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New Texts Out Now: Sami Hermez, War is Coming: Between Past and Future Violence in Lebanon

Sami Hermez, War is Coming: Between Past and Future Violence in Lebanon. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Sami Hermez (SH): I wrote this book because I felt there was a story that needed to be told of how people in states of protracted conflict live their lives with the specter of war continually hovering in the background, akin to the sounds of Beirut traffic. The potentiality of a coming war during my research in Lebanon moved in parallel with people and organizations working on preserving the memory of past war, on communal peace building initiatives, and on advocating for forms of transitional justice. Despite the great intentions of the people involved, I often felt there was an important link missing in this work and felt resources were being diverted away from confronting the political realities. I wrote this book hoping to offer an alternative for how to think of our past, present and future in Lebanon and to stir discussion so that we might arrive at more productive solutions to our recurring political impasses – the book, mind you, does not offer the solutions, it is not a manifesto, but describes and analyzes a reality I observed. 

The book is also a personal coming to terms with the effects of war on the lives of people dear to me. I caught glimpses of what war did to my relatives during my childhood visits to the country in times of ceasefire or relative cessation of violence, and this has always had a deep impact on me. My late grandmother would tell me stories of hiding in shelters, not knowing if they would see daybreak. I would witness my uncle crying at the kitchen table as he recounted the death of a friend from sniper fire just days before. And, importantly, these memories would resurface whenever the present seemed precarious or at the brink of war. The manifestations of protracted political violence in everyday life were so complex that I wanted to see what I might learn from excavating them. I hope that what emerges is a better understanding of the ways of being and doing in conflict zones, and that readers might acquire a sense of appreciation for the lives of people amidst war – their choices, ideas, behaviors and experiences.

Truth is, I originally approached the study of violence purely from the angle of wanting to study militia fighters, and I had a different book in mind when I first arrived for fieldwork over ten years ago.  I started out researching former militia fighters from Lebanon’s war (1975-1990) with the intention of wanting to understand what motivated people to pick up arms and then how they reintegrated. Yet, somewhere in the middle of my research I noticed a common refrain about the future. People everywhere around me were constantly, perhaps I can even say obsessively, talking about the coming war. Of course, the meaning and understanding of this war and its protagonists would change in the imaginations of people, depending on when and to whom I was speaking with, but invariably there was an eye to a future that seemed precarious and war-filled. I felt that in my fragmented conversations around the country, people were collectively trying to tell me a story about their lives as they lived in between a past and future war.

I decided to change course and set out to document some of the different ways people were living in times of anticipation of violence. To anticipate meant to prepare oneself for the future, and this is, in essence, the concern of politics – to manage not only life and death in the present but also for the future. If the future was war-filled, if we continued to perceive it as such, our politics would be structured to deal with this situation. Yet, if we recognized why our politics was leading us to talk of war, if we recognized the conditions that led down this path, perhaps we could begin to think of alternative political engagements that could alter the conditions and confront the fear of war rather than incubate it.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

SH: At the heart of this book is an attempt to answer the question of how people in Lebanon live the daily experience of political conflict, past, present and future. In thinking of the everyday life of violence, I was drawn to Veena Das and Alain Badiou on the notion of the event, and to Tobias Kelly and Ivana Macek in thinking of the mundane and the normal. The book grapples with these notions and contributes to how we understand them analytically.  

Moreover, I was invested in providing an analysis of the contours of political violence, as in how we come to understand its presence in our lives, how we define it, and what it can mean to people who experience it. I was influenced, here, by feminist literature that is invested in destabilizing binaries, and in particular the work of Anne Orford, who inspired me to push against the formulation of violence as being either present or absent, and to think instead of violence within a spectrum of visibility. I am also indebted to Sarah Ahmed, who led me to think of the notion of intensification, applying it not to emotions as she does, but to political violence, and to show how intensity rather than mere presence is the means by which violence takes on a value and takes shape.

