This is the third 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.
The section below is the last one after “The Ghosts of Lebanon’s Present” and “Sleepless nights: confessing without the confession” in addition to the conclusion.
We often feel we are living in a state of latency, a situation in which things are there but remain unclear. Latency means something that exists without being apparent, but can manifest itself anytime, something dormant that is unfathomable, invisible but that could awake. It is a memory that has been smothered under the dominant amnesia prevailing since the end of the war, ruins lying under the concrete, something lurking in the town which wants to surge out. Latency is being there, even unseen. It is necessary in the face of evidence. (Hadjithomas and Joreige 2005a)
We see time standing still in another movie: A Perfect Day (Yawm akhar), directed by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige and released in 2005. Here, the state of latency described above is that of seemingly endless liminality. The movie revolves around three characters: Malek (Ziad Saad), a young man in his early 20s who works in construction and is obsessed with Zeina (Alexandra Kahwagi), his ex-girlfriend who no longer loves him; Claudia (Julia Kassar), a mother who lives her days hoping that her husband, Riad, missing for 15 years, would one day return; and Riad himself, missing and yet constantly present, “living” through the relationship between Malek and Claudia.
The relationship between Malek and Claudia is set in a Beirut frozen in time, a Beirut that stopped breathing when Riad disappeared, a phenomenon that Laura Bell (2014) described as “frozen grief.” The theme of restlessness therefore dominates A Perfect Day. Throughout the movie, we notice that several characters have been trying to quit smoking for over a decade, or even two. They never find a reason good enough. It is as though the perfect day to start quitting never came. Instinctively, we understand that smoking makes sense in a world where the future is defined by the past, where the present is not something that one aspires to be in, but something in which one is stuck. That is the world we inhabit in A Perfect Day’s Beirut. To stop smoking is, after all, to hope, on some level, for a brighter future, or any future. And what Beckettian foolishness it is to hope for a brighter future in today’s Beirut, the capital of the country in which “one is overwhelmed by the feeling that one’s life has no purpose” (Khalaf 2012).
Claudia knows deep down that Riad will never come back, but she cannot rid herself of the overwhelming, life-inhibiting guilt that she feels. Is it time to mourn him? Should they have an official funeral? What if he comes back? Will he hate her for not waiting? She still has his clothes. She still considers herself married. To her, the past isn’t just something haunting her, but also the only world she knows. As with Saiidi, Claudia cannot move on before knowing what happened to her loved one. They are not just inhabiting liminal space. They cannot get out of it. Time and time again we see the manifestation of what Samir Khalaf (2012) called a “threefold predicament” that dominates Lebanese society and much of Lebanese cinema: “alienation from the past, anxiety and unease about the present and uncertainty about the future.”
Malek, on the other hand, is portrayed as a young adult striving to “live life.” He parties a lot with his friends and is generally depicted as living a passive life with no responsibilities. He is obsessed with Zeina, desperate for her to provide his life with some meaning. One day, Malek receives a news update on his phone saying that a corpse was found in the quarry he works in. He immediately asks if the body dated back to the civil war and, when told that it was older, impatiently demands proof. It is clear that his mother’s restlessness was passed on to him. Is this postmemory at work? Malek never knew his father and is too young to remember the war. Yet, he experiences an anxiety that has come to define the life of his mother as if he were “remembering” himself. His obsession with Zeina provides an escape from a past he never knew but whose weight crushes all hope for the future.
In another manifestation of the amnesia game, Malek is diagnosed with Sleep Apnea Syndrome (SAS) which leads him to fall in and out of consciousness whenever he sits still for too long. The only tool at his disposal to avoid falling asleep is to stay active, something which he repeatedly fails to do, even falling asleep at a night club while looking for Zeina one night as well as on Corniche Beirut, the city’s seaside promenade. The frequency of Malek’s fall into unconsciousness can be interpreted as the reflection of wider society’s lack of self-awareness in a “pro-amnesia” political culture, “symptomatic of Beirut’s wider malaise, its liminality” (Carver 2005). Malek feels out of place because the space which he inhabits is constantly trying to erase the past his mother is trying to cling on to. He needs to move on as well, but move on from what? Unlike his mother, he cannot know “why” he feels this way because his act of remembering takes place in postmemory space.
Towards the end of the movie, Zeina leaves him again after kissing him. He thought that he had finally “made it” and convinced her to get back together, but he was wrong. Zeina “can’t handle this anymore” because “it’s always the same thing.” We do not know what this “thing” is but Malek’s reaction to being left alone again is interesting. We see him on the road again. Soon after, he loses consciousness again, prompting surrounding drivers to get out of their cars to try and help him. As a few of the men try to carry him out of the car, Malek reacts violently and ends up abandoned on the side of the road. After coming to his senses, he parks his car and notices that Zeina forgot her contact lenses in the passenger seat. Malek decides to wear them. It blurs his vision completely, and he starts driving. Beirut is turned into a city of blurred lights with faceless figures moving around him aimlessly. Malek seems unaffected by the change in his vision. It does not matter if he sees Beirut clearly with his own eyes because Beirut failed to give him what he is looking for, whatever that may be. Malek is then found asleep on a public bench near the coast. It was already time for a new day in Beirut. The perfect day never came.
