Civil War Beirut: The youth needs to know more

The history that is being taught to those students seems to stop in 1943, the year that Lebanon gained its independence from the French Mandate

UNICEF Lebanon

The year is 1980. Five years into one of the world’s most heated civil wars, the city center doesn’t look the same anymore. Beirut, known for being the Paris of the Middle East, had suddenly transformed from being a city where the rich and poor joined hands and where Muslims and Christians shared meals into being a heated battlefield for sectarian divisions.

Majida El Roumi’s song “Saqata al Qinaa (The Mask Has Fallen),” began to play as 12-year-old Roula Talhouk searched for sanctuary from the shelling in the midst of Achrafieh, a city quarter on the East-Side of the imaginary border separating Muslim from Christian territories.

Little Roula lived a childhood saturated with fear, like many Lebanese who grew up during the civil war, a time where breakfast was shelling, lunch was bombing, and dinner was grieving over the loss of a dearly beloved.

“When you’re living the war, your main concern is to live. You don’t think about what is going on on TV, and the discussions that spread through it,” said Roula Talhouk, Ph.D., who grew up to become the Director of the Center for Documentation and Islamic-Christian Research at Saint Joseph University. “Your generation suffers from electricity cuts for a few hours;  we used to go a few months without electricity.”

Lebanese Youth: Stuck between Literacy and Illiteracy

Based on Knoema statistics, youth between the ages of 15 and 24 have a literacy rate of 99.1 percent. However, when university students were asked if their generation knows enough about the civil war,  85 percent of 53 participants responded with ‘no,’ blaming it on schools and their parents’ sectarian biases.

Today, the Lebanese youth fail to understand what the civil war actually entailed. This “illiteracy” was due to various factors, namely education, home environment, and the silence of the war generation, among others. However, the lack of awareness was mostly driven by the lack of education (low-end education) on the history of the civil war in school curricula; allowing students to create their sectarian perception by gathering biased pieces from random sources, only to leave out the bulky pieces of the puzzle.

The Role of Schools

From the moment children enter school until the day they graduate, the topic is rarely ever mentioned in any of the history classes, nor in the books tailored to teach them about the history of Lebanon. Instead, history that is being taught to those students seems to stop in 1943, the year that Lebanon gained its independence from the French Mandate.

The Ta’if Agreement (Document of National Accord), which was approved in 1989 as an end to of the civil war, called for the amendment of all school subjects’ curriculums. History, however, remained untouched, which resulted in outdated course of study in comparison to the rest of the subjects.

A war engraved in the heart is never really gone

Before delving into schools’ intervention in teaching the youth about the civil war, it is also important to understand the role of family in keeping the war ambiguous in the eyes of the post-war generation.

According to Assaad Chaftari, the former senior intelligence official of the Christian militia Lebanese Forces, “There are several types of silencing the war. You have parents that don’t speak because of trauma, there are parents that don’t speak to hide what they did during the war, and there are those that don’t speak so they don’t go into what they didn’t do during the war.”

Chaftari is now the Vice President of Fighters for Peace, an organization aimed at alerting the youth about the dangers of war. He has also been engaging with ex-fighters as a step to ensure  civil peace and reconciliation within Lebanon.

“Mainly, they stay silent to keep a good image of themselves in the minds of their children or to not worry them about what they had to go through during the war,” he added. Chaftari also noted that there are parents on the rear end of the spectrum who romanticize the image of war, thus breeding another generation of sectarians.

In order to build a future generation away from the imperfections of sectarianism, both the war generation and those who succeeded them need to redefine a unified vision of Lebanon, something common to each and everyone of them, believes Christine Babikian Assaf, Ph.D., the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at Saint Joseph University.

Schools on Sectarianism

Parents are not the only ones responsible for creating sectarian youngsters. The way schools are spread out and divided in Lebanon and the way history in particular is taught divides students even further. In 2009, a study by expert Nemer Frayha examined the Lebanese educational system and structure. It concluded that the structure itself focuses on infusing sectarianism, as the majority of schools in Lebanon are private and/or religious. Evidently, articles Nine and Ten of the Lebanese Constitution leverage schools with the freedom to teach history through the narrative of their own choice.

“When we do this we are raising younger generations that literally don’t know their history or don’t have a common narrative. I see it with my children. […] When they studied the history, you see the reproduction of myths, […] the myth is just divisive,” said Bassel Salloukh, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University and author of The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon, a book which studies the sectarian system in Lebanon.

Salloukh also commented on how the absence of a unified history discourse is allowing the younger generation to grow with a very weak sense of national identity, which is why there is an urgent need to educate students at a university level and younger on what it truly means to be Lebanese, instead of reproducing a sectarian society.

The State of Politicians: Unchanging

There is a bigger picture beyond the general demand of a “unified historical text.” The ruling political parties, since the war, are still fully in charge today. The assessment should increasingly be directed towards this status quo. How is the current political parties’ division and presence affecting the available text? Usually, warlords assume power as part of a two-to-three year transition period. Lebanon stands thirty years later with the same leaders, who have evidently passed on their authority to offspring and followers, as per the most recent general election results.

“They [politicians] created a system for them to stay in power and they are inheriting their children into the system also,” said Chaftari.

Salloukh also agreed, since “they took a concerted decision that there should not be any kind of interrogation of the past leading to a collective amnesia of the war,” and that “we [citizens] should not discuss it and need to hop forward to what was promised as the Singapore of the Middle East.”

Other experts in the field seemed to disagree, deeming this realization unworthy. The Dean of Law, Political, Administrative and Economic Sciences at the Lebanese University, Tony Atallah, Ph.D., was among the experts who blamed the issue on the politicians’ unwillingness to agree on a common history.

