Letter from Beirut: Corruption, War Denials, and Distorted History Lessons

Etel Adnan
“After the Bombing” (1977) by Seta Manoukian.

Dear Elie,
I recently went to Beirut for an exhibition of my drawings at the Galerie Janine Rubeiz, and also used the occasion to also look around and see what had happened since my last visit there.
As it was still spring, the weather was wonderful. The warm and cool breezes that we know so well mingled, and the sea retained its magnificent variety of colors. Later, in the summer, everything gets to be grey-white and blurry.           
The country is in a rather subdued state. The public feels happy to have rid themselves of that immense corruption at government level that mortgaged Lebanon’s future with a double huge debt both to foreign countries and to foreign and local banks. Everything that has been achieved since the end of the war, and a lot has been achieved, has cost to the country three or four times its real value!
In Lebanon there is a traditional mistrust of government coupled with unreasonable expectations from it. The new government is broke and paralyzed. Every move involves so many vested interests that it’s practically impossible to go ahead with any decision.
There has been and still is much talk about bringing to court the ministers and other government officials who are accused of embezzling large amounts of money. Rumors circulate that some of them have reimbursed the state. But no official information has been issued on these subjects, and if everyone who is suspected has to be tried, the judicial system will collapse under the workload and expenses. As usual, much has been hoped for and very little has been achieved.
The new Finance Minister launched many proposals for all sorts of taxation, but every sector has reacted negatively. Life is already expensive and if heavy taxes are levied, most merchants will go bankrupt, and a chain reaction of lay-offs will ruin the people.
Lebanon is a country which sustained on its tiny surface 15 years of steady civil war and destruction. It cannot recover in a matter of years or even decades. First, the war needs to be recognized for what it was: a war. People in Lebanon still call it “the events.” That denial is pretty serious; by calling it “events,” the people seem to deny respon¬sibility for it, as if “foreigners” (why not Martians?) have come and fought on Lebanese soil. Even if it were true that foreign powers and neighbors fought their battles through the Lebanese factions – and that is true to a very large degree – it is also true that the Lebanese militia conducted the battles, the massacres, and the destruction. There is currently no debate or discussion on the war and its consequences, and thus no solution in sight for the profound divisions in that society. Denial is the worst approach to any question.
In this context of denial, recent history is neither taught in schools or universities, nor discussed openly in the newspapers or even in private conversations. Popular belief suggests that such discussions are capable of opening old wounds, though the wounds are there and still open, not healed but covered with silence. A whole new generation is living in historical limbo.  
This problem of silence stretches into the distant past. A student from the American University of Beirut told me recently, “They tell us we were Phoenicians, then there is today, and for the in-between, nothing!” Of course, most don’t even know that “Phoenician” is the word that the Greeks had for the Canaanite tribes or city-states of the whole Eastern Mediterranean coast, including the Palestinian coast, nor do many know that the Canaanites were originally Semitic people migrating north and west from the Arabian peninsula. Archeologists know this, but the average person in Lebanon (and in many Arab countries) knows very little about the history of his/her country. A few generalities take the place of genuine historical knowledge about their homeland.
There are deep political reasons for this apparently innocent ignorance. In a few predominantly Muslim countries the pre-Islamic past is ignored or dismissed as being part of the Jahiliyah, a misuse of the word in the Koran which means “moral ignorance.” Only a few countries, like Iraq and Syria, have made great efforts to claim their past and teach their history in schools, covering all the major historical periods which took place on their soil.
In Lebanon one major reason for this lack of genuine historical studies in the schools is that practically all the schools are religious schools and predominantly Catholic schools run by French nuns according to the French system of education and French programs of studies. This is so prevalent that practically few rebel against it! They speak of the need for a “lay society” while from kindergarten on their children study at religious establishments. Moreover, the schools inherited from a colonial period, when local history was totally ignored and children were taught French history in detail at the expense of national and regional studies. This program of alienation is not simply tolerated but favored. In any conversation, people defend this obsolete system of education by saying, “But these schools are so good! And after all what choice do we have? Public schools are either too bad or nonexistent!” Muslim and Christian alike, up to 
90 percent of the school-age population goes to Catholic schools run mostly by French missionary nuns. This is certainly not a model for a lay society. The remedy would require first of all the willingness for change, which does not seem to exist. Next, they would need a coherent economy in order to create first rate public schools in which a real national (and non-denominational) society would be built,  a society where identification would not be communal, sectarian, or religious, but would be built around the notion of citizenship and obedience to the laws. Only a civil society rallied around just laws can reduce the chronic tensions within Lebanon. But that is not on the visible horizon.
Sadly, this disastrous system of education based on a push toward “francophonie” is alienating the Lebanese from their own past (the Canaanite, Hellinic, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, and Ottoman periods) and from their Arab environment.
Lebanon has a special political system; although religious affiliation, clannish allegiance, and some feudal customs are still playing a dominant role in politics, Lebanon also has democratic institutions which speak well for the future. It is still one of the very few Arab countries where the change of government happens in a legal, peaceful, and democratic way. This is extremely important. In spite of his personal power, a prime minister like Rafik Hariri was replaced when a new president came into power. The new government is believed to be honest, but it has inherited so many debts and failures that it is practically paralyzed.
Another issue that is never addressed, and is in fact officially ignored, is the presence of some 300,000 Palestinian refugees or children of refugees. It is hoped that with the advent of peace with Israel, these refugees will go back to their country of origin (as required by international law as well as humanitarian and common sense). At that time, the Lebanese will be obliged to look at their country’s demographic make-up and find ways of representation in Parliament which will reflect the reality of the country and satisfy the fears that some quarters seem to express constantly.
