Sleepless nights: confessing without the confession

Mariam Saiidi with a cardboard photo of her son, Maher.

This is the second excerpt of the book chapter I wrote as part of the book “The Social Life of Memory: Violence, Trauma, and Testimony in Lebanon and Morocco” edited by Norman Saadi Nikro and Sonja Hegasy and published in November 2017.

It’s available on (if you have university access) and you can buy it here.

For part 1, click here. For part 3, click here.

The section below is the first one after “The Ghosts of Lebanon’s Present” and before “The Perfect Day Will Never Come: Restlessness in a Perfect Day and Here Comes the Rain” (not published yet) and the conclusion. I had also written a review of Sleepless Nights shortly after it came out in 2013.

In Sleepless Nights (2012), director Eliane Raheb tells the story of two figures: Mariam Saiidi, the mother of Maher, a 15-year-old communist fighter who was forcibly disappeared in 1982 during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and Assad Chaftari, a high-ranking intelligence officer and fighter with the Lebanese Forces (LF), a major Christian party which was allied with Israel and which was responsible for Maher’s disappearance. The two were on opposing sides during the civil war and today their existence is plagued by feelings of restlessness stemming from the war. On one side we find the perpetrator of violence, seeking, and failing, to forget, facing the victim of that same violence, who must remember. The fragile balance between these two mutually-exclusive realities defines Lebanon itself, a country in which the victims are told to move on by the very cause of their suffering. But unlike the all-too-common trend of trying to seek forgiveness without acknowledging the full extent of one’s crimes, symbolically represented in the documentary by a British psychoanalyst who, in her own words, has become “fully Lebanese” and who thinks that a “garden of forgiveness” is what’s needed, Raheb “slices through fuzzy notions of forgiveness and reconciliation, exposing the concept of clemency without justice as a mask that protects the perpetrators and leaves survivors with festering wounds” (Weissberg 2012). She does this by confronting Chaftari throughout the documentary and, more importantly, by refusing to offer him the “safe space” he is seeking. Indeed, Raheb “directly puts a distance between herself and the interviewee Assad Shaftari to avoid sharing the postulate of the narrated existence” and “dissociates herself from any underlying quiescence with the perpetrator in what follows” (Hegasy, forthcoming).

    Nearly half-way through the documentary, Chaftari goes to an exhibit on the disappeared. We see him pacing and looking at the photographs while Raheb asks him questions. He reveals that he brought his first gun from a Palestinian merchant from Chatila refugee camp. This surprises the viewer, specifically because it was in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps that Chaftari’s allies would commit the most notorious massacre of the civil war, under the supervision of the Israelis, in which hundreds of Palestinian civilians were killed (Al-Hout 2004). Not only that, but Chaftari seeks absolution for his crimes from none other than Gregoire Haddad, the famous “red bishop,” whose left-wing politics made him an enemy of the LF during the war—a “traitor to Christians” to quote Chaftari. We hear many of these stories in the documentary, stories that exemplify Lebanon’s extraordinary tendency to defy whatever would seem to be in its own self-interest, echoing Edward Said’s (1999) words describing “Lebanon’s capacity for money-making, conspiracy, and both individual and mass murder.” Chaftari could have sought absolution from any LF-leaning priest in Lebanon—by no means a rare breed. But rather than be “kind” towards Chaftari and seeing his choice as one of honest attempt, one should instead view his act as yet another escape. By seeking Haddad, Chaftari gives himself yet another “way out.” Instead of telling Saiidi what she needs to know, Chaftari is “making peace” with everyone else. He is seeking absolution everywhere but in the only place where he knows he could find absolution: Saiidi. To borrow from Butler again, Chaftari wants to mourn without mourning; he wants to change without changing. And since Lebanese society allows him to avoid Saiidi, it is Saiidi who is able to view Lebanese society in its naked hypocrisy, here embodied by Chaftari.

    The featured exhibit was part of the “Memory at Work” project set up by UMAM Documentation and Research (UMAM D&R), a Lebanese NGO thoroughly aware of the how the disappeared haunt Lebanese identity today. Describing their “raisons d’être,” UMAM D&R explain that their “guiding philosophy was based on the notion that serious, sustainable change was all but impossible, and that real modifications to existing sociopolitical practices could not be anticipated in the future without first conducting a detailed audit of Lebanon’s past—particularly its near-term, conflict-laden, war-loaded past.” This can be seen as a declaration of UMAM D&R’s modus operandi, and indeed one in which it explicitly warns against accepting the dominant regimes calling for both spatial and temporal erasures. UMAM D&R becomes Saiidi’s most powerful weapons. The faces of the men and women forcibly disappeared are there to haunt Chaftari, if only for moments.