Spain seems to resonate

Even though the suggested inference received some criticism, the case of the Spanish civil war confirms the idea that the long term of political party leaders is correlated to the absence of a unified historical text.

Spain was victim to a civil war between the years of 1936 and 1939 between the Republicans and Nationalists. Following the war, the Republican victor, General Francisco Franco, assumed power up until his death in 1975. Throughout his term, the topic of the civil war was seen as a taboo and no reconciliation efforts were noted, just as in the case of Lebanon.

After Franco’s death, matters started took a different turn. The pact of forgetting, which was given a legal basis in the 1977 Amnesty Law, was a political decision that was established in Spain to move on from the civil war period. As a result, those who were imprisoned for mass sufferings in the civil war were not persecuted, in order to achieve some sense of  democracy.

Despite the law, it was not until 2007 that a law pushing for a collective historical memory was enacted, one which called on the Minister of Justice to investigate the killings and torture that occurred during the civil war.

What about Lebanon?

Unlike the above case, the Francos of Lebanon are still strong and ignoring the necessity of both reconciliation and the writing of an amended history curriculum.

The issue of a unified history account was only brought up twice during Cabinet meetings, once in 2001 and another time in 2012. No different than other stipulations, discussions, or bills in Lebanon, it never really passed due to sectarian strife.

Gregor Nazarian, an MSc candidate studying this specific topic, collected press reports noting that the first attempt to update the history curriculum was halted due to disagreements over Lebanon’s civil war years, as well as Lebanon’s place in regional politics.

Then Member of Parliament Bassem Yamout urged the Center for Research and Development (CRDP), which is the public administration that issues educational curriculums under the custodial authority of the Ministry of Education and Higher Education, to deduct a page from the suggested academic history due to the usage of the term “Islamic conquest,” which gives out a “false” identity of Lebanon to those studying its history.

The second attempt, in 2012, was also derailed due to sectarian disagreements. The Minister of Culture, Gaby Layoun, criticized the draft for avoiding the item “Cedar Revolution,” which is the event where Syrian troops completely withdrew from Lebanese territories. In conjunction, the Phalange Party MP Sami Gemayel threatened the government not to approve the suggested history textbook for excluding certain events of the Lebanese civil war, as well as the 2005 Cedar Revolution. He accused them of treating history with subjectivity, even though it is unanimously agreed upon internationally as an objective field and subject.

Hezbollah MP Mohammad Fneish also found the draft to be selective in delivering the history of Lebanon. Instead of amending changes, the whole history book was shelved and nothing has been done since.

What the Minister of Education has to say

The current and former Minister of Education were contacted several times for input on this issue, but no response was received.

Alternatively, CRDP had a lot to say about establishing a new unified history textbook. In a meeting with Blanche Abi Assaf and Ghada Alali, two representatives of the Social Studies Department at CRDP, they disclosed that nothing has happened since 2012 in terms of updating the history curriculum, which needs to be signed off by the Minister of Education.

Although the proposal for an amendment received praise and support by the Ministry on several occasions, nothing was done effectively to advance the matter.

Abi Assaf and Alali also think that updating the curriculum is not that easy of a task. History is made up of four cycles dividing the 12 years of school study in order to cater to the age range. A committee is created for this purpose and the process goes up the ladder accordingly.

The two representatives of CRDP also blamed the absence of a unified history book on some administrative problems they face such as the lack of concatenation; since the Ministry is not recruiting new members of staff, there is a lack of continuity in the projects worked on.

The Tribal System in Lebanon

When Mohamed Gameel, part of Adjunct Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University of Cairo doing a thesis on post-war nostalgia, was asked about whether we could relate the absence of a unified history book to the existence of the same political leaders in power, he blamed the tribal system that is evident in Lebanese politics.

“As leadership inherits within certain families, new leaders will hold same old ideas and views, of course with some upgrades to fit with the new generation. I always call the Lebanese politics the democracy of dictatorships,” he said.

As a result, no political sect can individually dominate the political scene in Lebanon, making reconciliation all the worse.

Moving Forward: Reconciliation

Dean Atallah said that there is an urgent need to develop a memory of the war, before those who lived the war firsthand pass away and the writing of history becomes less genuine.

A few experts see accountability as the bridge leading towards reconciliation, such as Gameel.

Both Atallah and Chaftari suggested that the war needs to be studied from an accountability perspective in order to shock the youth and avoid a romanticized image of the war, instead they need to be confronted with a list of losses caused by the war, economically, physically, infrastructurally, to name a few.

CRDP suggests but doesn’t implement

According to the representatives of CRDP, a new method of teaching has been put forth labeled as Teaching Divided History (TDH), which was influenced by cases in Ireland and India.

Through TDH, students create their own in-depth projects looking at all the aspects of a specific historic event without the need to refer back to their parents.

That way, students are able to better record the history of the civil war, and are given the chance to explore and discuss outside the confines of their homes. able to discuss see it as less of a taboo as formulated at their homes. However, this project might not be implemented due to lack of funding.

Identifying with the youth

Since school is the main socializing institution, a unified sense of what Lebanon is and should be should start from there, said Salloukh, or else the sectarian system will reproduce potential militias at any moment.

Dean Assaf agreed that the absence of a common vision for Lebanon is a main problem and is allowing for further divisions, even though we are living together in practice and have the utmost commonalities.

The youth needs to understand the need to accept the other in order to better understand the history of the civil war rather than having to go back to the biases of their parents, who associate the war with reproducing sectarianism.

Historically speaking, prior and during the civil war, everyone lived in unity. This sectarian separation was only reinforced after the war. As a result, in order for the unified history book to be praised, it must cover all the aspects of the war objectively, joining all the negative and positive events experienced throughout Lebanon by citizens of different racial, sectarian, and religious affiliations. History must be based on facts and not on selection.