I engaged the literature on memory and violence, especially focusing on the relationship between recollection and anticipation, but also deconstructing the notion of amnesia in postwar contexts. Here, I built on the work on memory in Lebanon by a number of scholars, such as Sune Haugbolle, Najib Hourani, Saadi Nikro, Aseel Sawalha, and Lucia Volk, among others, all of whom are critical of various aspects of memory work and heritage in the country, and I see my work as extending their analyses through an attention to everyday life practices. Another contribution I wanted to make was to a rising literature on the anthropology of the future, and specifically putting this in the context of violence. I found Henri Bergson particularly helpful in thinking of people’s relationship to time, and his concept of duration led me to think of the importance of the simultaneity and interconnection between past, present and future, and to start thinking of the connections between certainty and uncertainty as it pertains to the future.

Furthermore, I address questions of amnesty and accountability as questions of memory, devoting a chapter to thinking about how a society might deal with war criminals after the cessation of conflict. Robert Meister’s work, that explores how beneficiaries of oppression can benefit from reconciliation after war when justice is deferred, was crucial in drawing my attention to how some of these processes apply to Lebanon.  In this context, reconciliation between the political elite compromised justice and accountability by allowing beneficiaries of war to also benefit from the peace. Nizar Saghieh’s breakdown of the legal implications of the amnesty law and Ussama Makdissi’s history of the manufacturing of sectarian conflict in Lebanon also helped me to understand amnesty in this context, both historically and in contemporary times. I work through them to show how a public discourse of justice and accountability was made very much present despite their absence in writ law.

Finally, I take seriously the role of emotions in my field site, and its place in the construction of violence and what it means to feel, daily, a coming violence. I draw on the work of Brian Massumi to think of the emotional power of the intensification of violenc, and on Ghassan Hage, whose definition of political emotion I found to be analytically useful as I worked through my own emotions in the field, as well as those of my interlocutors.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

SH: This is my first book length manuscript, so hopefully, and presumptuously, we can revisit this question further in a few years with my next book. Till now, my previous work experimented with different themes that were based on research I conducted for this project. In some ways, the book is a departure from these themes and in other ways it connects. It departs in that I have previously written about activism in Lebanon, looking at what it means to be committed to social change and solidarity with oppressed groups. I have also written about dignity and clientalism in stunting the power of social movements in Lebanon, trying, in that piece, to reflect on the notion of dignity – a concept I look forward to further study in the future. Moreover, my previous work has explored what it means to do ethnography in spaces of political conflict.  The book connects with these works in that in each I am exploring what it means to live in a conflict zone and how political violence can affect the way people live, think, talk and act in the spaces of their everyday lives. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SH: I had in mind a few different groups of people as I was writing this book. First were scholars of Lebanon, others working on and in zones of protracted conflict, and those who work on memory and conflict. I hope this book will leave these scholars with new ways to theorize the machinations of political violence. I also hope they will come away thinking about the role of the future in society’s understanding of its past and present. My intention is to weigh in critically on an ongoing conversation on how our memory, perception and experience of violence impacts how we think of and act for our future. In addition, for scholars of Lebanon, I wanted to offer a contemporary look at the types of conversations and experiences taking place, mostly in and around Beirut, and contribute to how they might understand the impact of political violence on their own research.

A second group of people I had in mind was students. I hope this book can be assigned in courses dealing with memory, political violence, emotions in political and social life, security, future studies, comparative conflict studies, post-conflict resolution and/or ethnographic methods. Somewhat unintentionally, there is also a chapter in the book for media studies scholars and students. My hope is that I have written this book in a way that is accessible enough for professors to assign this to undergraduate students at all levels so that I may have impact on the formation of their ideas about these topics.

A third important group was people in Lebanon more generally, and those working in the nongovernmental organizations sector specifically, especially those engaged in post conflict resolution and memory work. This book offers a critique of how we have been thinking about the work of war memory and its role in conflict resolution. My hope is that those active in civil society will consider my arguments as they organize and structure new projects so that we can collectively impact the political system so many of us desire to change.

I’d like to think that the ethnographic vignettes will keep this third group’s interest and create a sense of urgency for people to get through the theory. With a larger audience in mind, I tried to minimize the technical language of anthropology without sacrificing analyses and the theoretical contributions I wanted to make. I must say in advance to your readers outside the academy that I imagine I was not successful all the time.