In both Chaftari and Saiidi, we see memory as a lived experience, one which, to quote Anna Reading (2002), is “constructed dialectically.” Chaftari is not only haunted by his past, he is also defined by it. He tells us that, despite the guilt, he likes the feeling of being powerful and armed. It has contributed to his sense of masculinity and self-worth. Saiidi on the other hand has turned her son’s disappearance into a personal, and seemingly all-consuming, mission to uncover the truth. Sleepless Nights provides no conclusion to the viewer. There is no comfort, no reconciliation, no future, and no possibility of building a common entity of any kind as long as this wound’s very existence is denied so profusely. Chaftari, we are told by his children, always apologizes for the simplest of things. He goes to a variety of therapies, from the palpably ridiculous to the self-absolving religious. He even tries, one imagines with great angst, to “be good” on a daily basis. Simply by deciding to talk about his past, he has already “done more” than most of those who participated in the civil war, especially those as high-ranking as he was. One thing he refuses to do, however, is give Saiidi the one piece of information she requires to move on, namely the whereabouts of the son taken from her nearly four decades ago by Chaftari’s men, or even to convincingly prove to her that he is in fact dead. In the relationship between Saiidi and Chaftari we see the manifestation of the “open, simmering wound” previously discussed (Nikro 2012). Or, to quote Saiidi, when Maher went missing, it was “as if time stood still” (Raheb 2012).

    Chaftari’s revelations and his “confessions” are instrumental to understanding the state of postwar “state-sponsored amnesia” in Lebanon. He is the closest thing that we have to understanding how the political elite formed during the civil war views itself today. Given that, with a few exceptions, no warlord was ever legally prosecuted nor can he be due to the amnesty law, it can be assumed that the reason why Saiidi is very skeptical of state and party officials claiming to know that her son was killed is because she understood that it would expose deep-seated fears about Lebanese identity that, as Rola told Craig Larkin, is perceived as “dangerous” because it “would awaken something that is not yet ready to be awakened” (Larkin 2010b). But will Lebanon ever be “ready”? The “formal discourse” surrounding the war is, after all, that of “no victor, no vanquished.” The civil war, as far as the state is concerned, ended, and there is no need to declare winners and losers. For Saiidi, this inevitably means that she has already lost and the very source of her loss will never be recognized. Saiidi has no reason to believe that Lebanon will ever be “ready,” which is why she has resigned herself to accepting this restlessness as the price needed for her son’s memory to stay alive.

    But Sleepless Nights also offers us a look into the relationship between the war generation and its postwar offspring through the appearances of his son, Elie. It soon becomes clear that, while Chaftari is troubled by his role in the civil war, Elie complains of his father and his “over-i’itizār” (meaning, over-apologizing) (Hegasy 2014). To Elie, the civil war is an annoyance that is keeping his father down far more than it should. “His excessive apologizing will destroy him! Non-stop apologizing! One apology is enough!” he complains before adding, “no need to go into all those details and talk all the time. Saying ‘sorry for what I did’ once is enough!” We see Elie embodying this regime of amnesia that has come to define the world around him. We soon find out that he didn’t even know that his father took photos with Bashir Gemayel. When Raheb shows him the photos, the son reacts with amazement: “At my age, he had a high position and was surrounded by exceptional people. The knowledge and culture he was acquiring. There is such a difference between their generation and ours.”

    Elie then notes that his father seemed more comfortable with himself back then. “I think in that period when these pictures were taken, he looked comfortable with himself as the pictures show. Unlike today, his face seemed happy and relaxed.” Elie recognizes the men in the photos. He knows who Bashir Gemayel and Elie Hobeika were, and his praising of them suggest that he would label himself as a supporter of the Lebanese Forces or the Phalangists today. It therefore follows to suggest that a component of Elie’s identity can be directly linked to the inherited sectarian historiography that was passed on by his parents, and by Chaftari in particular. But despite Elie’s awareness of his father’s heroic past, it quickly becomes clear that he too aches to know more. He tells us that while his father does speak of his past, it is rare and one which follows Elie’s arduous insistence. To Elie, this bygone era is truly lost. Elie wants to know what this “information that [Chaftari] keeps to himself” is. It is a piece of the puzzle that for some reason continues to be elusive. When Raheb asks him if he likes how his father was, Elie replies: “I don’t know how he was. I really don’t so I can tell whether to love him or not.” This shows that Elie is aware that he romanticizes his father’s past. And with no way of knowing, what else can he do? Not only is Chaftari not moving on, but Elie has inherited his father’s restlessness. Unlike Chaftari however, Elie cannot know where this feeling is coming from as he lacks the historical and hermeneutical baggage to interpret these events.

    Elie’s experience parallels my own. Although his upbringing was “political” and mine “apolitical,” we both inherited the same restlessness common to the postwar generation. To us, our relationship with “time” and “history” and “the past” is one of which we are at the receiving end. This, as we will see, with A Perfect Day and Here Comes The Rain leads to the temporal erasure of our sense of “past” and “future,” leaving our generation “stuck” in the present.


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