down with his family in West Beirut. On calm days, he wandered the streets and took in his city's destruction one cafe at a time, one balcony at a time, stone by stone.

Now, he says when he walks the central district, once a no-man's land between East and West Beirut, "I see two things, past and present" - except much of the past exists only in his memory.

That's because a frenzied plan to rebuild has re-envisioned the "centreville" as a bubble of chic shops and trendy restaurants, an unscathed jewel box of 1930s and '40s architecture. "There's been an attempt to produce an artificial memory that was not burdened by the war years ... a history-free space," says Ralph Bodenstein, a research fellow at the German Orient Institute in Beirut.

But many artists, like Mr. Daoud, criticize the new downtown as a cover for the country's war wounds. Through installations, websites, and publications, they are trying to confront the past. One of the latest projects is Transit Beirut, a collection of literature and drawings - including four short stories by Daoud - released this spring.

"I need to talk about [the war], to know more things about it," says Reine Mahfouz, a photographer. But "it's not very easy. Some people say we should never talk about it."

The Taif Accord, which ended the civil war in 1990, issued amnesty for most war crimes - and permitted many warlords to continue in top government spots. As a result, the country has had no war-crimes tribunals or truth commissions. That's left many feeling that the war ended with no real conclusion. "There's a general amnesty which complies with a general amnesia," Mr. Bodenstein says.

But others attribute Lebanese reticence to more than just politics. In the United States, sites of collective memory have become common urban accessories, drawing criticism as therapy's equivalent of shopping malls. If the belief that trauma requires an open healing process is a pillar of popular psychology in the West, it has yet to find wide acceptance here.

"You don't have this idea that if you had a very hard experience you have to talk about it ... it's not a must," says Ms. Mahfouz.

Compounding this, says Daoud, is a Lebanese disregard for history. He points out that Lebanese poets and writers can hope for no more than two generations of fame. By contrast, "Go to Cairo and read the name of a street there, and it's the name of an Egyptian writer living hundreds of years ago."

The feeling of a cosmopolitan city in a conservative Middle East is part of Beirut's charm and helps draw foreigners to its exuberant nightlife. But these days, the city hums with a "nervous energy," says Roseanne Saad Khalaf, Transit Beirut's coeditor and a creative-writing teacher at the American University of Beirut. "People are frantically trying to make up for lost time."

Contributors to Transit Beirut and others say this nervous energy belies persisting tensions. The divisions between Christians and Muslims, Palestinians and Lebanese, are still pronounced, they explain, pointing out that some cab drivers still refuse to cross between the city's Christian East and Muslim West - and that every new mosque must be matched by a new church.

"It's a very unusual postwar. The random violence has stopped, but the hostility is still there," says Samir Khalaf, the coeditor's husband and a prominent Lebanese sociologist.

Proponents say open dialogue about the war is crucial to prevent future conflict. What the country needs to move forward, Mr. Khalaf says, are venues where different voices can be heard and new ideas about what it means to be Lebanese can take shape outside of creed.

Mahfouz grew up during the war in East Beirut, where Palestinian refugees were faulted for hostilities. When the war ended, she risked offending family and ventured into the camps with her camera. Her pictures capture mundane scenes - a kitchen sink, sun-dappled pots - and transform places with militant associations into ordinary dwellings.

Last year, Nada Sehnaoui, who is known locally for her paintings and art installations about the war, solicited memories of prewar Beirut. Her exhibit downtown featured recollections typed and pasted onto stacks of newspapers.

"I think we need everybody's narrative," she says. "We all together at the end of the day destroyed the country and we killed 150,000 and wounded 300,000.... Who started it, why, when - it becomes secondary.

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