Never before published interview with Lebanese activist Lokman Slim

Yesterday I heard the news that activist, historian, and prominent Hezbollah critic Lokman Slim was found murdered in south Lebanon. I hadn’t heard his name in years, but when I did I was immediately taken back to 2012, when I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours recording an on-camera interview with Lokman at The Hangar in Dahiyeh, a predominantly Shia suburb of Beirut.

As is often the way with documentary, only a few sound bites were used in the final product, which no longer appears to be online. So I thought I’d dust off the raw transcript of that conversation, posted here for posterity, and in remembrance of one of the most interesting people I’ve met in my travels.

Lokman Slim
Interviewed February 16, 2012
Dahyeh, Lebanon

JASON MOJICA: Can we start with just basics? If you could tell us your name and — your title here.

LOKMAN SLIM: Most difficult question. I know my name by heart. It’s Lokman Slim. As to my title, I think that I am just an activist in this organization. Though from time to time, I end up as director, vice director, you know?

JM: What is this organization?

LS: Let’s start from the beginning. Its name is UMAM, which — could mean nothing. And which could mean a lot. UMAM Documentation and Research. So UMAM deals mainly with documentation and with research. By documentation, we mainly mean documenting the Civil War or the so-called Civil War. The cycle of violence, which — through which Lebanon went through between 1975 and 1990. Obviously we don’t spout this definition of the war, because the war is also its priming periods. The war is also the post-war. The war is — yesterday, today, tomorrow perhaps. And research, which means exploiting these documents, which are of various nature. Written, audio, video, artifacts. And trying to make sense of what they could say.

JM: I’m very interested in why this facility and and the gallery that’s related to it is in a neighborhood that’s so strongly associated with Hezbollah.

LS: Strange. I don’t know why it’s associated with Hezbollah. I think that the whole — whole Lebanon is associated today with Hezbollah. So since its very beginning, it was an act of resistance. And it’s still… It’s trying to say that even in a ghetto, even under — occupation, even under — any kind of a totalitarian rule — a human being can continue doing or trying to do whatever he wants to do. So finally, I think that the problem is with your vision of what Hezbollah is. And about a kind of geography which is not relevant for me.

JM: Sorry I’m jumping back and forth between thoughts. Can we go back to the documents? Can you tell us what they are, where they came from, why you think it’s important to preserve them?

LS: Instead of talking about documents, I will talk about what I believe being a relevant speech about the war. Since the official end of the war and even during the war, the common Lebanese speech about the war was a very general one, a moralistic one. So to lead a real critique of the war, we need to go into details. So documents for me, documenting, documentation, means going into details. Into fussy details. Into boring details. So where from these documents come? They come from everywhere. They come from the streets, from a piece of paper that any of our colleague would pick up. But they come, also, from larger collections that — we acquire. These documents — are not only printed ones. So they come also from the memory of people we interview. They come from everywhere. Obviously, the fact of collecting is not the more important. The act of — the fact of being able to search this collection, I mean, to retrieve useful data out of this bulk is the most important. And I think that the progress of UMAM Documentation and Research is to be assessed according to the possibility of using this bulk of archives. And not by the quantity of archive we have in our warehouses.

JM: You talked about people referring to the war in these very general terms. And you think it’s important to get into specifics. This reminds me of some work I did in Peru. The situation there was, you know, the war in the late ’80s and early ’90s… the Shining Path versus the government. People‘s general attitude is that they would prefer to forget. Just like,“That happened, that’s over, let’s move on.” Is there a similar attitude towards this? How do people feel about you trying to get into the details–the nitty gritty– of what really happened?

LS: Out of experience, I would say that a defense mechanism towards — a civil war is to describe it as unique. And to highlight its exceptionalism. And the Irish do the same, the Lebanese. I think that tomorrow the Syrians will say, “The war we went through was unique.” So working or building the myth of exceptionalism is common. As to the fact of rejecting the war and to say, “Okay, let’s go on,” it’s legitimate. It’s legitimate as — a result of a trauma. But soon, people discover that they are going nowhere. And they have finally to go back, not to go on or going on is going back. At least in a fake way. At least in a way which helps building a kind of historical consciousness.