Given that economically and politically there is little hope for change in the near future, where is the breathing space left? I would think that that space is in the area of culture, with cultural production and cultural activities.
Lebanon has had a place in Arab culture disproportionate to its geo¬graphical size. Beirut was the home for the first Arabic printing press and the seat of great freedom of expression in this century. The city’s rich mosaic of ethnic and religious groups (when it doesn’t lead to violent confrontations) and open-minded, risk-taking entrepreneurial spirit has made Lebanon a fascinating cultural milieu. All this, in spite of the war years, continues to flourish.
Lebanon has an interesting press. Numerous newspapers include some of the best in the Arab world; An-Nahar and As-Safir to name two with the largest readership. Newspapers are extremely important to culture in that world because, for economic reasons, literary magazines are few or nonexistent, and the newspapers contain cultural pages which are invaluable in a world where people read books less and less.
Painting is an art form which has taken hold in the Arab world since the 1950s and is still thriving, while in the West it is gradually giving way to new forms such as installations, videos, mixed-media, and so on. There are a few professionally run galleries such as the Janine Rubeiz Gallery, Epreuve d’Artiste, and Al-Agyal. The new generation of painters in Lebanon is innovative, audacious, vibrant. Recently, the Rubeiz Gallery participated in the Geneva Art Fair and the five or six Lebanese painters represented received favorable comparisons with the other exhibitors. This initial opening to a more international market will be followed this September by the same gallery in Paris, and later, probably, by one or two of the other galleries. At the UNESCO Gallery, there was a large show of Syrian painters and sculptors which was quite stunning and one of the very few recent inter-Arab cultural events of any importance in Beirut.
The economic crisis which is plaguing Lebanon has, of course, a negative influence on its cultural life. The theater is suffering from lack of financial sponsors for its plays, and most stage directors are discouraged by the lack of opportunity for genuinely lively productions. Nidal Achkar, with her Al-Madina, is courageously surviving, but she cannot produce all that she wishes: plays and shows cost huge sums of money and bring in very little. The Ministry of Culture lacks both a real budget and an imaginative program. The only other playhouse, the Theater Monot, is part of the French Jesuit University and does its best in a disorderly fashion; good and poor productions alternate. In the midst of a college campus, it benefits from its lively surroundings and its young audiences.
The Arab world has an incredibly rich and magnificent tradition in crafts. However, unlike the Japanese, for example, the general public and contemporary artists alike in Arab countries despise their crafts and have allowed them to practically disappear. Public opinion has been shaped by the bourgeois taste that colonialism brought to their countries. The Arab world really has no excuse; hiding in an inferiority complex often compensa¬ted by much arrogance, these artists (and architects) look down on their own heritage, and their attraction to the West (usually without understanding its real merits) makes them ignorant of the principles of their own ancient arts. In fact, in India, Japan, Iran, China, Korea..., all over Asia, new generations of artists are incorporating their past into their new adventures, bringing to contemporary culture an invaluable contribution. On this score, the Arabs are far behind. In fact, besides some commercial contacts, Arab intellectuals and artists are thoroughly ignorant of Asia, and they should be sorry.
The cultural life in Lebanon could be revitalized by the Lebanese themselves, despite the lack of a serious government policy, but this is a domain where tradition is lacking. Lebanese society, like many Oriental societies, is based on what is called “extended families,” putting much responsibility on the shoulders of successful family members for less prosperous ones. People assume obligations towards their relatives and that leaves little room for outside charities or donations. There are many networks, religious and secular, to help the needy, but at present very few projects of public interest are funded by individual citizens. There are probably a few hundred Lebanese, in Lebanon and elsewhere, among the very rich in the world, and they could do a lot in the domain of culture: build a museum of contemporary art, fund a first rate school of contemporary music, endow one or two theaters, establish an academy for the preservation and the propagation of the Arabic language, clean and restore stone-built villages, donate funds for literary or artistic prizes, even renovate some schools... etc...  
Three annual music festivals follow a custom set before the war. The Hotel Boustan, Baalbeck, and Beiteddine Festivals bring some of the best music and dance companies. Dependent on private initiative and limited by time and budget, they do a remarkably good job. But Lebanon needs more and different projects. It needs the type of energy and vision that Hariri showed at the beginning of his reign when he restructured and rebuilt the huge area which constituted the center of Beirut. Culture has to be understood and respected the same way economic ventures are. Culture is seen as entertainment and that is its downfall: in fact, cultural activities are indispensable to the health of a society and they are likely to become a positive economic factor.  Culture is an industry that can enormously help Lebanon out of its crisis.
Unfortunately, many advisers try to push Lebanon into tourism without thinking of the kind of tourists they want. And they have to clean up the environment first! Personally, I would rather see Lebanon become a kind of an open-air permanent university than a bordello.
Lebanon has the people: the university graduates, the poets, artists, young musicians, aspiring movie-makers, an educated class willing – in fact yearning – to exercise in full liberty its various abilities. But it needs a few individuals who have both the money and the vision to create the institutions, the environment, the direction, where all these latent talents can flourish.
For the time being, people are doing their best: the country still has its magic and some of the air of freedom which made recently it an exceptional place for half a century. They are not giving up. That is essential. And I don’t think that they will give up. There are great moments of hope when one is over there, when one sees how much a few individuals, be they professors, poets, architects or simple laborers, do with the little they have to work with. The story which is unfolding there is indeed an interesting one.    
– Etel Adnan

This article appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 27, Spring 1999.
Copyright © 1999 AL JADID MAGAZINE