UMAM Documentation and Research
Founded in Beirut, UMAM Documentation and Research (UMAM D&R) was officially recognized by the Lebanese Ministry of Interior and Municipalities as a non-governmental organization in 2005.
The idea behind its creation (the seeds of which were sown in 2000) can be attributed to a group of individuals who shared concerns about Lebanon’s present and hoped that the country could someday achieve genuine, enduring stability. The kind of stability they envisioned would guarantee the development of a real and inclusive political life, free of inherited or imposed taboos or legacy alliances. Another assumption was that it would be impossible to contribute to the achievement of such a lofty (near idealistic) goal as long as Lebanon retained its culture of denial, and as long as its citizens rejected the responsibility they shared in two areas. These are (a) the country’s successive conflicts and cycles of violence and (b) its tolerance of a political system that made an enforced national amnesia into a quasi-official state religion. Among other unfortunate consequences, these painful entanglements have led the country from one deadlock to the next. Thus a fundamental effort that must preface any genuine recognition of that responsibility involves revisiting a number of contributing factors. This entails collecting and examining the facts behind the cyclical violence (including its deep social and cultural roots, which seem to have become part of the Lebanese landscape) and analyzing the underlying sources of conflict, the astonishingly incomprehensible way Lebanon’s civil war (1975 – 1990) ended, and most importantly, why Lebanon continually fails to move forward.
Our determination to do something was also motivated by the worries and hopes that influenced Lebanon at the time UMAM D&R emerged. Some fifteen years after the Taif Agreement, it had become clear that the approach used to pacify this small strip of land (210 kilometers long and 50 kilometers wide), could not be sustained.
One of the enduring historical features that reemerged during the post-civil war era in Lebanon was a prevailing, narrow-minded moral discourse, which continues to characterize the war as little more than an interruption in an otherwise peaceful course of events in Lebanon. That impression was reinforced by a persistent tendency to blame Lebanon’s long-term problems on foreign interference, an opinion that ostensibly excused Lebanon—and the Lebanese—from taking any responsibility for the war. Conveniently, the most vehement promotion of that discourse was championed by the same warlords who had been absolved of their battlefield sins. For these and other reasons, the critical need to audit the past leads inexorably to the necessity for a careful and determined inspection of the present.
As we sought to encourage discussion of specific facts and episodes related to Lebanon’s war (and its legacy) while overcoming the moral categories of good and evil, it became obvious that a citizen resource center, focused primarily on the Lebanese civil war, had to be developed. In order to be effective, such a resource had to satisfy two criteria. First, it had to disclose and acknowledge every one of the taboos related to Lebanon’s past (and that continue to influence its present). Second, it could not be governed by the same types of restrictions applied to state or academic institutions.
At the simplest level, any genuine exploration (and eventual understanding) of Lebanon’s recent past demands the meticulous collection, protection, and promotion to the public of documents, evidence, and artifacts from that period in the country’s history. Realistically, however, that approach contrasts starkly with the reality that Lebanese political elites and governmental officials continue—albeit selectively—either to ignore or feign ignorance of the gravity of Lebanon’s violent past. This same treatment is given to the broad, Lebanese pool of conflicting memories which date to that murky era (and sometimes before), and the legacy of which is refreshed constantly through the violent, cyclical disturbances that roil Lebanon to this day.
Such an abject failure to appreciate the gravity of the country’s past and understand the significant weight it exerts on the present is evident in the conspicuous and deliberate lack of any state-sponsored institution specializing in the collection and dissemination of this information. Thus it is little wonder that no official accounting for the country’s past has ever taken place. Further, the very notion of dealing with the past in an effort to appreciate and improve the present is still struggling to gain legitimacy in Lebanon.
While UMAM contributes to the ongoing debate over Lebanon’s past and what it views as the country’s faulty collective memory, it exists and operates in an environment that is exceptionally hostile to historical reflection. Under these conditions, it is considered acceptable to effect, on a national scale, the systemic ignorance of the past as a political platform. Sects and communities within the country continue to build their respective myths, narratives, and histories, none of which hesitate to leverage strained, fragmented memories for the achievement of short-term political gains rather than long-term national stability.
UMAM D&R began work in 2005 with an exclusively Lebanese focus. Soon enough, however, the organization realized that it could not remain passive about the swelling number—and severity—of regional issues. The momentous developments that began to unfold in 2011 and continue to affect the entire Middle East, have long since exceeded the boundaries of the region. These upheavals have called forth the ghosts of antiquated religious and sectarian/ethnic conflict and have given them new names. Among other outcomes (some positive, but most negative), these changes demonstrate the calamitous effects of ignoring the past, particularly since the deep-seated roots of those challenges are today emerging as full-grown hazards.
Ten years after its establishment, the new challenges in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East (challenges that are at once theoretical and practical) validate the idea behind the creation of UMAM D&R. The efforts UMAM D&R expends to keep pace with the regional situation and remain true to its original Lebanese perspective are not only its raisons d’être, but also represent the bulk of its organizational agenda.