Posted by: sean | January 16, 2007

Writing history in Lebanon

About a week ago, the Times had an interesting article about Lebanon’s truncated history:

History classes across the globe serve two purposes — they educate the young and they shape national identity. They also often sidestep controversy to avoid offense.

It is the same here as elsewhere, but the controversy being avoided is the vicious, 15-year civil war that started in 1975 in which Lebanon kidnapped, killed and bombed itself nearly into oblivion.

The bizarre results are evident in any schoolbook here — history seems simply to come to a halt in the early 1970s, Lebanon’s heyday. With sectarian tensions once again boiling here, some educators fear that the failure to forge a common version of the events is dooming the young to repeat the past, with most of them learning contemporary history from their families, on the streets or from political leaders who may have their own agendas.

“America used the school to create a melting pot; we used it to reinforce sectarian identity at the expense of the national identity,” said Nemer Frayha, the former director of the Education Center for Research and Development, a research organization that develops Lebanon’s curriculum. “From the start, I am forming the student as a sectarian person, not as a citizen. And what’s worse is that the people who are encouraging this are the intellectuals themselves.”

There is a serious lack of knowledge about the civil war in Lebanon. I’ve seen firsthand that many of the youth were abroad, because their families fled the war, and others that stayed have only the fragmented and fearful memories of a child who did not understand what was happening. So to the extent that the youth learn about the war at all, it’s usually through sectarian lenses, a distrust or hatred of other Lebanese groups.

And even ancient history can be very touchy in Lebanon. As the article mentions, Muslims tend to focus more on the Arab history of the country whereas Christians tend to relate more with the Phoenician period, so much so that many Christians I know don’t consider themselves Arab. (Interestingly enough, the roots of secular pan-Arabism in Lebanon and Syria are mostly Christian in general and Greek Orthodox in particular.)

According to Milhem Chaoul, a professor of sociology at the University of Lebanon, “Typically the victor writes the history. The problem with the civil war was that nobody won, and you still can’t write its history because we are still not at peace.”


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