UMAM Documentation and Research (UMAM D&R) was founded in Beirut, Lebanon as a non-profit civil company in 2004 and received official recognition as a non-governmental organization (NGO) by the Lebanese Ministry of Interior and Municipalities in 2005.
In general UMAM D&R is guided by the belief that acknowledging Lebanon’s relatively recent past requires that important evidence and artifacts of its history be carefully collected, protected, and promoted to the public. In stark contrast, Lebanese political elites and governmental officials continue to ignore-or pretend to ignore-the gravity of Lebanon’s violent past as well as the pool of conflicting memories that have their roots in this past and are updated continuously by the cyclic disturbances the country still experiences. This failure to appreciate the weight of the past makes itself apparent by the conspicuous absence of either a national archive or a public library which specializes in such information. Thus, not only has no official accounting of the country’s past ever been conducted, but the very idea of dealing with the past is still fighting to impose its legitimacy. For example, civil society organizations have called repeatedly for governmental action, and some of the country’s politicians seem to have begun listening and reacting to these admonishments, at least verbally. In this regard and as it has done since its inception, UMAM D&R continues to tackle Lebanon’s past by engaging in diverse activities that include archival projects, cultural initiatives, and technical workshops.
While UMAM contributes to the ongoing debate over Lebanon’s national memory by continually revisiting the nation’s past, it operates in an environment that consistently rejects historical reflection, considers it acceptable to ignore the past for its perceived lack of practical impact on the present, and uses strained, fragmented memories to achieve short-term political gains rather than long-term national stability. As a result, Lebanon’s political culture remains as divided as it is mute on the nation’s collective schizophrenia. Thus, among its organizational endeavors, UMAM D&R focuses on:
- Recalling the violence and diffuse culture of hostility that rules social and political life in Lebanon.
- Enabling the generally disempowered yet growing chorus of voices that call for the adoption of a transitional justice approach tailored to Lebanon’s specific needs relative to its successive postwar deadlock.
- Acknowledging publicly the ongoing cycles of blame and counter blame within the nation’s political discourse despite the ever-present threat of renewed political violence. Today, the voices being raised help build the case that the national predilection forclosing the files of the past has failed, and that Lebanon must urgently begin the painful yet essential task of truth seeking. Clearly, taking any other course will accomplish nothing more than keeping open the wounds of our society.
Within this general focus, UMAM D&R concentrates on themes related to active memory by intentionally revisiting Lebanon's violent past and present. Organizationally and from a citizen perspective, we are convinced that the attempts made to close the nation’s eyes to the past have failed. Today, Lebanon must invest substantial effort in truth seeking and public truth telling.
Essentially, UMAM D&R addresses this broad scope of activities through various means:
- Collecting and preserving essential materials from Lebanon's past. This includes collecting extant materials, such as books, pamphlets, newspapers, leaflets, posters, and other “gray” literature. It also involves collecting audio or audiovisual records and whenever possible, live testimonies that were never consigned to an open audience (for more details, see the Collection section).
- Addressing Lebanon’s conflicting shared memory through events that encourage and attract the public’s participation in, and contributions to the archive. Some examples of such participatory work include two of UMAM long-term projects, Collecting Dahiyeh and Missing.
- Among other methods, UMAM D&R facilitates public access to materials related to civil violence and war via its facility The Hangar. Originally a large produce warehouse in the Southern Beirut suburbs, it has since become a multi-use cultural center that offers both sufficient space and a unique environment in which to host cultural events.
- UMAM D&R also coordinates and supports other public events that take place throughout Lebanon (see Projects & Events).
- Finally, the organization enables people to exchange memories and ideas, both within Lebanon and among other post-conflict societies, in the hope that Lebanon will formulate the plans and strategies necessary to deal with its turbulent past (see What is to Be Done? Lebanon’s War-Loaded Memory).
