Umam: en route towards a national project for the future  | Diala Gemayel
Umam: en route towards a national project for the future Print
Diala Gemayel   
Umam: en route towards a national project for the future  | Diala Gemayel
“The birth of Umam results from an experience and an observation, tells us Marie-Claude Souaid, anthropologist who joined the Umam Association Documentation & Research in 2009. The experience is the one lived by Monica Borgmann, German journalist, and Kokman Slim, Lebanese columnist, philologist and linguist. Together, they directed the film Massaker (massacre in German) in 2003, gathering testimonies of combatants at Sabra and Chatila. The couple immediately observed that the issue of the access to living testimonies was of utmost importance. It was about time to confront the discourse of memory on one hand – even if memory, a set of subjective memories, is not the truth-, and to start from research, on the other hand, in order to explore different levels of narration.”

And yet, that’s where the shoe pinches: “There is no access to documents and material to confront oral testimonies and above all, there’s no access to figures. This explains why in Lebanon, reality remains subject to manipulation, rumours and to the political fantasy of the moment. These three aspects are of course part of the memory process but they must be confronted to other processes.”
In 2004, the two filmmakers founded Umam Documentation & Research in order to fill in this gap. The centre is located at the entrance of Haret Hreik , in the outskirts of Beirut.
Lokman Slim collects documents and “grey literature” for the family library: the latter including pamphlets, caps, banners, one-off newspapers, menus, cinema tickets etc. i.e. objects dealing with violence in Lebanon from 1840 to today.

On the other hand, Monika Borgmann provides her audio collection from her past experience as a radio journalist in some Arab countries and in Israel. “The collection of archives comes from three different sources: second hand booksellers in markets, old bookstores and libraries adds Marie-Claude Souaid. Umam produces its local archives – collection of testimonies of ex-servicemen, victims and executioners – and prepares a daily review of the papers on 17 themes such as art, politics, news in brief, columns and editorials”. These archives are used to produce films and create exhibitions. However, it is important to precise that: “Our work is not a relativistic approach to history or memory. The aims of Umam are very clear: it proposes to construct this memory by comparing data on the one hand and to participate to the country’s transitional justice on the other hand.”

As the Lebanese anthropologist rightly says, “There are cultures for or against oblivion” and, till now, Lebanon has not been a model student of democracy, far from it. Explanation: “There can be no memory by eliminating differences and rejecting contradictions. Transitional justice is a long process that goes into building the future. But so far, no Lebanese political party wants to give up violence in order to resolve its conflicts. The country is therefore clearly still in conflict and this is what Umam does, it archives there years in a prospective vision. When we will indeed access peace and consensus, we will rely on our testimony. And all these records are already in security in a server.”

Umam is lucid as Marie-Claude Souaid clearly shows it: “The race for arms exists and the region is swept by a very strong current. Our task is to work for transitional justice and leave questions open. The Association maintains spaces for dialogue and diversity fully aware that even Umam is the mainstream of history and no one can stop it”…

Diala Gemayel
Juin 2010
Translation into English by Elizabeth Grech