Finally, my desire is that people will read this book and come away with increased empathy for those living in zones of conflict. Not that empathy is a panacea for everything, but I believe that more empathy will help us all listen more carefully to those most marginalized in situations of political violence.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

SH: I am currently working on two projects. The first revisits material I collected for this project but mostly did not make it into the book. As I said earlier, I had initially intended to write about former militia fighters from Lebanon’s war (1975-1990). With this in mind, I conducted over fifty interviews with people – both men and women - who identified as being former fighters, and conducted significant ethnographic fieldwork with a number of them. In the present book, I touch on some of this work with former fighters, but they appear only insofar as they help me to understand the wider themes of recollection and anticipation of war. I now intend to return to analyze this material with former fighters and write about them. I am particularly concerned with deconstructing certain notions related to dehumanization, reintegration, and gendered militant mobilization that are recurring themes emerging from this research. I see this project as continuing the work of War is Coming by more specifically excavating the lives of perpetrators of violence.

The second project is one that is particularly dear to me in that I am experimenting with the limits of ethnographic writing by trying to draw on literary genres to structure the final narrative. It deals with the life story of a Palestinian family beginning in 1967 through the present. The story follows the sister of a now deceased member and leader of a Palestinian militant organization. Like my previous work, I am invested in telling a story of everyday life in a Palestinian village and trying to capture the social and political transformations that take place in this village. I have found that there is very little written about rural everyday experiences of life under military occupation, and this particular family is interesting because they offer the under-told story of farmers, rather than of intellectuals or elites from the major centers of historic Palestine. The seed for this project was planted during an assignment for a research methods course at Princeton. I have been working on this on and off since 2005, in New Jersey and Palestine, where I conducted interviews with family members and other people in the village. The book draws on the genre of ethnographic fiction to tell a true story that will explore such themes as the narration of violence, the dialectic between violent and non-violent actions, and the formation of social and political identity, in addition to highlighting the everyday life of violence.

Excerpt from the Introduction:

 The Hamra neighborhood of Beirut was a very busy place during ḥarb tammūz (the “July War” in 2006). Many displaced people from the South had made their way to the city, escaping Israel’s incessant bombing of that part of the country in an ineffective attempt to destroy Hizballah, the Lebanese resistance movement against Israel. The displaced were staying with relatives or in school compounds, underground garages, unoccupied apartments, and other vacant spaces in the city. On this particular afternoon, Dima and I decided to take a break from our relief work and have lunch at Roadster Café, a local American-style diner. I came to meet Dima during this period of relief work in the July War, and with her and others I would take part in various forms of humanitarian and political action during the course of my fieldwork. […]

We walked down Hamra Street, busy with people but not so jammed with cars as one would usually expect. We passed the popular fast food restaurant, malek el-baṭāṭa (King of Potatoes), and crossed the cobblestone street to our destination. There, we ordered our food. As we sat lazily at the bar, waiting for our food to arrive, we got into what would be one of our many sad and fervent conversations about war, its future possibilities, and our past memories of it. […]

Dima and I sat at the bar waiting for our burgers, Dima sipping water and I lemonade. At one point, she turned to me in her intense and heartfelt voice and said, in English: “Our lives are like superhero comic strips. You know how in the comics when there is fighting going on, oftentimes the next slide says ‘In the meanwhile.’ Well, that’s us. We are ‘In the meanwhile’; we live ‘In the meanwhile’.” While the war went on above and around us, while the displaced tended to their lives, “in the meanwhile” we ate at Roadster, had meetings, went out for a drink, worked on humanitarian relief operations, and conducted our everyday lives the way we saw fit.

If “in the meanwhile” was a way people lived through conflict, for me it became a lens through which to think about social life amid political violence and the protracted nature of conflict that has existed in Lebanon. Dima, it seems, meant to say that in the interstices of war, people still live their lives and take their breaks; indeed, war can intensify social life, as she later told me. I, too, lived my life during this war. I spent days and nights in conversations and debates with family, I watched the war live on TV, and I enjoyed nights of drinking with new friends. In this war, I also found time to love. War, whatever war, does not necessarily erase either daily actions or emotions… [It] re-shifts and reconfigures, but its processes are not very good at total erasure. It tries, but it cannot destroy our human emotions or our connections to the techniques of everyday life that came before the war—and that are transferred down generationally.

