A Peace Memorial
Marie-José Daoud - 22/06/2010
Alfred Tarazi (29 years old) was collecting cartridge cases in a street near his home when a couple of 6 year-old kids playing with sticks stop him and ask him:
- “What are you doing?”
- “I’m going to Achrafié(1)”, he replies;
- “So you’re a Kataëb(2) then!” they exclaim while getting closer to him in a threatening way.
“I ran away, tells me Alfred during our interview in a teashop in Beirut; these children were incredibly aggressive”. He takes a break and goes on: “Coming across children doing roadblocks like their parents used to do twenty years ago is not normal.” He stops, stares at me with emotion behind his 70’s style glasses: apparently the incident has really upset him and with good reason.
Alfred Tarazi has been working on memory for years and he has been struggling to set up a memorial commemorating the civil war that has shaken Lebanon between 1975 and 1991. “Believing that war is over is false, he explains, it will be over the day when violence will not be valid as an option anymore.” And yet, “as long as we have not yet assimilated the lessons of civil war, we will not get anywhere. There is still a lot of mistrust between confessions, the slightest provocation can ignite the country.”
One of the first projects developed by Alfred is the “Silent Square” concept ( www.silentsquare.org ). The idea is to set up 200 000 2.2 metres metal tubes holding red lights covered with red textiles in the centre of Beirut. Among the posts, under the Martyrs’ Square monument, a large 4 metre deep square hole would host a massive grave where 2000 white clay heads would be piled. One would access the grave by a long 64-metre slip road. “When we tell people about the 200 000 posts in the city centre, they exclaim: but that’s too much! And yet, that is the number of deaths this war has caused. Can you imagine, if 200 000 posts is too much, what about 200 000 human lives then?” he asks me while looking straight into my eyes.
The Silent Square project was never realised but Alfred continues to reflect and to create on the theme of memory as he says, “it’s the process that is important, more than the project itself: for many people, the story of this war does not belong to them; there’s a lot of work to do to make sure they make it theirs.”
Recently, on the 13th April, the occasion of the commemoration of the beginning of civil war, Alfred, together with his group called the Feel Collective , presented ( www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=122332047637&ref=search&sid=648840412.3908503946..1 ) photos, videos and sculptures at the Dome , an old cinema in reinforced concrete that serves as an alternative exhibition hall. The idea was to make people react, to collect their ideas and their impressions on the memory of war. Another Association called Umam ( www.umam-dr.org ) has organised an exhibition of photos of missing people from civil war: more than 70 000 have been counted till today. Umam is an association created in 2007 and focusing on the theme of “active memory” intentionally revisiting Lebanon’s past. Umam assumes that the theory of “closing the files” that prevailed after the war has failed. This theory advocated ignoring the past to stop the cycle of violence. The Association believes that Lebanon urgently needs to tackle the quest for truth and make it public in order to avoid further clashes.
“We must ask ourselves why it has happened even if it stirs up a lot of things”, states Alfred Tarazi, “until now we have not managed to agree on a common history: the Lebanese civil war is not even taught in schools! Each community has its own history, its own version; this is what is retransmitted by politicians, the press and the parents of children of each side”. This has the effect of creating a national identity according to community. A few years, a video that circulated on the net sums up the situation perfectly: when a French person is defined as French and an Omani person says he’s Omani, and a Bolivian says he’s Bolivian, the Lebanese introduce themselves as Sunni, Maronite, Shiite or Druze ( www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZaZa2brNSc&feature=related ). Given the situation, how can they consider building a common future if they do not recognise a common history and a common identity?”
“Working on memory is working on the upcoming”, states Alfred. “The reason why there is no memorial today, is because there is no “closure”. Better than any French term does, this English term describes the act of closing a traumatising experience, of being in peace with it. But how can one be in peace with a war whose ins and outs are unknown? When war criminals find themselves leading the country today?
Because under the Amnesty Act of 1991, former militias were able to integrate administrative and military positions in Lebanon and former warlords monopolize high positions in politics.
“I don’t think that the Lebanese regret what has happened,” notes Alfred. “There is a general indifferent attitude towards the catastrophe. Political parties deal with the suffering and bloodshed in a very thoughtless way. Much is said about the assassination of Rafik el Hariri, former prime minister assassinated in 2005, but why just talk about him? We are all equal before death”.
In spite of all this, one of the reasons why the memorial project is still blocked is because there exists a real debate on who to include: all the dead of civil war? Only the Lebanese? Or also the Syrian, the Palestinians, the French, the American and other who have died during the war? And among the Lebanese, shall one include the militia, politicians, and warlords? “Without mentioning the difficulty of convincing the different communities to celebrate their dead together…” adds Alfred.
Nonetheless this is urgent. Walid Sadek, son of the famous Lebanese caricaturist Pierre Sadek nicely expressed it when he asked his father during a conference: “You have known something united called Lebanon. I was born in a country at war and which is at war. Can I claim something that would be called Lebanon?”
“The problem of the initiatives such as that of the Dome of Beirut, Alfred tells me while I talk to him on the phone after the end of the exhibition, is that they always attract the same public, the one interested in culture. We have received more than 500 visits which is fine but we should reach the general public; next time we will try to work closer with the media especially with television”.
The day of our interview, before leaving, I had asked Alfred what he was going to do with the cartridge cases he was collecting. His answer was: “I will put them in a box”.
1) - Achrafié, also written as Achrafieh is one of the oldest Christian districts of East Beirut.
2) - Kataëb: one of the Christian militia in Lebanon.
Translated into English by Elizabeth Grech