UMAM D&R is proud to have an extremely committed and skilled team of full- and part-time staff members who work diligently from its office in Haret Hreik, Beirut. The work done by the organization is made possible by a number of donors and in partnership with a variety of NGOs, filmmakers, journalists, artists, institutions and private companies.
By utilizing a variety of tools and techniques, including The Hangar, a comprehensive collection of resources such as cultural activities, archival material, technical workshops, and cutting-edge research, UMAM D&R aims to initiate collective reflection on the many different types of violence that plagued Lebanon’s past, weighs heavily on its present, and has the potential to influence its future as well.
In doing so, it also seeks to provide a platform that offers the public both access to, and the opportunity to exchange and debate memories. Discussions about the past often lead to debates about present-day Lebanon and society’s myriad visions of the country’s future. Importantly, this access spurs debate and reflection about these shared experiences through engagement in various activities intended if not to reconcile memories that often remain in conflict, then at least to neutralize them. Our organization believes that these resources are essential for building the future.
In short, they represent the keys to historical and political self-analysis, understanding the formation of national and individual identity among Lebanese, acknowledgment and recognition of responsibility and blame, and potentiallyreconciliation. We believe that advocating Lebanon’s recollection of its violent past represents a critical, inescapable task in its national redemption and advancement in the new millennium.
UMAM D&R aims to preserve, examine, and debate the memories of civil violence as well as to provide a platform for public access to, and exchange of such memories. Ultimately, we seek to shed light on these conflicting memories, analyze them, and evaluate collectively the shared responsibilities associated with their continued presence.
Further, UMAM D&R believes that such initiatives offer the keys to building Lebanon’s future, such as through historical and political self-analysis, understanding national and individual identity formation, acknowledging and recognizing responsibility and blame, and eventually achieving reconciliation without resorting to further violence.
UMAM D&R considers its collection of written and audiovisual materials related to the war a “citizen archive.” As such, it is intended to encourage reflection and debate about the sensitive issues related to Lebanon’s past, present, and future. In view of this citizen oriented initiative, we needed to develop new tools to make the task both more effective and efficient.
To that end, the organization continues to expand its virtual presence on the Internet by inaugurating new initiatives. These seek simultaneously to grant access to increasingly large segments of the public a variety of firsthand documents that relate to Lebanon’s recent past, garner input from those interested in and influenced by it, and refine it continually so that it gains a reputation for being a capable and reliable Web-based research source. While the organization continues to explore several such initiatives at any given time, two have matured to the point that they can soon make their Internet debut.
Memory at Work. In short, this Web site represents an electronic platform dedicated to recalling, preserving, and publishing the myriad documents, literature, and media that relate to Lebanon’s war-loaded memory. Initially, we intend that it serve as a resource center through which we can gather articles, photographs, and academic papers that cover various topics about the war. These will certainly include the most well known issues, such as the missing, mass graves, and memory, but it will also address topics of a more technical nature. At present, we our research is focused on cataloging the arms used during the various episodes of the war, describing some of the tactics used during the conflict—such as booby trapped cars—and even producing a virtual museum dedicated to Lebanon’s conflicts. While the site will debut in Arabic, we hope to expand it to other languages as well.
UMAM Collection. Not only will this site become the Web-based home of UMAM’s comprehensive database, it will also provide visitors and researchers access to its content. As with the Memory at Work site, however, its content will initially be searchable only in Arabic. In the next several months, the site will expand to include three categories of documents: books, electronic books, and pamphlets and leaflets.
As UMAM continues to expand its resources and refine the content of its burgeoning archives, the organization will make available to the public the information it uncovers. To facilitate this process, we chose to develop our Web-based resources further since amendments and additions to the collections can be made faster and more economically thanks to the electronic environment in which they exist.