So the Lebanese are not different. And when I say Lebanese, personally, I tend to include all those stakeholders of this war. I know Lebanese means also the Palestinians, means Syrians, means Iraqis, means all those who were involved in a way or in another. So yes, you know, the Lebanese finally had — this reaction, you know? “Let’s forget, let’s move on.” But then they found out that they are moving nowhere. And finally that the recipe, which consists on forgetting on forgetting by decree, I would say forgetting… as an act of human will is not enough. There are other layers of conflict which are still — at work. And I think that these underground layers of conflict end up by reappearing and creating, again, conflict. So like others, the Lebanese start to discover… or start testing other recipes. And in a way, I think that it’s a chance that — in 2005 — we had— it’s not a chance. That we had our former prime minister assassinated. But we had a chance that this assassination was escorted by a kind of international attention, which created the STL. I’m not building all my hopes on the STL — The Special Tribunal for Lebanon. But this tribunal is a kind of reminder that impunity is not necessarily a solution. Personally, I don’t care to know who killed Rafik Hariri. But I care more about this reminder. Which is, let’s go forward and stop thinking that by anonymizing a killer, we salvage our country.

JM: I’m sorry, by doing what to a killer?

LS: By anonymizing a killer, we salvage a country. Because it was the formula. That everybody knows who killed whom, but we never wanted to point out this person and to response to make him assume his or her responsibilities.

JM: Right, okay. So it sounds like the people who wanted to just be very general and kind of forget the past… nothing gets solved. I mean, all of the things that caused the problems in the first place are still there, just beneath the surface. And will come out again. Do you think that the assassination of Hairiri was evidence of that?

LS: Among other things, yes. The assassination of Hairiri proved how much this shortcut consisting of killing by means of getting outside the situation is still part of our political practice, you see? It’s not the assassination of X or Y or Z. It’s the fact of killing as an exit of a political deadlock. Finally, it’s not killing Hairiri. It’s killing the political game. Because others than Hairiri were assassinated before him. And others were assassinated after him. So the issue is the following. How can we accept that a standard political life is made of this agreement? And how to say that this agreement doesn’t need, necessarily, to lead to an agreement. Because an assassination is a kind of evacuation of a problem. A kind of final solution. So how to practice politics outside the ideology of final solution. Would it be at the level of one person or of a community?

JM: I understand the portion of this organization that deals with archival and documentation and dealing with these issues. Where does the art gallery come in? How does that fit as part of this?

LS: First, I contest the description of The Hangar as art gallery. Finally, it’s a kind of space which could serve from time to time as art gallery. But which would serve for any other kind of communal practice. I think that it fits very simply under the category research. In the sense that it’s research — as experimentation. So the Hangar is — a platform for experimentation. And from time to time, this experimentation takes, let’s say, a kind of — achieved shape — so the Hangar looks — like a gallery.

JM: So where did the idea come from to start this endeavor?

LS:I think like any idea, it has no beginning, you know? Can you ask God why he had the idea of creating Adam and Eve?

JM: I would like to ask him that question.

LS: No. I don’t think that ideas has a beginning, you know? Finally, ideas are a kind of — a part of a process. And I don’t think that it’s — that the genealogy of a project is really important. Look at, you know, sometimes the wind can bring a seed and plant it somewhere. So we don’t interrogate the wind why it went this or that direction.

JM: Ha ha. Sure. So going back to something I had asked earlier. You said you didn’t know why Dahiyeh should be considered a Hezbollah neighborhood. I should restate and say that I’ve never been to Lebanon before this week, and in my very short time here, I’ve come to develop this impression of Dahieh as Hezbollah headquarters. The media office is here and you see their posters everywhere. Can you tell us about this neighborhood in general? Its past history, it’s present?

