Monday, March 5, 2012

Resisting history

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon. Below I've restored my inverted commas around the word 'resistance' that the editors removed]

Those who do not learn from history, it is commonly said, are condemned to repeat it. By this measure, the prospects would seem bleak for Lebanon, where an ever-compounding political entanglement continues to deny schoolchildren so much as the option of learning about anything that has occurred in their country since the first half of the twentieth century.

Last month, Culture Minister Gaby Layoun was widely reproached for remarking that “There is nothing called the ‘Cedar Revolution.’” Now, the latest dispute concerns the decision to dedicate one hour per week to studying what a new draft syllabus calls “Lebanon’s resistance against Israel and its plans.” According to a copy of the document obtained by NOW Lebanon, students would be taught about “the Israeli strategic [ambitions] toward the elimination of the Lebanese stain, the Israeli ambitions in both land and waters [and] the resistance’s importance in terms of defending Lebanon.”

On Tuesday, Kataeb MP Sami Gemayel became the latest politician to reject the new syllabus, calling it “unacceptable.”

Elsewhere, in recent months the proposed syllabus has attracted criticism from almost all corners of the political landscape, from the Lebanese Forces and the Progressive Socialist Party to the Free Patriotic Movement and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. 

Opposition to this proposal has taken several forms. First, there are those, such as Gemayel, who decry what they see as a distortion of history in the omission of any reference to 'resistance' against non-Lebanese forces other than Israelis. While declaring that 'resistance' to Israel was “important,” he went on to say, “There are Lebanese who resisted the armed Palestinian presence in the country and the Syrian occupation – why are they left out?”

“Mentioning [only] one resistance,” he added, “disregards the causes of a wide range of Lebanese who took part in their own struggles and shielded Lebanon from potentially dramatic consequences.” Similarly, FPM leader Michael Aoun said Tuesday that, “the current history book that is being assessed by government is not suitable for schools… No one can eliminate a single historical development.” As army commander, General Aoun waged an ill-fated “war of liberation” against the Syrian occupation from 1989 to 1990. 

Then there are those who believe the syllabus will overlook the contributions of other 'resistance' movements against Israel. NOW Lebanon spoke to Democratic Left Movement MP Elias Atallah, who co-founded the secular Lebanese National Resistance Front (LNRF) that, he claims, staged its first attack on Israeli forces in Beirut just two days after the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres. “The Islamic resistance was established at a later phase. Seventy percent of Lebanese territory was liberated before Hezbollah existed at all.”

“Ever since its establishment on September 16, 1982, the LNRF was the base of resistance. We had hundreds of martyrs, and a big part of Lebanon was liberated by the LNRF. At the time, the Syrians and their proxies in Lebanon tried to eliminate us by assassinations, similar to those that accompanied the Independence Intifada [of 2005], and now they’re trying to erase us again by fabricating history. It’s true that Hezbollah was part of the resistance, but their role was relatively minor.”

There are also those who argue that the question of 'resistance' cannot be addressed in isolation, and must instead be incorporated into a comprehensive history of the civil war in its entirety. Lebanese University historian Issam Khalife told NOW Lebanon that “There has to be a scientific approach. One cannot look at only one resistance; one has to look at them all in general. Moreover, one has to examine the wider history of the war – the causes, the human cost, the economic cost and the conclusions.”

Finally, there are those who dismiss the entire 'resistance' debate altogether. Lokman Slim, the publisher and activist whose projects include the UMAM Documentation and Research NGO established in part to archive materials from the civil war, told NOW Lebanon the recent controversy was “ridiculous.”

“From whomever it comes, whether it be Hezbollah or the other kid, Sami Gemayel--who wants to revive the memory of the quote-unquote ‘Christian resistance’--or the people in South Lebanon who collaborated with Israel and are now criticizing Gemayel because he disregarded them, or the Communists who will also claim their ten minutes of ‘resistance,’ I think that it’s all just part of our deadlock that proves we are the hostages of an outdated mentality.

"They are fighting a micro-domestic civil war, for the simple reason that they cannot fight larger wars or be part of larger issues,” said Slim.

The timing, Slim added, was conspicuous: “Putting forward this history issue [now] is a sign of big cowardice. They are not facing the right issues: first of all what’s happening domestically with the government of Hezbollah, second of all what’s happening in Syria. So they are avoiding all this and focusing on an inoffensive diversion tactic.”

Whatever the case, it looks as though today’s Lebanese schoolchildren are no closer to being taught their modern history than their parents were.

Luna Safwan and Aline Sara contributed reporting for this article.

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