After the Ta'if Agreement officially ended the cycle of civil wars in 1990, the question of whether "to forget or not to forget" has caused further division within Lebanese society. While some call for forgiveness and for closing the files of the past, others insist that superficial forgiveness will simply lead to additional violence, latent or conspicuous-something altogether different from a truly peaceful future. However, the Ta'if Agreement did more than conclude a series of wide-reaching domestic wars. It also oversaw the founding of a Lebanese government which stemmed from a tenuous truce imposed on militia leaders who would soon put themselves back in power.
Those in this new regime adhered to the notion of closing the files as if it were a kind of civil religion, based on the perspectives they held that discarding the past was the only way to end the relentless cycle of violence. Under the aegis of the Ta'if Agreement and the tutelage administered during the years of direct Syrian Baathist military presence in Lebanon, this quasi-policy of forgetfulness ultimately found judicial expression in the amnesty law passed by parliament in 1991.
The practical outcome was that the former warlords, whose slates had been officially expunged, were recycled into the nascent Lebanese political system along with the incorporation of thousands of ex-militiamen into the state’s military and administrative bodies. But when Lebanon was partially freed from the influences of the previous era, for the sake of so-called "national unity," the parliament passed two new private amnesty laws, which cleared the charges against a former Christian warlord as well as a group of presumed Muslim fundamentalist terrorists. (In 1994, Samir Geagea, a senior warlord and convert to political leadership, was sentenced and jailed thanks to a clause within the amnesty law.) Thus, it goes without saying that during the fifteen years of Lebanese collaboration with its Syrian “tutors,” the subject of accountability was never considered seriously.
After 1991, as was the case after 2005, some "heretics" within Lebanese society wondered how the nation’s parliament could absolve those who had committed heinous acts and others who might be considered war criminals, simply by applying Robert’s Rules of Order. Yet these persistent Lebanese dissenters continued to insist that perfunctory forgiveness could never close the files on the past. In addition, they stress the necessity of revisiting the past, however painful that may be, since they believe that agonizing process represents a crucial step in preventing the Lebanese from resorting again to violence to resolve their political and social differences.
In Lebanon, the underlying concept of amnesty is lacking on many levels, such that even the elites of the postwar regime, the authors of the national amnesty law and self-proclaimed advocates of closing the files of the past frequently summon events from Lebanon’s wars for political ammunition. In other words, although memories of the war have been discarded in theory, they linger in a state of volatility that could erupt at any moment. In the absence of any joint undertaking by the political and civil spheres to deal collectively with the nation’s past, each community has established a self-serving history based on oversimplified dichotomies of victim and victimizer. These are manipulated for political purposes and ultimately exacerbate distance, misunderstanding, and divisiveness. Thus, rather than being a collection of diverse narratives about the war, memory has instead become an ideological tool.
Because memory itself perseveres as a vivid and potent force, one that is easily activated yet difficult to suppress by enforced "forgiveness" or other measures, two questions arise. First, as Lebanese, can we assume that "forgetting" will ensure civil tranquility; and second, isn't engaging with our history the less perilous path? Based on this analysis and the conviction that reviving Lebanese memory is an inalienable right that cannot be suspended by law, even before it acquired its legal status, UMAM D&R initiated a series of activities that fell within the parallel categories of documentation and research and public events, encounters, and discussions.
In the midst of these activities, Lebanon’s general context shifted again in the aftermath of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri on February 14, 2005 and UN Security Council Resolution 1595, which established an independent investigation commission focused on the crime. Notably, these elements helped introduce and legitimize the notion of truth seeking in Lebanese circles and political debates. Despite its application to the series of assassinations that followed that of al-Hariri, this novel approach advocated by truth seeking was marginalized by two factors. The first was its highly politicized connotation within the Lebanese political realm, and the second was the trend toward hesitancy in seeking the truth about other important considerations, such as those who “disappeared” during the civil war or the “collaboration” which occurred during the Syrian “tutelage.” In general, Lebanese civil society chose not to advance truth seeking initiatives following al-Hariri's assassination in an effort to claim the right to know the truth about other bloody chapters in Lebanese history and to demand justice, whether symbolic or meted out judicially.