Meanwhile, Claudia is waiting for Malek at home. Suddenly, during a scene dubbed, tellingly, “The Ghost,” she hears a sound coming from the front door. It sounded like a door creaking followed by the sound of footsteps. She waits a bit. We can tell that she is wondering whether Riad has come back as a ghost. She cannot see anyone but her ears are not mistaken: there is someone in the house. She sits still, trying to pick up any “movement” around her. And then, in a iconic scene, Claudia reaches out her hand towards the empty couch in front of her, trying to reach for Riad, but to no avail. If Riad’s ghost had reached out, it was only for a moment. Just like that, he was gone again.
In Here Comes The Rain (2010), Bahij Hojeij presents several worlds disfigured by Lebanon’s relationship with its disappeared. Ramez (Hassan Mrad) is suddenly released from a secret location after 20 years of being forcibly disappeared. He is returned to his wife, Marie (Julia Kassar), who is seeing another man but chooses to take care of her traumatized husband. Ramez regularly goes on aimless walks in Beirut. We see him walking in the city, lost and seemingly looking for something which might explain his predicament. The city he was robbed from has changed dramatically since he last saw it, as though his absence had no impact on it—it “moved on.” One day, he randomly meets Zeinab (Carmen Lebbos), a woman who has been living a solitary life ever since her husband Khalil was forcibly disappeared twenty years ago, the same year as Ramez. Meanwhile, Ramez and Marie’s children, Nadia (Diamant A. Abboud) and Elie (Elie Mitri), cannot connect with their father and seem preoccupied with their lives. Nadia is trying to get into a prestigious music academy in France while Elie has a job and regularly goes out with his friends, drinking and smoking.
And interspersed between these three main stories are monochromatic scenes of Nayfeh Najjar (Bernadette Hodeib) writing several open letters to her missing son, published in a Beirut newspaper. Najjar, we soon find out, is real and committed suicide in December of 1984, 10 months after her 13 year old son was forcibly disappeared. Issa Makhlouf (1988) described her as “the first victim of the relatives of the disappeared.” Ten months had passed between the kidnapping and her suicide. The same time period in Here Comes The Rain “parallels the temporal period of the film and works to structure it as interpolated scenes of her typing and, in the last, being photographed break through the central narrative” (Donald and Lindner 2014). Najjar’s story serves as an anchor reminding the viewer that this film is not “just” fictional.
But the film itself feels incomplete, as though Bahij Hojeij, the director, ran out of time. But one relationship depicted in the movie truly stands out: that of Ramez and Zeinab. On one of his walks, Ramez tires himself and almost collapses on the stairs of a building he does not live in. Zeinab hears noise outside and thought that it might be Khalil coming home. Instead, she finds an exhausted and dehydrated Ramez in need of help. Disappointed, she offers him water. Ramez then frantically repeats “they are going to kidnap me” as he is about to leave. Zeinab is visibly shaken but soon invites Ramez over for lemonade as he starts fearing the noise coming from below. The ensuing conversation between them is brief but revealing:
Zeinab: Who is going to kidnap you?
Ramez: Those that kidnapped me.
Zeinab: You were kidnapped?
Zeinab: Since when?
Ramez: A long time ago.
Zeinab: How long ago?
Ramez: I don’t know.
Zeinab: My husband is kidnapped. It’s been twenty years.
Ramez drinks a bit of the lemonade quickly and then says
Ramez: I want to leave. I want to leave.
Zeinab: Mr Ramez…
Ramez: I want to leave. I want to leave.
Ramez was under shock. Were his aimless walks throughout the city truly aimless? What are the odds of him meeting the wife of a man who was forcibly disappeared around the same time he was? His mind could not handle it. But Ramez goes back to Zeinab another day. He agrees to look at photos of Khalil to see if he remembers seeing him in the cell he was in. After a few attempts, however, Ramez gives up. He tells Zeinab that he does not know her husband. But Zeinab is not convinced that Ramez is trying hard enough, so she keeps on insisting. She asks him about his children in what seems to be an attempt to instill Ramez with a sense of urgency. Ramez replies that when he was kidnapped, they were three and five years old. Curiously, the language he uses to describe his children is that of the past. He knows that he was their father then, but today he is not sure. Finally, we see Ramez lying in a hospital bed after having respiratory failure. Zeinab comes to visit him after Ramez asked Marie to go and find her because he had something to say to her. We soon learned that Ramez finally remembered Khalil. They stayed together for a year in the same cell but then Khalil got sick and died. In a subsequent iconic scene, Zeinab turns to the window and cries as Marie, Nadia and Elie enter the room to stay by Ramez’s side.
