31 May 2006

Out of Beirut

Today I read about an exhibition going on in Oxford England. It is called Out of Beirut, and features a number of contemporary Lebanese artists, who all seem to be more or less responding to Lebanon’s civil war. The civil war was a relatively recent event, so recent in fact that it resides squarely in the active memories of everyone except the very young. That reality—-that it is an event too recent to have receded into history—-places it into the domain of memory, the very topic I have been burying myself in for months.

I admit, in a moment of weakness, I thought to myself, “Hey, I’m in Beirut, I’m here in the middle of it. I could become the world’s only expert on Lebanese memory and add that dialogue to those discussing Jewish memory, American memory, German memory etc. etc. And the pain, the suffering, the working-through of it all is so present here, and I’ve got a corner on it.”

Reason set in quickly. First, I don’t speak Lebanese Arabic or any Arabic for that matter. More importantly I don’t want to, and I don’t think I would be able to really investigate Lebanon’s memory without that. But even if I did want to, and could, and would, I still think I wouldn’t.

It reminded me of something I though back when I was an undergraduate in a seminar given by a candidate for a faculty position in the Art History department. She presented an overview of her doctoral dissertation, which was up for several nation-wide awards. Her subject: sculptural depictions of women’s headdresses in ancient Palmyra, Syria. I went to the seminar because it was about modes of dress, the history of which I find completely fascinating. But as I was sitting there listening, all I could think was, “I never want to know so much about so little.”

I am not saying Lebanon’s experience of war, pain, suffering, crimes, atrocities, violence, etc. is in some way inferior, smaller than (even if it was), or less significant that those of cultures that memory scholarship currently focuses on. I have no desire to invalidate the very valid experiences or their memory. That isn’t the issue. The issue is that, in Beirut, it is easy to forget that hardly anyone outside knows or cares.


Dad said...

Just remember, they do not know whether they know or care unless you tell them why and what they should know or care about. And with how you explained your position you should clearly be able to convince them that they need to know what you know and should definitely care about it or they are .... oh, whatever, just go ahead and do it anyway!

Stephen said...

Memory ... I'm curious how it fits in with dispute resolution.


Mary Ann said...

Dan, you make a good point, but again I'm concerned about scale. Beirut is very, very small, and a lot of places have horrific civil wars. It is easy to feel like the world spins around this speck of a city, but it doesn't, and art/scholarly communities certainly don't.

Furthermore, it is a matter of investments. The opportunity cost is too high. Plus, who knows what I would find after years of learning the language? The culture, lifestyle, etc. is so different here that I expect memory would opperate in a completely different way.

That leaves open the possibility that it would have nothing to do with memory's discourses in the west, which would make my investigation of it too ancilary to be relevant to anything. It would mean being an expert at something for which no expert is wanted.

Stephen, as far as I can tell, memory does have some redemptive value when the discussion is of events long past, like the American Civil War. In more recent events, it is more frequently used to keep alive the hurts, injustices, personal losses and so on that are inherent to traumatic events.

Bonnie said...

I understand your concern about becoming so specialized as to become irrelevant. Here's one of my favorite definitions of a Ph.d. "It is when you learn more and more about less and less until you know everything there is to know about nothing."