HARET HREIK, Lebanon: Villa Slim sits not far from the street sign welcoming motorists to Haret Hreik. If this municipality just south of Beirut exists in the popular imagination, it’s as a “Hezbollah stronghold.”
It’s a Saturday and Villa Slim is quiet. The garden is still adorned by flower wreaths set down during the Feb. 10 memorial marking the death of Lokman Slim, whose bullet-riddled body had been found in south Lebanon a few days before.
Somewhere nearby, several dogs start barking.
If Haret Hreik is associated with Hezbollah, then Slim was best known as a Hezbollah critic. In addition to writing commentaries, his platform for civic activism was the NGO Hayya Bina, but he was involved in a number of cultural activities as well.
With his sister, novelist Rasha El Ameer, Slim established Dar al-Jadeed, a publishing house dedicated to contemporary Arabic literature, in 1991. Villa Slim itself is home to UMAM Documentation and Research, which he co-founded in 2005 with Monika Borgman, his wife.
“UMAM must continue,” Borgman says definitively. “UMAM will continue. Of course I need the support of a lot of other like-minded people – but the support I got in these past days, it was really immense. Now it’s not only a matter of trying to keep UMAM alive, but of moving it forward.”
UMAM D&R is an NGO premised on the adage that a people that doesn’t know its past is doomed to repeat it – specifically Lebanon’s history of political instability and violence. UMAM has been dedicated to compiling a diverse collection of Lebanese historical documents – books, films, magazines, newspapers, and more. It’s a significant and unique resource for researchers.
Early on it seemed UMAM’s mission couldn’t be disentangled from politics. In the summer of 2007, for instance, the center staged “Collecting Dahiyeh,” an exhibition sampling its early archival work – posters, maps, photos, and recorded oral testimonies from Haret Hreik’s residents and former residents.
Funding and staging cultural events was (and is) an expression of soft power on the part of state and non-state actors. Did Slim’s obvious stake in both Haret Hreik and non-sectarian politics color the history Umam’s projects told?
“‘The Dahiyeh,’” Slim replied, “is part of my identity. I don't want to fall back on this stupid notion that everything was much better before [south Lebanese and Bekaa] migrants came into Haret Hreik ... It’s our responsibility to try to make it better today.
“I don't need any cultural or artistic camouflage to express my political views. When I want to do that I just write an article.”
Biased or not, it’s hard to fault UMAM’s archival work – not least because it fills a vacuum that in another country might be occupied by a national archive.
Lebanon remains UMAM’s central interest but since 2011 the center has broadened its scope to include the wider region. In 2018, for instance, the center launched the MENA Prison Forum.
Looking back upon the past 20 years, Borgman says Lokman Slim was an irreplaceable collaborator.
“Lokman had many parallel lives,” she says, “and lots of energy. If he wasn’t writing, he was reading or editing. He really loved life, all sides of life. He was really curious. There wasn’t a moment where he wasn’t doing something, somehow ... Just now there are five books he was editing for Dar al-Jadeed, meant to come out next month.”
Borgman believes no individual can fill Slim’s shoes, but she has no doubt the center’s work will continue. UMAM has a core staff of seven but, with freelancers and researchers, 20-to-25 people are employed there.
“Everybody is dedicated,” she says. “The institution and its projects are secured.”
Until the end of February UMAM’s exhibition hall, The Hangar, is nominally exhibiting “Autumn is a Second Spring,” a solo show by photojournalist Marwan Tahtah, but Borgman admits that Lebanon’s on-again off-again lockdown regime has been an obstacle.
“Our public program suffered from COVID-19,” she says, “but on the documentation and research side, all this continued, even after the [Beirut Port] explosion. We dedicated more time to putting the MENA Prison Forum online – though part of the team went to home office.”
Among the archival projects UMAM is digitizing and putting online is UMAM Biblio, launched in April 2019, a catalogue of the array of books, periodicals, leaflets, posters and such in UMAM’s holdings.
While the center’s staff has devoted the months of lockdown to exhibiting its holdings online, other measures had already been taken to secure the institution itself. No steps have been taken to relocate, but in 2019 Slim had UMAM Documentation and Research registered as a legal entity in Switzerland.
“UMAM has changed a lot over these 15 years,” Borgman says. “We were permanently brainstorming. ‘What makes sense? Where can we have an impact? If we started with the Civil War, we moved much more to understanding the present through the past.
“Each of UMAM’s projects has its own history. The MENA Prison Forum started somehow with the 2008 exhibition ‘Missing’ [comprised of photos of 500 young men disappeared during the Civil War]. The focus then moved to ex-detainees in Syrian prisons, and the ‘Damascus Road’ exhibition [of detainee portraits]. That brought us somehow to make the film ‘Tadmor.’”
UMAM’s 2016 doc assembles a group of Lebanese men who survived detention in Syria’s most notorious prison. Not unlike Raed Andoni’s 2017 doc “Ghost Hunting,” “Tadmor” documents the survivors’ rebuilding their former prison, where they play out the roles of prison guards and relive the humiliations of detention.
“I will miss this permanent state of brainstorming,” Borgman says. “It was never doing for the sake of doing. It was always a matter of asking ourselves, What makes sense? What will make an impact?”
Before she met Slim, Borgman had spent a decade based in a Cairo, working as freelance journalist.
“Usually it was hour-long features for German radio, creating pictures through sound,” she says. “My stories were on violence and memory, as I’m doing now.
“I was in Lebanon a lot but I didn’t meet Lokman until 2001 ... I had a film project I wanted to develop on collective violence, specifically the Sabra-Shatila massacre.
“People told me it’s impossible,” she recalls. “Even Palestinians told me this but I was obsessed. I found by chance the first guy. Then I found more. Then at one point they were all arrested. When I started working with Lokman, he understood very quickly that that the film was about the perpetrators, not the victims.”
Borgman’s project grew into the contentious, award-winning doc “Massacre.” Released in 2005, it was based entirely on the testimonials of six men who said they had committed one of the Civil War’s more notorious crimes. Most betray no regrets. It was her first collaboration with Slim, which went on to inspire the creation of UMAM D&R.
“There were so many sides to Lokman,” she says, “someone who had this capacity to give on so many levels, in so many directions.
“I will do whatever I can for some kind of justice, some kind of international investigation. I need to know why. And why now. I cannot stay without answers.
“I lost the person with whom I shared by last 20 years. We shared our lives not only as a couple but with all these projects we’ve been running. In this sense, I feel they’re killing me too.”
The sound of baying dogs is never far from this Saturday afternoon conversation, and at one point a large hound bursts into Slim’s office. Borgman stops it with a clap of her hands, sending the dog slinking away.
“This is another side of Lokman,” she smiles, “the dogs. First there were rumors that dogs somehow transmit COVID. Then it had more to do with economic conditions than corona. People were throwing their dogs into the garden because they knew we have dogs ourselves.
“At one point somebody drove by on his motorcycle, threw his dog and drove away,” Borgman laughs. “Lokman kept them all.”
UMAM’s recent work can be found online at: http://umam-dr.org/, www.umambiblio.org, and www.memoryatwork.org