Unlike A Perfect Day or Sleepless Nights, here we are given an answer. We know that Khalil died and we know that Najjar killed herself (though we never know what happened to her son). Uniquely, in Here Comes The Rain none of the characters are waiting anymore. But that does not mean that the answers are satisfying. Ramez never found out why he was kidnapped and neither did Zeinab find out why Khalil was kidnapped. Marie will never know why her husband had to suffer and Nadia and Elie will never know why they had to grow up without a father. In other words, the only answer that Lebanon’s predicament is capable of providing is one which comes in the form of death. Even after getting an answer, the characters remain stuck in endless liminality. Was Bahij Hojeij, the director, telling us that the search for an answer can only bring more pain?
The devil is in the details. When Zeinab was telling Ramez about Khalil, we realize that we don’t really learn much about him. Zeinab even uses ambiguous terms to describe Khalil’s political activities. She tells Ramez that Khalil “always loved politics” before being kidnapped. Ramez then tells her that he himself was kidnapped for no reason. That “they” just stopped him one day and took him. While there were certainly cases of people kidnapped for “no reason” (i.e., not for belonging to a certain political party), we can also interpret the language used by Ramez and Zeinab as part of a wider tendency to depoliticize the inherently political in an attempt to humanize the various actors and victims of the war. While demonstrably well-meaning, the end result remains a sense of restlessness in a space hostile to asking the necessary questions. It’s not so much that asking questions is futile, but rather that asking the wrong type of question is. In other words, we need to find out what happened to Ramez and Khalil if we wish to have any kind of future.
The multitude of stories, both real and fictional, in A Perfect Day and Here Comes The Rain, tied to the presence of the disappeared is a testament to the latter’s continuing relevance. Whereas we see that the city has “moved on,” here represented by Ramez’s sense of alienation, it is nothing but a facade, an aesthetic covering attempting to hide a wound that will not heal. The line between fiction and reality is blurred in both films, which leaves us to wonder if choosing to do a movie instead of a documentary allowed the respective directors to move “beyond” the war—or, perhaps, participate in its erasure?—in order to focus on their characters.
In A Perfect Day, the missing father haunting both characters is based on the uncle of director Khalil Joreige, and in Here Comes the Rain, Nayfeh Najjar provides regular reminder of the film’s grounding in real-life experiences. When asked about his uncle, Joreige said:
I’m very close to my uncle’s family, but my family story is not in the film. There were 17,000 missing persons in the war. They left their homes one morning and never came back. Where are they? It’s frightening for us that no mass graves have ever been found. Beirut is a small city that’s been extensively excavated and reworked, but nothing. For us the trauma of disappearance has not faded with time. (Carver 2005)
This brings us to the mechanisms involved in postmemory. While the persisting trauma is experienced as both memory (Claudia, Ramez, Zeinab, Marie) and post-memory (Malek, Nadia, Elie), the former is better defined as those experiencing it can make use of events that directly impacted their lives. The latter, however, “start” experiencing where the former “left off,” meaning that the postwar generation, my generation, “remembers” the war through our parents’ stories, but we also have to navigate a space being constantly disfigured and re-invented by the inheritors of the war. Furthermore, recent literature in memory studies has attempted to put into evidence the idea that one cannot speak of social memory without speaking of how the personal (the one remembering) interacts with the social (the society in which one lives). In Anna Reading’s (2002) words: “How we consider the past is no longer in terms of a singular authoritative historical record by scholars, but it is recognized as an historical record created in conjunction with personal memories which then as a whole form our collective or social memories.”
Lebanese cinema took on the burden of trying to tackle Lebanon’s multi-faceted issues. Perhaps paradoxically, a country that never succeeded in building a national identity strong enough to encompass the many competing sectarian narratives ended up the source of endless attempts at answering questions often asked by Lebanese film-makers. They saw part of their mission to tackle the institutionalized forgetting of the war. This is not limited to those who wished to make the Lebanese remember the trauma of their past but also those who took a “pro-amnesia” approach as well as those who placed themselves somewhere in between these two tendencies. The resulting restlessness that the postwar “status quo” produced had to be addressed in one way or another and Lebanese filmmakers, for better or worse, found themselves in a position where they could address what many Lebanese could not in their daily lives.
