- War Is Coming: Between Past and Future Violence in Lebanon by Sami Hermez
Sami Hermez's War Is Coming is, sadly, a timely ethnographic exploration of political violence in the Arab world. As the optimism of the Arab Spring has given way to reactionary violence and repression in Bahrain and Egypt and with the onset of regionally and globally fueled civil wars as in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, what lessons might Lebanon's experience with extended political violence hold for students of these more recent conflicts in the Arab world? How might deeper understanding of how people actually engage in memory work and struggle to come to terms with political violence, as witnesses, victims, and perpetrators, help to shape efforts toward a positive peace in the wake of violent repression and war?
War is Coming is an ambitious ethnographic examination of Lebanon's long history of instability. Following a theoretical introduction, the book is divided into two parts of three chapters each and a postscript. The first part, entitled "Anticipation," explores political violence as not only eventful, but as always potentially existing. Thus, violence is always experienced along a register of intensity, rather than as present or absent. People construct everyday lives for themselves even as violence erupts into open conflict, with the potential to do so determined in part by this their perception of intensity; a perception that may reflect temporal, geographic, or communal distance from violent conflict. Similarly, [End Page 163] he examines how the potential for violence contours everyday life even in moments of relative stability. This sense of "living in the meanwhile" (pp. 1ff.), he argues, is itself perpetuated by people and institutions as they engage in and are subject to a host of practices — ranging from those of personal recollection of past violence, to patterns of political party rhetoric, and television talk show analyses — that contribute to the escalation or de-escalation of intensity, and thus the anticipation of future strife.
Perhaps more important to the present moment is the second part of War Is Coming, entitled "Recollection." Herein, Hermez's ethnography explores the question in greater depth of how memory of political violence — individual, communal, and national — is constituted and the varied roles both remembering and forgetting plays in the creation and consolidation of a post-conflict political orders/instabilities. Here his work dovetails with that of Lucia Volk, Sune Haugebolle, and myself,1 in that it does away with the "amnesia thesis," which holds that the Lebanese have imposed upon themselves a willful forgetting of the 1975–91 war so as to avoid difficult questions ranging from causes of the war to accountability for crimes committed in its pursuit. Indeed, as Hermez shows, despite the efforts of the state and the political class to impose silence — even as they craft the ideological and legal means by which they absolve themselves of culpability in a brutal civil war — the Lebanese themselves engage in wide-ranging memory work in everyday personal and familial interactions, but also in the public sphere as well, in the form of cultural, media, and academic production.
Hermez's contribution lies in uncovering and analyzing this complex memory production, and in demonstrating how and why liberal approaches to transitional justice, which encourage precisely the kind of "no victor no vanquished" pact that the Lebanese elite adopted, fall short. Beyond insulating the elite from accountability for their crimes, such pacts tend to reproduce and consolidate the very political and social imbalances that precipitated war in the first place. In such a context, the result is not amnesia, but rather an emergent multivocality of memory that confounds the liberal imaginary. In contrast to what this imaginary promises, emergent voices and the memory work they are based upon are themselves messy, partial, contradictory, and often painful. Moreover, as political exercises they are from the beginning powerladen, revealing the limits of speech and meaning, and so may well undermine or even prevent meaningful reconciliation at any given scale. Such exercises, he argues, tend to produce...