Searching for the truth

Maryam holding a poster of her son Maher (foto courtesy of @ElianeRehab)
The words that recur most in Sleepless Nights, Eliane Rehab’s new documentary, are “I don’t know” and “I don’t remember”. This is certainly not a coincidence; it is symbolic in a country where forgetting the past is the accepted rule. “This is the country of amnesia,” Eliane Rehab tells NOW, in conversation after a screening of her two-hour documentary at the Metropolis cinema.

et rules come with exceptions – as confirmed by the two protagonists of Sleepless Nights. The first is Assaad Chaftari, former head of the Lebanese Forces militia and one of the prominent players behind the mass murders, tortures, and kidnappings that ravaged Lebanon during the 15-year long civil war. Chaftari first came to Rehab’s attention when, in the summer of 2000, he became the first former high ranking official to pronounce a public mea culpa.
The second exception is Maryam Saiidi, the mother of the 16 year-old communist fighter Maher Kassir who in 1982, after what is known as the battle of the Faculty of Science, disappeared from Beirut and history’s records. Since then, Maryam has been left with nothing of Maher except for the fading memories she obsessively tries to crystallize into paintings and sculptures. Yet, instead of pretending to forget, as the majority of the Lebanese might, Maryam has made the quest for truth her life’s goal.
In one of the most tense scenes of the film, Chaftari is walking around an exhibition that displays the photos of some of the 17,000 Lebanese that went missing during the war and whose fate is unknown. As Myriam walks into the same exhibition, Chaftari is approaching what appears to be a photo of her missing son, Maher. 
A polite “bonjour” soon gives way to Maryam shouting and begging Chaftari for information that would allow her to determine whether her son is in prison or is buried in one of the many mass graves dotted around Lebanon. Maryam starts crying but Chaftari refuses to answer her questions, torn between the strong sense of guilt that brought him publicly to ask for forgiveness and the fear of hurting the interest of his Christian community. 

This scene, besides demonstrating a tension that probably exists in the lives of many ordinary Lebanese, explains Rehab’s approach to questioning the civil war. She keeps the camera focused on both protagonists – she is not siding with anyone. She reflects the complexity of reality, and the fact that black and white judgements aren’t possible. So, as much as Chaftari can be considered a butcher, one should acknowledge that he too could be is in some way a victim of a sectarian society that allowed him to grow up believing that he was superior to the Muslims around him because he was not of Arab but of Phoenician descent
Rehab’s relationship to the repentant militia-man is in part reminiscent of Hannah Arendt’s depiction of the Nazi Colonel Adolf Eichman, one of the main architects of the Nazi’s Final Solution. Arendt, who was an American intellectual of German origin, was sent to Israel by the New Yorker to report on Eichmann’s trial. To everyone’s surprise she portrayed Eichmann as a completely normal person. In much the same way Rehab abstains from judgment.
The director’s work could be considered an effort to prevent memories from disappearing, an attempt to dig into the minds of some of the survivors of the civil war. Chaftari is 58. What would happen if he, as everybody else, never spoke? Would the secrets he carries about the war die with him? Rehab seems to thinks this is possible, and is terrified by the possibility. 
“After the war ended in 1991 the same people responsible for the mass killings took power and passed a law to give themselves an amnesty,” Rehab explains. “All of a sudden the war was nobody’s fault; it was decided that Lebanon had to reopen for business and it was time to forget about the past in order to avoid scaring off foreign investors. But this strategy can’t be right and the risk is that the old tension one day will resurface. Memories like these don’t disappear and if we, as Lebanese, don’t face them we will surely pay long term consequences.” 

What should be done next? Rehab’s thinking is clear – that the first thing should be to discover where the mass graves are, and to open them.  She sees that as the first important step to a real confrontation of war era crimes, and maybe the start of a long awaited healing process.

This article originally appeared on: Now Lebanon



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