LS: Obviously Dahiyeh is one of the headquarters of Hezbollah. But — as a Lebanese, what I feel today that the whole country is becoming — an Iranian headquarter. So being in the headquarter of Hezbollah means nothing for me in comparison of becoming a citizen of an Iranian settlement. This area let’s first make a small difference. Here, where we are exactly, we are not in Beirut. We are in Mount Lebanon. Administratively, we are not in Beirut, though we are closer to Beirut. Why I am saying this, is to say that the history of this area is very complicated. Because of the fact that it belonged — that it belongs, finally, to Mount Lebanon. Mount Lebanon, like a lot of regions of the former Ottoman Empire, used to have what you call prerogatives. So people didn’t go to the army. Weren’t paying the same taxes. They had, let’s say, kind of special status. And because of their special status, this region which is located south of Beirut looked for hundreds of years like the whole Mount Lebanon. I mean, a rural area with mixed population. The big change happened when this area stopped being mixed. I mean, from being a Shia / Christian residential place, it became purely Shia. And it became, bit by bit, the headquarters of the party — monopoly of the organization, sh — I shouldn’t say party… the organization. Trying to monopolize the Shia representation. So it looked — it was a very banal residential area. You know, villas with gardens. Nothing really significant. I think that nowadays, it’s — there is much more to see around than two decades ago.

JM: You talk about the transformation of the neighborhood from mixed to Shia. I’m curious how that actually happened. What happened to make people leave? And then the other question is, you clearly differentiated… you say you shouldn’t call Hezbollah a party, you should call them an organization. I’m curious why you say that?

LS: So like other regions and quarters of Beirut, the mixed city of Haret Hreik was the victim of the displacement operations. The displacement took, sometimes, the shape of military operations, ending by kicking out a population. But also the displacement in Lebanon took the shape of real estate operations. There was not a lot of blood which was spilled to kick out people. But there was a lot of pressure, of intimidation. Which pushed them finally to sell their lands and belongings. And in the case of Haret Hreik, it was, let’s say, a kind of blood free displacement. So people ended up leaving first by fear. Then selling, because they lost hope to come back. And it’s how bit by bit, from a mixed quarter, Haret Hreik became a pure Shia one. A third reason, perhaps, for the for this displacement in Haret Hreik especially, is the fact that for those “Christian forces,” it wasn’t a defendable post. It wasn’t feasible to defend it. So finally, they turned a blind eye when people started selling their lands.

Was it possible to curb this trend? Personally, I don’t think. I think that when somebody does no more feel at home, he will leave. And the Christians of Haret Hreik stopped feeling at home. Unfortunately, the same is happening with the small Sunni community. Which is living in the southern suburb of Beirut and mainly in Haret Hreik and its outskirts. Since 2008 — I mean, since the mini war which took place in May, 2008, we notice that a lot of Sunnis today are leaving, also, this quarter. It’s no more sufficient to Shia Islam in general, to stay in a Shia land.

Regarding your second question, why I shy away from calling Hezbollah a party, ’cause I think that it’s one of the bigger misunderstanding about the — this organization. I mean, a party can only exist within a political system. But — in a country which is much more a jungle, you have militias with political wings. And I believe that Hezbollah is the prototype of a security military apparatus, which has a political wing. And therefore, I prefer not to call it a party.

JM: I see. But Hezbollah has always been very clear not to separate those two. They say it’s all one.

LS: I believe that Hezbollah never separated them. It’s some scholars, mainly. And some diplomats who separated them. I believe that this separation is not only fake and untrue, but is proving, day after day, to be not relevant. Neither in a scholarly sense nor in a political sense. I would like you to tell me where I can become a member of Hezbollah. Tell me where are the nearest premises of Hezbollah in this surrounding? And then I will accept to call it a political party.

