Beirut: Traces from the Lebanese civil war. Photo by Bertil Videt

The missing pages of Lebanese history

Lebanese youth risk becoming stuck in the country’s sectarian stasis as facts and fictions of post-independence Lebanese history are left excluded from the country’s school curriculum.

A new school year has recently started for thousands of young Lebanese high school students returning to continue their studies. Many of these will go on to pursue a degree at one of Lebanon’s many institutes of higher education, for the Lebanese are among the most well-educated populations in the Middle East.

What these students will not gain from their secondary education, however, is an understanding of contemporary Lebanese history.

An erased chapter

Schools in Lebanon are required to follow the curriculum set out by the Ministry of Education. According to this, Lebanese history after the expulsion of the French and the establishment of an independent state is not to be part of the history curriculum. Textbooks used for teaching Lebanese history therefore finish with the end of the French colonization.

“We don’t actually learn about our own modern history in school,” explains Amina El Hajj, a liberal arts student at the Lebanese University. “At least not the parts that really matter.”

This huge omission of the last 75 years leaves out the most groundbreaking and traumatic experience of the country; the Lebanese Civil War from 1975-1990.

This event defines so much for so many on a personal level in Lebanon today. At the same time, the civil war is the reason for the country’s current power dynamics as they function today.

Yet, it is not taught about in schools.

This is not an accident, but a conscious decision on behalf of the Lebanese government. Ever since the conclusion of the civil war, there has been an established fear of supporting any official and public narrative of the war by the state. It is believed that this would inevitably leave some groups dissatisfied and alienated. This, in turn, could have unfathomable consequences. It is therefore considered a hornet’s nest not worth sticking a history book into. Instead, changing governments have left that defining part of Lebanese history untouched.

This approach might be sparing a sitting government from dealing with an uncomfortable issue, but it leaves young Lebanese without an official and objective account of the events that brought a prosperous country to ruins and led to the near-total collapse of the Lebanese state.

With this important subject not taught in schools, Lebanese youth are instead forced to find the answers on their own.

“You need to search out the facts yourself and talk to different people about their experiences in the war. You have to read about it and keep an open mind to the many sides of the story,” tells Lynn Mansour, an activist and volunteer at the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut. “People that are not open-minded or don’t care will only hear one side of what happened in the war. And that’s the side of their families.”

No common narrative

And here lies the problem. Parents and older family members who lived through the war will tend to have views and accounts affected by the traumatic experiences of having lived through it along with the identity divisions it exacerbated. These views of the war are then passed on to the new generation, leaving the old generation’s accounts as the new generation’s truths.

“A Druze that lived through the civil war will see himself and his fellow Druze as victims during the war and that they only defended themselves against attackers. A Christian will see himself and his group as victims that defended themselves. The Palestinians will be victims, and so forth,” explains Ismael Atallah, a Druze from Aley.

This victim mentality is not the only post-war consequence of not having brought together the country’s many contradicting versions of what happened. There is similarly no common stance on the consequences of the Israeli invasion or the Syrian intervention in the war. At the same time, atrocities tend to be downplayed by the perpetrators and exaggerated by the victims.

Among those who lived through the events of the war, there is therefore no common narrative. As the incomplete school curriculum shows, there has at the same time been little attempt from the government to foster an inclusive national narrative about the events that has made Lebanon what it is today.

A large part of the issue lies with the very faces of the post-war system that were meant to bring the war-torn country together after peace was achieved. This leadership came to largely consist of the very men suspected of having perpetrated many of the atrocities that occurred. As a result, after the war, there were few investigations into the war crimes committed and even fewer that were completed.

“There has been little justice for the victims of the war,” tells George Aoun, an engineer recently returned from America who fought in the beginning of the civil war before emigrating disillusioned from Lebanon. “They wanted us to put the war behind us and believe in peace. And this coming from the ones that had started the war in the first place and did horrible things throughout it. It was difficult for all groups to have to watch those that had done bad things suddenly as part of a government that supposedly had the best interest of all Lebanese in mind.”

The lack of a national narrative about the civil war based on facts relegates teaching about it to a private matter and risks entrenched views and biases being passed down from generation to generation.

The missing pages in Lebanese history books are therefore part of a wider post-civil war strategy that is less about truth and reconciliation and more about forgiving and forgetting. And when you are trying to forget the past, there is no reason to write it down in a history textbook.

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