Teaching war, reconciliation and history in Lebanon

Sunday 13/11/2016
Lebanese school children walk home in a mixed Beirut district. (AFP)

Beirut - History, a key subject in any education sys­tem, serves the twin purpose of informing students about events that shaped their country and rein­forcing national identity. In Leba­non, a country historically plagued by sectarian friction, different his­tory textbooks, sometimes with opposite narratives, are taught and schools decide which version is taught according to their sect and whether they are public or private.

More than two decades after the Taif peace accord that ended Leb­anon’s devastating 1975-90 civil war, a unified textbook of Leba­non’s past is yet to be produced.

“It is wrong not to agree on a unified curricula and history text­book. Today, each school and each sect teach history their own way. Hezbollah, for instance, produced its own history book, which it teaches at its Mehdi schools. Un­fortunately, there is no political will, no politicians assuming re­sponsibility to settle this issue,” said Issam Khalife, a professor of history at the government-run Lebanese University.

Khalife, a former member of a government committee that worked on the unified history text­book, said that it was “too soon” to speak about the civil war as part of history.

“The conflict is still fresh; be­sides we have not really come out of it. So, I suggested that we cover the civil war briefly with a focus on its regional and international di­mensions and how much it cost us economically, socially and demo­graphically in addition to lessons learned, basically that Lebanese should be unified and that war is costly on all,” Khalife said.

Many Lebanese argue that histo­ry textbooks have been used more as a tool to divide than to educate about Lebanon’s times of conflict. However, developing a curricu­lum for teaching controversial and emotive history in a country that is still recovering from the sequels of civil strife is not an easy task. Four attempts to develop a new history curriculum by different govern­ments in the last two decades have flopped.

In the latest attempt, the Min­istry of Education’s Centre for Re­search and Development (CERD) submitted a comprehensive curric­ulum draft, including objectives, syllabus and methods to the minis­ter of education for evaluation.

“Till this moment the CERD has no feedback. I cannot say that we are close to having a unified his­tory book in Lebanon,” said CERD President Nada Oweijane. “The main problem is conflict between confessions and political parties on events, the details developed in the lessons, the documents used to explain ideas, the photos…. conflict between social classes, regions, cultural values, political trends, historical personages etc.”

Khalife suggested that Lebanon “could have multiple history text­books as long as they are approved by the CERD to ensure that the narratives, though different, are in conformity with national direc­tives and respect civil peace.”

“Why not? Syria had a unified textbook but this did not prevent war from breaking out,” he added.

Historian Habib Malek went fur­ther, suggesting different narra­tives in the same textbook.

“In a heterogonous society like in Lebanon, you cannot come up with a unified narrative about how to understand the past. You are faced with one of two options: Ei­ther to have a multiplicity of nar­ratives within the same book, or multiple books, each one adopt­ing a different narrative… It is very nice and idealistic to say we should have a history book that promotes peace rather than conflict; how­ever, the devil lies in the details,” said Habib, a teacher of history at the Lebanese American University.

“We should have the courage and the boldness to say that such and such a group views it (war) this way and such and such a group views it that way. A unified book should be true to the plurality and diversity of Lebanese readings of history… It needs to include all the narratives even if they are starkly opposed to each other,” he added.

History in current textbooks seems simply to come to a halt in the early 1970s, Lebanon’s heyday, while controversial periods of the past are watered down or largely evaded. Young people learn con­temporary history from their fami­lies, their friends from belonging to the same sect, on the streets, or from political parties.

For historians such as Malek, reading past events is a continu­ous process, leading to changing and nuanced narratives. “There is always room for criticism and revi­sion,” he said.” History should be revised all the time. Writing his­tory is an extremely dynamic ex­ercise.”

Like Lebanon, Arab countries that experienced the “Arab spring” revolutions and conflicts will one day face the controversy of writing their own contemporary history. How would they go about it?

Typically, the victor writes his­tory but for Khalife it should be written in a way to serve a better future. “Let us write how much it cost in money, deaths, injuries and displaced. Emphasise the lessons learned in order to avoid commit­ting the same mistakes again,” he said. “After all our aim is to rein­force interior civil peace.”