Lebanon’s postwar “reconstruction era” brought with it added complications to the crisis that was, and remains, Lebanese identity. Rather than rebuild and restore, the incentives of the powers at be—namely, the political elite roughly defined as the class that owns most of the social capital and have ties with or are members of the government or the sectarian parties—chose to accelerate the spatial erasure of Lebanon and of Beirut in particular. This led any potential national narrative to take a backseat in favor of the various inheritors of Lebanon’s sectarian historiographies. The result of such a phenomenon is a weak state unable to consolidate a unified identity rending it all but invisible. This, however, did not mean that sectarian historiographies were successful in building cohesive and stable identities either. In fact, it seems clear that these tendencies, exemplifying what Deleuze called “incompossible,” are inherently incapable of finding common ground which, in a small country like Lebanon, translates into endless tensions between competing, incomplete narratives.
One such example of Lebanon’s inability or unwillingness to properly address its recent traumatic past is the continuing “presence” of those forcibly disappeared during the war, estimated at about 17,000. They became, in the words of many artists and intellectuals, like “ghosts” haunting Lebanese identity, condemning the country to be stuck in seemingly permanent liminality, erasing the past and future while torturing the present. While Lebanese cinema did not necessarily focus on the individuals responsible for the mass disappearances—with notable exceptions such as Sleepless Nights studied here—it did attempt to put into image the continuing relevance of these ghosts. Film-makers employed many methods to expose a wound that was being aesthetically covered by those in powers as well as the wider Lebanese population itself.
In both A Perfect Day and Here Comes the Rain, the directors place characters in situation where they seemed to be endlessly wandering through the city and through life. In A Perfect Day, one of the central characters, Malek, is diagnosed with Sleep Apnea Syndrome, which forces him to fall out of consciousness when he stops being active enough. But rather than fight it, Malek is seen repeatedly giving up, sleeping in a bar on a public seaside promenade. It also becomes soon apparent that in A Perfect Day’s Beirut, everyone smokes. Several characters repeat their intention to quit smoking, but no one ever does. It is as though no inhabitant in Beirut sees the point in stopping to smoke since doing so would entail having hope for the future, any future. We also see Claudia, Malek’s mother, taking care of her missing husband’s clothes and even putting one of his suits on Malek’s bed. In Here Comes the Rain, the main character, Ramez, takes aimless walks around the city, losing himself in a city that, to him, has been lost for two decades.
These tools of allegory allow the directors to convey a message while walking a thin line that separates the past from the present as well as the present from the future. What the characters are showing is that the presence of the disappeared as ghosts prevents the living from living. If Ramez was at least told why he was kidnapped, it could have provided some answers. In fact, the only answers we do get in the movie are one in the form of death when Ramez remembers that Zeinab’s husband, Khalil, got sick and died in prison while he was with him. We also find out towards the end that Nayfeh Najjar, based on a real woman of the same name whose 13 year old son was forcibly disappeared, committed suicide 10 months after the event, the same period of time separating the beginning of Here Comes the Rain and its end.
Having scenes of Najjar typing open letters to her missing son, letters that were published in a local newspaper in 1984, interspersed between supposedly fictional scenes blurs the line between what is “real” and what is “fictional.” This is why it is entirely appropriate to compare Claudia’s character to Mariam Saiidi, a Lebanese woman whose 15-year-old son was kidnapped by the man, Assad Chaftari, sharing the documentary Sleepless Nights with her. Saiidi’s pain, and the pain expressed by Claudia’s character, is one that comes from society’s cynical refusal to give them answers. We know that Claudia was waiting for an answer through her hesitation to formally declare her husband dead with the authorities. As for Saiidi, we see her accusing Lebanese society at large of betrayal and of living a lie: “this country is a lie. Our politicians are liars. Civil society is a lie.”
But Lebanese cinema also revealed the different modalities associated with memory. One such modality, and perhaps the most notable one, is the generational one. Indeed, we see postmemory, as coined by Marianne Hirsh, manifested in the postwar generation, also known as the hinge generation. In all three films, we notice that the new generation approaches the civil war in a different way than the previous one. The knowledge transmitted by the war generation gets translated into a guardianship of memory, to use Eva Hoffman’s terminology, in which memory is transformed to fit the needs of the present as well as to define them. This is of particular importance for researchers and activists wishing to promote the idea that Lebanon cannot “move on” without dealing with its past, a matter which continues to be pertinent to Lebanese politics to this day.
Finally, Lebanese cinema attests to the everlasting importance of the civil war’s disappeared as “ghosts” that continue to haunt Lebanese identity today and indeed all three films touching on the disappeared show that the line between the past and the present is invariably blurred in Lebanon. These “events of memory” testify to the never-ending importance of trauma on memory and postmemory. Those who lived through the war found themselves actively or passively erasing it and, in the process, turning the future into one of Beckettian uncertainty. Their descendants inherited that trauma without being equipped with the social tools required to make sense of it. Their act of “remembering” is one of postmemory rather than memory because they never actually lived through the war. They have to navigate through pervasive restlessness without even knowing where to start, let alone where to end.