Writing (or suggesting) history

Yesterday night, Al Manar aired a documentary on the history of Dahyeh (Beirut’s suburb area) that I could never finish because my friend Cara had some weird craving for a bloody mary at Evergreen. But I happened to watch enough of it to be able to formulate a couple of open ended ideas.

It may well be one of the few TV documentaries ever made on a Shi’a dominated region, especially marginal ones such as the suburbs. Even when Shi’as are mentioned, Lebanese documentaries if I may permit myself such generalization (judging from LBC’s productions) revolve around elites history, their families, their politics, and how this contributed to the rise of a particular version of the history of the country. Let’s call this, the elite version. Most of the time in the case of Lebanon it is a “confessional” history. Classical (or typical) histories of Europe and other parts of the world (that you learn in school) are about just that, Kings and their wars, important shift in political directions, and the rise of a nationalist vision that go hand in hand with the consolidation of a specific power.

Of course, today, in ‘developed’ countries you have what we call ‘social historians’ writing the stories of the people, their working habits, how this created dispositions, mentalities and forms of social consciousness, and ultimately how this is inscribed in a political and power-intrusive environment. Well, if I may permit myself, Manar TV was airing this type of documentaries. Of course, this was not a detailed archival work that described all of the above, but at least it gave a glance at how history could have been viewed by the average people who started arriving in these regions of Dahyeh. It was the history of a forming popular area that developed because of economic and social imperatives. It is a history of the different crafts present, the different jobs that people would practice, but also it is the history of changing streets and areas, the history of an olive tree field that disappears for a Souk to develop etc.

Once this description established, the documentary subtly introduces Lebanese elite politics from the back door. Once you are immersed in the daily lives of these people, then your reading of political decisions (such as demolishing houses under the presidency of Chamoun, or claiming others to the state etc.) will change. Something that to my knowledge has never been done by other TVs.

But above all, this is a new history because it narrates tales never told. These are the tales of the Shi’a. “They” actually “speak”. And this can come as quite a shock. The spoken, the “uttered” is a political weapon. it signals first the presence of “the other”, but also a whole set of logics that his discourse follow. When the other goes out of being this inert ‘thing’ and actually inscribes himself in a discourse, then its presence becomes more and more political.

This may be the most important function played by Al Manar TV.


4 Replies to “Writing (or suggesting) history”

  1. True, Manar TV has a very strategic function. For a channel that looks the least fancy, brilliant, attractive or mainstream ‘pop’, Manar TV knows who its target audience is (not just the Shias) and knows what power the media possesses and how to utilize it.

    I recently wrote an academic essay on the Shia history in Lebanon and some points mentioned in your post address my topic at its core.

    The French historian Braudel said “history may be divided into three movements: what moves rapidly, what moves slowly and what appears not to move at all” . The latter represents Lebanese Shia history the most. Briefly, although the Shias may seem to have abruptly arose from nowewhere, the Shias were always there but have been very silent (forced silence) and this goes back almost 1000 years in time. However, they slowly began to recognize their need to do something and to verbalize their presence. To not travel too far back in time, the Lebanese Shia renaissance began back in the late 50s with Imam Musa al Sadr.He emerged as a national hero who spoke for the deprived Shias of Lebanon, developed grand religious and political projects for them, and worked on improving their monetary status. Interestingly, although Imam Musa alSadr was building up the Shia confession, he worked on bridging the gap between them and other confessions, such as the Christians.

    The rest of the story is very long…Anyways, I am tired and it is very long and very deep a topic that I don’t know where to start from or how to end it without losing the clarity of my thoughts. But thanks, it was interesting to read your post.

  2. It made me think (I still do that only from time to time) that when the “other” speaks through a media created to support the current this “other” belongs to, does it really make a difference ? Will Manar actually show people from the suburbs saying they hate hesbollah’s gutts for instance ? – Really just asking.
    To me, Manar is exactly like LBC : LBC will show the “elite” (funny, used here) such as Samir Geagea because he is the only basis (God knows why) to the “Strenght” of the LF. Manar will show you the people because in the Hesbollah’s case, showing off the people’s support is a demonstration of of “democracy” applied … Eventually, every channel will use the angle people are most likely to be sensitive too, simply not with the objective of “democracy” (I hate that word) in mind … No ?

  3. hey sandrine,

    Just to point out a few things

    there is a difference between history of elites and social history.

    In the case of this documentary it was social history. To my knowledge I have not seen a lot of those from a “Christian” perspective. On the contrary the latter always emphasized an elitist version of history because they had a grasp traditionally on the modes of knowledge production.

    So although Geagea is not at all an elite (although he becomes one later on), LBC and co. internalized a Christian discourse of feudal history were population dynamics are effectively lacking. There are vague nationalist slogans that are supposed to motivate elites ‘historical’ decision, etc.

    Now ironically, Geagea come from a popular environment but has internalized an elitist discourse of defining existential issues facing the community he is part of. Hence, his “right-wingness”. This in itself is a very interesting phenomenon in Christian politics that should be further discussed.

    So, there is no CRITICAL historical work at least at the level of the media. Now of course you have some books and most recently Trabulsi’s history of Lebanon. But in terms of media work it is quite rare. Some movies from ‘leftist’ directors also exist.

  4. I agree
    But still, what I meant is every media will use the angle its viewers are the most sensitive too (3am betfalsaf, for the sake of falsafé I guess)- that would be social history for Manar, or history of elites, as you call it, on LBC.
    But concerning Christians, there is a lack in it, but I’m feeling more and more people drive away from that functioning.
    Except still, for a couple of regions I guess.. héhé I read somewhere yesterday – when a 70 year old woman was asked who she voted for in the Metn elections – she said Gemayel because she wanted to make sure that the “Christian community will be directed by the Gemayel family”… Now, that is definitely interesting to study but I’m sure I’ll be less harsh than you in some cases.

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