UMAM D&R grows out of and addresses these tensions, interpretations, and realities. It builds on the belief that all one must do is simply begin the work of memory, especially in view of the brief pauses in Lebanon’s cycles of violence, which leave little time to engage in such reflection. In the Lebanon of today, UMAM D&R dedicates its time and energy to activities that position questions about memory in the public sphere and to preserving the precious records of memories that relate to Lebanese history.
UMAM D&R Hosts the First Meeting of its Consultative Council
Umam D&R held the inaugural meeting of its Consultative Council (CC) from December 3 to December 5, 2010.
The effort is intended to assist Umam D&R in further institutionalizing itself after five years of engagement in Lebanon.
The CC is charged with advising, supporting and promoting Umam’s mission and activities, and is comprised of the following members:Trudy Peterson, a US-based archivist who specializes in archiving and documenting in post-conflict societies; Sylvie Jezequel, a French audiovisual specialist and former coordinator of the German-French Arte’s political programs; Uffe Østergaard, a Danish historian of Europe and prominent theorist of the politics of memory, as well as former director of the International Danish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies; Hidemitsu Kuroki, a Japanese historian of the Ottoman Middle East and director of the Japan Center of Middle East Studies; Lisa Wedeen, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and a distinguished scholar of the Middle East; and Fouad Hamdan, a Lebanese and German journalist and human rights and environmental activist.
The meetings began with presentations of Umam’s institutional, financial and archival achievements and challenges as well as its activities and future plans. Afterward, the Council members were given a tour of Umam’s premises and an opportunity to meet the organization’s staff and discuss their work. The second day was dedicated to a thorough enumeration and rigorous specification of the Council’s bylaws.
This culminated in the election of Fouad Hamdan as Chair and Sylvie Jezequel as Deputy Chair, each of whom will serve a two-year term. On the third day, the Council and Umam representatives discussed the Council’s unfolding strategy and plan of action, including the practical means it will use to move forward.
Each evening, Umam invited guest speakers from throughout Lebanon who discussed their experiences and knowledge of Umam D&R. The first speaker, Assaad Chaftari, talked about his involvement in wartime Lebanon and his activism in the postwar period. The second evening, Hazem Saghiyeh shared his understanding and analysis of the ideologies that affected the war in Lebanon and the region as a whole. On the last evening, the Danish ambassador to Lebanon, Jan Top Christensen, discussed the many projects through which his embassy supports Lebanese civil society organizations.
Umam D&R wishes to thank the Danish Embassy in Lebanon for its generous support. That assistance has enabled Umam to realize these meetings and take this vital step toward enhancing its institutional capacity.
A firm in which gains are not distributed among shareholders but are refunded to the initial capital. Several Lebanese groups that have failed to win governmental designation as NGOs used this corporate sleight of hand before the political changes of 2005 in order to achieve an “impersonal” status. The status of civil society was recognized by foreign donors as being equivalent to an NGO.
A widely used expression derived from written and oral statements taken from the Lebanese political glossary. Essentially, it means to be finished with an issue, more in terms of dispensing with rather than resolving it.
A civil war veteran and former Member of Parliament explained: “most Lebanese participated in the war. Participation… was never an issue.” During its What is to Be Done? Lebanon’s War-Loaded Memory initiative, UMAM D&R saw that the issue of former combatants needed attention despite persistent sensitivities and challenges, and commissioned Statistics Lebanon Ltd. to query veterans from each “camp.” Reviewed initially during a 2008 focus group, the final product explains something about who fought, why, and how they view their actions.
Notable veteran Assaad Chaftari saw the predictive value of the effort, especially since many veterans were integrated into the army and other governmental bodies after the war. But while we believe the results give Lebanon’s history more comprehensiveness and transparency, we also believe they should be judged only on how well they achieve that purpose.[Read more...]