Lebanon and Algeria: Collective Memory and Cultural Trauma

By 
By Wided Khadraoui
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Literature can be a useful tool for confronting tragedies of the past.  In their newest plays, Algerian playwright Slimane Benaissa and Lebanese playwright Wajdi Mouawad examine the trauma inflicted by the violent upheavals in their respective countries, exploring ideas of collective memory and rebuilding a society that has imploded.  

"Incendies" (Scorched) by Mouawad and "Les fils de l’amerturne" (Sons of Bitterness) by Benaissa illustrate the importance of politics in everyday life. Benaissa’s play confronts a society’s collective memory of violence through a dialogue between a terrorist and a journalist. Mouawad’s piece discusses Lebanon’s civil war through a cross-generational dialogue, during which years of familial secrets come unraveled.

Mouawad writes from Montreal, having emigrated there with his family in 1983 to escape the war in Lebanon; Benaissa writes from France, where he went into exile in 1993. The fact that they both write from exile is relevant to their exploration of conceivable violence and their aptitude for consolation. The real life consequences of war and authoritative regimes allow the authors to examine the histories through a different lens in exile. 

Collective memory is a form of remembrance that is part of the communal identity-formation process. How collective memory impacts individuals and collective society as a whole are two separate issues. In the two plays, trauma is mediated through various forms of the collective memory, and the works urge us to re-examine our own past and current circumstances.

It is critical both to understanding Benaissa and Mouawad as playwrights and post-war literature as a whole that we see the plays as odysseys, or journeys back home. Both the Lebanese and Algerian governments have actively sought to erase certain memories from public consciousness. Collective memory, unfortunately, has the tendency to perpetuate these manipulations and falsifications. But by using literature as a tool, people can begin unraveling the truth about the past.

Relying on dramatic features like interspatial manifolds as well as fragmented and analepses sequences, the authors convey the sense of turmoil and continuous pain that these nations share.

Slimane Benaissa “Les fils de l’amertume”

Collective memory has so far stifled the possibility for revolution in Algeria. As the “Arab Spring” sweeps through North Africa, Algeria remains largely untouched. The legacy of the civil war, with more than 150,000 people dead or missing, and the trauma of the war of liberation still remain parts of the national collective. With these events fresh in their minds, Algerians seem unwilling to take part in another violent upheaval. The government’s ineffectual reforms have not fostered the most creative environment, yet poignant works still seep through the cracks.

Slimane Benaissa’s play “Les fils de l’amertume” (which began as a novel and was later adapted for the stage) features a dialogue between a terrorist and a journalist. Their conversation explores the overlap between religion and nationalism. The confrontation between these two multi-faceted institutions, with the subsequent spiral into chaos, gives the play a means of exploring the legacy of violence in Algerian society.

Representatives of the second generation after the War of Independence, the play’s two protagonists face their country’s weariness and devastation. With the background of civil war, economic crisis, and social injustice, the two characters explore the subject of violence and society’s attempts to control it.  Farid symbolizes fundamentalism, while Youcef represents the secularist; yet, their positions are not so cookie-cutter precise. The son of a resistance fighter, Farid is described as “a disorientated soul who becomes a terrorist,” while Youcef, in the vein of the author’s own multiculturalism, identifies himself as Berber, French, and Arab. The fluidity and multiplicity of identity is a constant theme in the play.

Using literature to explore the effects of violence and the elusive nature of solace offers a poignant way of examining the Algerian experience. For example, after growing weary of the corruption associated with the FLN-affiliated government, even secularists voted for the Islamists in the 1992 elections. Benaissa tries to explain the appeal of Islamism by employing religious mythology, evoking the spirituality of prayer, and showing how the mosque has been a resource for the oppressed. He explains, “I know now what my father has always hidden, that which the institute has never told me. It is the emir who explained that those who govern us are thieves. Then he demanded whether or not I want to resemble them? This question healed me.”

The chaotic text of the play symbolizes the mind set in Algeria. Dialogue is passed from Farid to Youcef unceremoniously, and interspersed with numerous flashbacks that cement the feeling of utter perplexity: “My words are naïve, and my confusion is simple. Who kills? And why? No. Do not respond. I already know your answer, I am looking for my own.” The hunt to legitimize experiences as a society and as individuals is a constant theme in both plays.

Wajdi Mouawad “Incendies”

Mouawad’s play "Incendies" never names the setting. This anonymous land, however, is clearly Lebanon. The reluctance to identify the location plays a vital role in the plot, which centers on distressing secrets and the eventual demystification of the past.

Twins Janine and Simon make separate trips back to the Middle East to fulfill the last request of their dying mother, Nawal Marwan, who fought in her country’s bloody civil war and eventually fled to Canada. Nawal instructs her Québécois notary and executor of her will, Hermile Lebel, to tell her children to send off two letters, one to their father and one to their brother, and then to journey ‘home.’ Janine is sent to find their father, who the twins had thought died before their birth, and Simon must track down the brother they never knew existed. 

The twins’ journey, something of a Greek myth set in a modern day war-torn Middle Eastern country, eventually exposes their mother’s painful past. Their odyssey uncovers an Oedipal twist, with both of their letters reaching the same man: their mother’s long lost son is also the twins’ father. With the twins travelling through the country, Mouawad exposes Nawal’s past in schizophrenic snatches. The irregular linearity pairs with the exposition of torture, shootings, and killings—which are rampant throughout Nawal’s country—with the story of her rape gradually unfurling. Their mother’s silence about her past turns out to also be her salvation.  Nawal’s only choice was “to fight against the misery of the world or, perhaps, to fall into it.”  The trick of undoing the past by suppressing it is reminiscent of the actions of both the Lebanese and Algerian actions.

Mouawad also looks at the struggles of immigrants during the war, with the play opening in the bubble of Montreal, where the characters now live. Analyzing the effects of war across generations, the play juxtaposes the siblings’ war memories with their mother’s. "Incendies" is punctuated with explosions, and sporadic pieces of flashback dialogue act as an isthmus between the past and present.

The twins, like all survivors of war who seek out the facts, have inherited a world of truth, but “…a truth that is like a green fruit that has never ripened.” It is through this forced exploration, Mouawad suggests, that the truth has the opportunity to finally ripen.

Literature functions to remove obstacles, deconstruct the world, and then recreate it. Fiction can serve as a bridge that enables people to travel back and forth between events. History and legend are sometimes presented as one and the same, and disentangling the true past from a fictitious one is a perilous endeavour, especially when discussing the atrocity of war.

Speaking about the Algerian crisis, Benaissa states that it “…comes down above all to the relationship between memory, history, and religion,” and we will truly be free  “when we can live our history without lying to ourselves.”The same can be said for the Lebanese example. The histories and the dramas of the countries reflect the confusion, irrationality, and complexity of the human experience. As the narrator eloquently comments in "Les fils de l’amertume" regarding blame, “…do not say foreign hands, do not say external ghost, stop denying your demons….”  Trying to bridge the gap between memory and reality marks the end of denial and the beginning of restorative ownership of the past.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 17, No. 64.

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