So people continue to live in the meanwhile of war in ways that can sustain a sense of everyday normalcy, and that may resemble, if only ever so slightly, the way life was lived prior to a given outbreak of war…

Thinking about life “in the meanwhile” came around the time that I also began to think about the anticipation of political violence. While spending one night in military jail, I had begun to think about anticipation as an affective site of research, and one where political power operates... During that night in prison, I was told that other convicts had been evacuated because military locations were in danger of being bombed by the Israelis. I spent the night in my cell, hearing the bombs in the distance, and wondering if the next would hit my cell. Fear struck me as I anticipated the bombs and heard the explosions, followed by the momentary calm of knowing this time my location was not the target. I was exhausted, and soon, despite the fear, I fell asleep on the humid ground, separated from it by a thin, hard, rancid mat. Something about the bombings made them both absent (over there) and present through their sounds and the potential to annihilate me at any moment, an absent presence that I managed to acquaint myself with enough to sleep through much of the night. That night, I felt myself as living “In the meanwhile” and in “anticipation of political violence.” Later, this became an axis to question and critique forms of absent present political violence, and to think about the little nooks and crannies present in war that would bring forth a deeper understanding of people’s lives in such unstable times, and that would deconstruct a homogeneous idea of what war is and isn’t.

This absent presence suggests there is an act of recollection of past violence and imagination of future violence, and a sense of people living in between past and future violence; remembering one, anticipating the other. Whereas the physicality and perpetration of war is often felt as absent—or in the past or future—talk of war, imagining it, sensing it, being tense and frustrated by it, feeling despair, resignation, fear, and hope by it, these are some of the ways that war remains constantly present (conceptually and not necessarily physically) as a structuring force in social life…

The July 2006 war lasted for thirty-three days. For most of the time after that and during my fieldwork, the bombings, gunfire, and armed confrontations between political groups were seemingly absent. In such times, I was struck by people’s preoccupation with the idea that a war, in its vaguely defined terms, was on the horizon. El-ḥarb jāye (the war is coming) or raḥ tūlaʿ el-ḥarb (the war is going to ignite), and their various derivatives, were phrases I would regularly hear in a family dining room, around a restaurant table, or at a local political party office. It is the sentiments behind such phrases that affect everyday life in Lebanon, making past and future war very much lived in the present, that I investigate in this book.

In Part I, I look at the anticipation of political violence and how it could be sensed in the meanwhile of physical conflict as well as in its absence. What kind of strategies do people employ in order to live in this meanwhile? How were people in Lebanon living and experiencing the aftermath and in-betweens of war, assassinations, bombings, and the various other acts and events often grouped together as political violence? How could one rethink this other than in terms of resilience, a recurring theme that seemed to produce forms of Lebanese exceptionalism (that somehow Lebanese were uniquely resilient for the way they conducted their lives during and after war)? People were living in the midst of armed conflict or in the shadow of threats that war might ignite, and I wanted to foreground their experiences. It is one objective of this book, then, to explore how people live in this midst, “in the meanwhile,” of political conflict and instability, and to do so in a way that does not totalize and sensationalize the experience of violence, or make violence and coping with it the only concern of people in a conflict zone (Lubkemann 2008).

Moreover, I ask how society is reconfigured in periods of political violence and subsequent calm, and how the possibility of future war inscribes recollections of past civil conflicts into everyday life. Such experiences lead me to study political violence through its “practices of anticipation” to better understand how the memory or expectation of impending political violence shapes social interactions and political relationships with the state. By practices, I mean mundane acts, gestures, conversations, psychological states, and interactions. A focus on practices of anticipation exposes ironies, contradictions, and political antagonisms present in the spaces of daily life.

Memory emerges as another fundamental part of this story and is the focus of Part II. The anticipation of political violence cannot be extricated from recollections of past war, and we should see the passage from past to future in Lebanon as a seamless duration where recollection and anticipation are simultaneous processes that meld into each other (Bergson, 1946). The flow of memory between past and future, how people experience this, and what they do with it is crucial to our understanding of how political violence is experienced, especially in its invisible forms. In Part II, I am especially concerned with how people in Lebanon consciously forget (tanāsī) past war, how their spontaneously lived memory works as a strategy for dealing with everyday life, and how this memory connects the past to the future.

[Excerpted from War Is Coming: Between Past and Future Violence in Lebanon, with permission of the author, (c) 2017.]

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