JM: Well, you’ve just reminded me of kind of my political science 101 class, where it was a fill in the blank test, and it said, “Political parties exist to _______ elections.” And the answer was, “to win elections.” So is that the way that Hezbollah’s political wing actually behaves? Do they really want to win elections and run the government?

LS: I don’t think. I think that this is finally another fantasy — cultivated also by some scholars and some diplomats. And they started just after Tufayli, Hezbollah participated in the parliamentary elections in 1992. At that time, everybody started talking about the Lebanonization of Hezbollah. It became a kind of mythical concept. Personally, I think that Hezbollah never wanted to rule this country. Hezbollah wanted to take advantage and is still wanting to take advantage of this country as an outpost. Hezbollah does not have a national agenda. As Hassan Nasrallah said a couple of days ago, as he will, perhaps, repeat this evening, “Hezbollah is part of the Iranian establishment.”

Imagine you are Iranian. And I offer you to rent a country which has a balcony on the Mediterranean, a border with Syria, a border with Israel for, I don’t know, $1 billion. Would you take it or not? And — and now the Iranians did the same. And when you imagine that Tehran has 15 million person, what is Lebanon? They can rent it for $1 billion per year, or per month, even. It’s not a big investment.

JM: Yeah. That’s a very good good point.

JM: You know… I can’t drop — in here and in a week’s time understand Lebanon, Beirut, Mount Lebanon, Hezbollah. I can understand just little bits. But you have lived here for much of your life, so I wonder what is the thing that you’re still trying to figure out about Lebanon?

LS: It’s not about Lebanon. Lebanon is important because it’s a place where multiple kind of experimentation can be done. But to be serious — Lebanon by itself does not make a lot of sense. Lebanon is important because of its — neighboring to Syria, to Israel, to the Mediterranean. And we have this chance to be living in this kind of enclave. And I think that this enclave has to implode one day. I wish what’s happening in Syria will lead, in the long term, of a real pacification. Which makes Lebanon closer to Turkey, to Europe. I wish that we can reach a kind of long term truce with Israel, so that we start thinking regionally, you know?

Cypress is, I don’t know, 100 kilometers far. It’s idiotic to have to have our small Mare Nostrum becoming a kind of — military swimming pool. So I think that Lebanon is interesting as a possibility of implosion which could make the region more integrated.

JM: Interesting. When we started with talking about your title, one of the things that you threw out was that you were an activist. And activists tend to agitate. Is what you’re doing here agitating someone? Your neighbors? Hezbollah? How do they feel about you?

LS: I don’t know. You have to ask them the question. But I think that I do my best not to let things stagnate. And, you know, I don’t understand this obsession by Hezbollah. I don’t understand the obsession that I observe among a lot of people regarding Hezbollah. You know, years ago, I restarted defining myself, also, as a Shia. And if I do it happily, it’s because I think that, you know, there is a taboo, you know? Yes, you know, culturally, one of my identities is being Shia. You know, so what’s the problem? Why I am saying this? It’s to say that for me, whether it be as citizen, as Lebanese, as born Shia, as somebody who observes as closely as possible the political situation of this country, I’ve seen other phenomenon growing and then fading out. And I am almost sure if I am given a couple more years to live, that I will see the end of Hezbollah, as I saw it’s very, very, very beginning. So for me, it’s a moment in the history of this country, in the history of the Shia community. It’s not this kind of endless myth that I cannot imagine the end.

Once you can imagine the end of something it means that this something is homemade. So, you know, Hezbollah, yes, it’s powerful. Yes, they have hundred thousand rockets. Yes. But can they use these rockets? Why don’t they go and liberate the last occupied kilometers? You know, why? You know, what’s this resistance, which is since 2000, searching for an occupation to fight?

