Lebanon does not have an accessible historical archive that can answer the “what,” “where,” and “when” questions surrounding its civil war. In fact, some would go as far as to say the Lebanese government actively deters its citizens from searching for answers surrounding controversial truths. Lokman Slim and his wife Monika Borgmann, however, created the private, nongovernmental organization, UMAM Documentation & Research in 2005 to ask the country: when is it going to reckon with its own past?
Slim was found dead in a car on February 4, 2021 with multiple bullet wounds. No one has claimed responsibility for his killing, and it’s unclear whether the Lebanese government will conduct an investigation. There is speculation that his murder has something to do with the fact that he was a well-known Shiite critique of Hezbollah. Regardless, it is no question that his death was meant to be — and is — a significant loss for the Lebanese pushing for greater democratic accountability and social justice. Slim’s death is also a direct attack on efforts to preserve Lebanon’s cultural heritage.
THE URGENT NEED FOR UMAM D&R
Cultural property, which includes the establishment of archives according to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property, is theoretically protected in times of war. Ironically, Lebanon signed the convention within ten days of its passing, becoming one of the first countries to do so. Tragically, during the civil war from 1975 to 1990, there was no regard for protecting Lebanon’s cultural heritage. Worse, the geography of the conflict found the National Museum of Beirut on the deadly Green Line that demarcated sides during the war, largely separating militia groups fighting from the Muslim west and Christian east.
The museum’s director during the civil war, Maurice Chebab, worked to save the museum’s collection with a small staff. They attempted to hide works, cover large pieces with concrete, or bar them with sandbags. These works included pieces from the Phoenician, Persian, Roman, Arab conquest, and Ottoman periods — all eras whose significance follow lines of contention within Lebanese identity, just as the civil war did.
UMAM D&R is a precious organization. Its work has illuminated histories of the disappeared, the realities of prison torture in the Middle East and North Africa region, and the area’s cultural heritage.
During the civil war, factions from the Palestinian militias, Syrian forces, and Lebanese factions kidnapped and/or killed thousands of people. Some estimates put the number of disappeared at 17,000. But the Lebanese government has let decades pass without any justice, only addressing the issue of the “missing” after the Law of the Missing and Forcibly Disappeared or Law 105 was passed in 2018. The law established an impartial and independent national commission to find out what happened to those who disappeared. But it is slow-moving: the government finally appointed members of the National Commission for the Missing and Forcibly Disappeared in June 2020.
If someone wants to try to find archival materials on the missing without waiting on the government, then they can travel to southern Beirut. There, UMAM D&R has been collecting stories of the missing for the public: to serve the people and help them understand their own history. UMAM D&R is based on the premise that only through “open and honest historical reckoning can the country better understand contemporary issues and prepare itself to deal with future problems.” As a result, UMAM D&R has not only collected stories of the civil war, but also published them.
UMAM D&R also has an exhibition space, called The Hangar that has become a safe space for artistic expression and diverse conversation around Lebanon’s cultural memory. The Hangar routinely displays archival material, local artist work, and films, allowing for transparency, which is rare, especially when related to issues of systematic abuse and war.
Finally, UMAM D&R has established an online resource called UMAM Biblio. The Biblio hosts all archival materials found by UMAM from historical documents to books, to posters, generating a public database for the cultural history of the country in a way that does not exist anywhere else in the region.
REMEMBERING SLIM’S BRAVERY
The fact is, in times of both war and peace, Lebanon has been forced to rely solely on individuals who deeply understand the value of cultural heritage and are literally willing to risk their lives to protect and expose memories that challenge the State’s narratives. Society, in turn, relies on these individuals to find some way to grapple with the past in order to understand the present, and one day, move on. Unfortunately, in Lebanon, the number of artist and activist organizations successfully carrying out this kind of work is extremely rare — and almost unheard of. UMAM D&R, therefore, is a precious organization. Its work has illuminated histories of the disappeared, the realities of prison torture in the Middle East and North Africa region, and the area’s cultural heritage.
Protecting our collective history should not require such a reliance on individuals, but in Lebanon it does — and we are forever grateful to those like Slim, who dedicated his life to preserving Lebanon’s history. While it is doubtful that the government will take an active role in preserving the country’s history and heritage, they have the opportunity now to change that and generate an environment that is open to ideas. The government’s reaction to Slim’s murder will show whether or not it values his life’s work — and thus the work to preserve Lebanon’s history.
It is not a good sign when our cultural memory is threatened, but it is potentially an even scarier thought to think its protectors are threatened. Slim was fearless, and those who will carry on his legacy must be as well. After all, they have no choice.
Alexandra B. Hall is a research consultant for non-governmental organizations in Washington, DC and interned at UMAM Documentation and Research in 2018 in Haret Hreik, Lebanon.