02/02/2011 03:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

From Beirut With Love

War & Memory in Lebanon
By Sune Haugbolle

By Samir Kassir

Lebanon has returned to the news in recent months with talk of possible renewed civil conflict, making it apt timing to read two books examining both the history of the country and how memory has come to play such an important role in managing societal relations.

Haugbolle's book is thoughtful ethnography of social memory, based on time spent in the country analyzing a plethora of cultural records. The work attempts to provide a 'detailed analysis of cultural products' to highlight the interplay between collective ideas and individual formation and, more specifically in the context of Lebanon, to unmask the preservation of memory culture following the devastating civil war (1975-1990).

This 'new amnesia' relied heavily on nostalgia as a means of coping, as Haugbolle writes 'people wish to connect a difficult past with a bearable perspective of their present and future self'. In a sense nostalgia can been viewed as 'a coping mechanism in uncertain times', used by both the state and individuals to 'counterbalance' the violence and breakdown of social norms which occurred during a war that fractured the public sphere.

The author then traces the rise of a counterhegemonic memory culture, made up of a creative class of memory makers including Samir Kassir, who looked to write a new history of the war. However despite good intentions and ideas, including a 2005 Lebanese television show which saw two teams, each comprising a member of the 18 different confessional groups answer questions about their identity and role in Lebanon's history, 'nostalgic visions of prewar Lebanon dominated the representations of the civil war that emerged from calls to counter state-sponsored amnesia'.

Haugbolle's believes that 'truth telling is the basic principle of national attempts to overcome past atrocities in transitional democracies around the world'. However, there are a multitude of roadblocks to this occurring in Lebanon, as he admits 'many victims of the Lebanese Civil War...still lacked a narrative that corresponded meaningfully to their personal experience'. In particular militiamen, those responsible for the majority of the actual fighting, 'lack an official outlet' for truth and reconciliation.

As an outsider, Haugbolle's attempts to crack open the memory vault of Lebanese society can occasionally feel a little too anecdotal in supporting the heavily academic introduction of his hypothesis. The book also suffers from being somewhat disjointed, with each chapter's own introduction and conclusion giving it the feel of an edited text. Haugbolle admits that 'postwar testimonies are not textual guides to what happened but rather social acts of representation that often say more about their social situation than the actual past'. However the final chapter which examines the 'Independence Intifada' feels bolted on and reads like an attempt to ensure that the narrative is not overtaken by events and the dramatic changes in the social situation of the country's inhabitants.

Haugbolle refers to the assassination of Samir Kasir in 2005 as 'a sudden awakening to the muddled realities of post-Syria Lebanon'. However Kassir's epic history, although far more traditional in both scope and scale than Haugbolle's work, also displays the dangers of being seduced by a nostalgia for the past.

Kassir traces Beirut's story back to the first traces of human presence in the area, but it is from 1830 that the bedrock for the city's boom is laid, a boom that events both economic and political in 1861 would accelerate. In particular the creation of the autonomous mutasarrifiyya in Mount Lebanon would create a 'Westernising wave' that would eventually lead to the creation of greater Lebanon under a French protectorate at the end of the First World War.

Beirut grew due to the misfortune of some and the neediness of others. The city's story is told as an evolving meeting between East and West, and during the Ottoman years Kassir wonders at how 'the Porte showed an inclination to accept European interference in its internal affairs that seemed to border on complacency'. The sustained impact of Christian missions and the education infrastructure they created distinguishes Beirut from Cairo and Istanbul. Beirut was to become a 'bridgehead of European expansion', a 'Westernised Mediterranean Arab metropolis' with the development of its port and transport infrastructure described in detail. The developing character of the city emerges in a particularly colourful manner, with descriptions of adjustment to European habits such as house design, recreational activities and even changing trends in people's names.

Kassir's work is heavily informed by a nostalgic tone that Haugbolle's book goes so far to explain. At one point Kassir veers off what one might expect from a dispassionate history by describing the city as having a 'unique and incomparably seductive quality'. Such nostalgia means that chapters focusing on Beirut's laissez faire freedoms are lengthy and detailed, whilst the story of the city during the civil war are only given a cursory few pages and maps. The history also regularly blurs the line between that of Lebanon and that of Beirut, perhaps a testimony to the capital's size and scale. However, although the emergence of a 'modern belt of misery' in the city's suburb is referred to, it is not given the justice of a proper examination. This could be explained by the melancholic nostalgia that shows itself in the epilogue where Kassir wonders whether following the emergence of the Gulf 'what purpose remains, then, for Beirut to fulfill, beyond serving simply as a place for recreation and entertainment?'

Reviewed for International Affairs