Beyond and Before Civil War in Lebanon

War is Coming: Between Past and Future Violence in Lebanon, by Sami Hermez (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017)

Reviewed by Joanne Randa Nucho, Pomona College

Sami Hermez’s War is Coming: Between Past and Future Violence in Lebanon (2017) is a welcome addition to the recent ethnographic work on Lebanon. Hermez describes a general sense of looming violence in the years following the Lebanese civil war, which ended in 1990. He skillfully presents Lebanon’s permanent suspension in a state of anticipation of further war and how it shapes the lives of Lebanese people who survived prior conflicts and even those who participated in them. As Hermez shows, the threat of future wars is also a discourse manipulated by elite actors and heads of political parties in pursuit of power. Hermez’s rich ethnographic account and his extensive interviews provide the reader with a vibrant sense of everyday life lived in expectation of ever more violence.

War is Coming starts with a timeline of important historical moments in Lebanon starting from the nineteenth century onward. Following Henri Bergson’s notion of duration, Hermez argues compellingly that “the anticipation of political violence cannot be extricated from recollections of past war” (pg. 5). The most important question for Hermez is not about causality or finding in the past the conditions of possibility for the present, but rather one about how people remember the past and imagine the future as filled with potential conflicts.

Hermez offers the framework of “in the meanwhile” to explore the very fuzzy boundary between what constitutes war and peace. The war, he writes, “remains constantly present (conceptually and not necessarily physically), as a structuring force in social life” (pg. 4). One of Hermez’s most important conceptual contributions is his discussion of why war, and not violence, is the operative term for his analysis. Violence remains an amorphous and general concept, but for his interlocutors it is war (harb in Arabic) that is a “local category that people invest with meaning and emotion” (pg. 11). The distinction between war and violence allows Hermez to ask whether Lebanon is postwar at all. It is the threat of a war that is ever-present, or that never really ended, that is at stake in this project.

The rest of the book is an exploration of how the anticipation of war functions in Lebanon, both in the discourses of political elites who manipulate this insecurity to their own ends and in everyday life. In Part 1, “Anticipation”, Hermez describes how people draw from practices in the past in order to make meaning of the present—particularly during times when conflict flares up again. Hermez also describes how political actors can actively stoke the anticipation of war to their own ends on talk shows, in speeches, or by establishing checkpoints that reinforce the anticipation of violence. Meanwhile, from the most mundane activities like moving through the city to the spectacle of television psychics weighing in on the possibility of future conflict, the everyday anticipation of continued war offers more evidence that the war never really ended.

In Part 2, “Recollection,” Hermez takes on the contentious topic of public or collective memory in Lebanon. There is no lack of commemoration of, or narratives about, the war in Lebanon, he writes, but some have bemoaned the fact that there is no “master national narrative” (pg. 171). The Lebanese state did not produce anything like an official history of the war, opting instead to offer general amnesty and allow the continuation of rule by the very same militia leaders who had participated in the civil war (or their family members, who operate as political dynasties). Hermez argues that the problem is not one of collective or official amnesia. Rather, “there was an abrogation of responsibility on the part of the state, which left a narrative of the war open to interpretation” (pg. 148). Hermez’s account casts doubt on the idea that a monolithic national narrative could bring an end to the forms of ongoing violence he describes. Instead, his ethnography reminds us that memory and forgetting are situated in everyday life. The realities of living in Lebanon, including the way people remember the past during incidents of political violence make war feel both ongoing and imminent. Hermez’s most significant contribution is to show through careful ethnographic detail how it is primarily the affective dimensions of life in Lebanon, not a failure to remember or to forget the past, that shape popular understandings that war is coming, and that it never ended. A war that never ended, that may flare up at any moment, cannot be commemorated or forgotten.

War is Coming is an excellent ethnographic account of how life is lived in situations of ongoing political instability and in the aftermath of war. It is also beautifully written, with evocative descriptions of the ethnographic context and how the interviews were conducted. I would recommend this book to anyone interested more generally in postwar memory, but also those seeking to better understand the ways in which ongoing instability and frustration play a part in contemporary Lebanese popular politics.