“No civil marriage no civil society.”
This was just one of Elias Khouri’s off-the-cuff summaries of his attitude towards the post-Taif regime in Lebanon. His talk, Forgiving and/or Forgetting, opened Religion, between Violence and Reconciliation, a conference held at the German Orient Institute last month.
Khouri asserts that Lebanon’s “reconstruction” has brought all the violence of the civil war into the political system by manning it with former militiamen. The reconstructed government, supported by Syria and overseen by a wealthy class of returned migrants, talks reconcilation. But at the same time it works to erase all signs of the recent past and discourages dialogue within society.
The state doesn’t encourage understanding or reconciliation, said Khouri, it enforces denial. “This is not reconciliation but domination.”
Khouri’s strong words, so close to the day-to-day reality of Lebanon, did not reflect the general tone of the conference. Still, this bout of concept-swapping gave a sort of framework for another event across town, the civil marriage ceremony at Masrah al-Madina on September 12. Together, the conference and the ceremony were as representative of the state of civil society in this country as they were dissimilar.
Conferences aren’t generally discussed in newspapers because they have little to do with civil society. They bring together a small elite who dedicate most of their lives to chasing after knowledge which is irrelevant to the average person. The thing that drives conferences ideas generally isn’t newsworthy. But there is something about the behaviour of academics, especially at a conference like this one, that is instructive.
Because academics spend much of their lives thinking about what many people find irrelevant, they can be narrow-minded and self-righteous. They are often better at talking than listening, and they talk as if they’re speaking the word of God. Then you remember that outside is Lebanon, a country where politics, violence and religion are not just academic issues. Suddenly academics and public figures, conferences and Lebanese civil society seem intimately related, if only metaphorically.
Conferences corral academics into a confined space in hopes that some communication will ensue. A good conference will mix academics with journalists, writers and activists as well. The idea is that these fragmented little worlds of ideas and action can learn from each other. Many Lebanese remember pre-war Hamra in these terms.
Conferences are more like parliaments than cafés, however. Unlike cafés, and normal civil society, conferences have a very ritualised etiquette. Here “communication” involves members of the elite sitting at a microphone and telling you what they know, each in his own special language. Naturally all the academics firmly believe that their language is the best one. The whole ritual is very polite.
Few academics venture onto the dangerous ground of practical politics. Audience members speak only after the presentations are done. Occasionally an intelligent comment rises from the scrum of highbrow mediocrity. But it tends to be ignored, or else dismissed as “naïve”. More often there is less communication than there are insecure men who use the event to project their tired certainties into the public forum. There is no dialogue, no reconciliation, just people talking past one another, again like parliament.
The microphones are shut off. Members of the elite collapse back into habitual, defensive huddles, or else circulate amiably among the masses. Business cards and e-mail addresses are exchanged over cups of coffee. The well-practised ritual of patron and client is repeated. You leave the conference a little numb and stagger a few hundred metres to Masrah al-Madina. You’ve never been there before, but you find it easily because the pavement is littered with flowers. In the theatre lobby, one of the organisers scolds you for having missed the first bit of the ceremony. She’s happy though: more names are on the petition calling for some choice in how people can be married in this country.
This world is completely different from the one you just left. All traces of religion are absent except for the woman in hijab not far from you. The only thing political is the huge wreath of flowers bearing the SSNP insignia but that’s on the sidelines. Everyone is talking; everyone is listening.
Five couples have come to officially announce their civil marriage. These marriages couldn’t be performed in Lebanon as the couples belong to different confessions. But the major obstacle to the reconciliation of these differences was their state as much as their families. Unlike some returnees, these couples haven’t returned with business and political contacts, they didn’t return to run the state. They just got married then came back to their lives in Lebanon.
Wedding gifts are presented. Photos are taken. The couples leave the stage and the audience begins to laugh along with the man delivering the wedding address. These couples are “the secularists”, younger echoes of Sofia Saadah who, like Elias Khouri, used the conference to express her frustrations with Lebanese confessionalism. Another Lebanese faction speaking another language, you think.
After the address, young musicians in suits take to the stage and perform the musical poetry known as zajal: a traditional Lebanese form taking key phrases and re-working them to build up meaning. It becomes clear that in this ceremony the talking is less important than the acting.
Outside these walls, confessional institutions are actually stronger than they were 20 years ago. But here there are no patrons and no clients, only consensus. In this state of enforced forgetfulness, civil marriage is a profound political act. You sit down and enjoy the music.