You know, what’s this resistance which has no defined agenda? So yes, you know, Hezbollah lay like other let’s say populist, well-funded movements, was able to address the Shia consciousness at a certain moment. But Hezbollah was addressing a Shia consciousness which grew in Lebanon. A Shia consciousness which flourished thanks to the public school, not thanks to a military action. It flourished thanks to the rural migration. So yes, you know, Hezbollah is part of Lebanon’s history. It’s part of the Shia history in Lebanon. But there is no end, you know? It cannot be the end — neither of the history, nor of the story.

JM: When you talk about the end of Hezbollah, is that something that, you think Israel is very interested in seeing happening? That’s something that they claimed they were going to bring about in 2006, and that brought a great deal of death and destruction here. I mean, do you see a possibility of an end of Hezbollah without misery — the vary types of things that you’re documenting and archiving here?

LS: I think that it’s another shortcut. And a lot of Lebanese would agree with you. No, I don’t see the end of Hezbollah happening thanks to the Israeli pilots. The Israeli pilots can come and destroy the arsenal, the Iranian arsenal in Lebanon. But the Iranian arsenal is something. Hezbollah has a moment in the consciousness of the Shia community is something else. I think that the slutty girls of Dahiyeh are the end of Hezbollah.

JM: I’m sorry, the slutty girls of Dahiyeh?

LS: Uh-huh. You need to go and look around and see. I think that, finally, it’s not the — the quantity of arms that an Israeli raid would destroy, which will bring Hezbollah to an end. It’s finally when people want just to live to imitate what they see on television. They want, finally, to assume their gender belonging. They want to mix up. This makes the end of a party based on exclusion and belief system. When there’s no more want to make war and they just want to live like normal people. And I think that the Shia community would be in the south, in Dahiyeh, in showing this longing first not to be involved in a new military conflict. And second, to live normally.

JM: One of the things that we’re trying to understand here is why Hezbollah is so popular. And something you described reminded me of a theory that I have which is that they kind of operate what we would call a “big tent,” you know? Where when I went and visited Hamas in Gaza, and they have very strict rules. They expect everyone to fall in line. They’ll put you in jail if you have a child out of wedlock and that sort of thing. Very, very strict. They alter everyone’s life. But the impression I get is that Hezbollah is kind of willing to let people do their own thing as long as they give them their support when they need it. So what do you think about the idea that they allow these indescretions? That these things may not necessarily destroy Hezbollah from inside because they let them happen and that’s why they maintain support?

LS: You know, I don’t want to make prophecies about this. But I think that the Shia community in the aftermath of the ’06 war started thinking differently. Yes, people like Hassan Nasrallah, in the way that, I don’t know, a Greek Orthodox would like St. George. So it’s the icon. But they want … it’s the icon and the people need to show reverence. But are they ready to follow Hezbollah’s political agenda, which could mean engaging in military conflicts? Would it be against the other Lebanese communities or some other Lebanese communities or against Israel? I really doubt it.

Second point, let’s imagine that the Iranians decide to use their arsenal deposited in Lebanon in a new conflict. Are they sure that they can reconstitute it as they did in 2006? I think that the Iranians are much more clever. They know that this arsenal that they amassed in Lebanon has its value when used as a dissuasion tool. Not when it’s fired. And therefore, I don’t believe that the Iranians will use these arms. But it doesn’t mean that the Israelis will refrain from destroying it.

JM: I apologize for totally fixating on Hezbollah, it’s just that it is a fascinating thing to me. What else should we talk about?

LS: No, just another issue about Hezbollah to make you feel at ease. Look, when you imagine Hezbollah, perhaps you imagine an abstraction. But for me, Hezbollah is my cousin. It’s my neighbor. It’s people with whom — I played when I was young. It’s — it’s a kind of — it has a daily representation. It’s not the abstraction. Therefore, I’m not talking about an idea when I talk about Hezbollah. I’m talking about kind of about Hezbollah in its daily personifications. And perhaps therefore I feel at ease saying that these days, you know… as much as we can think that we are observing Hezbollah, we can say we are observing the end of Hezbollah.

JM: Very interesting. I think that one of the things that UMAM and The Hangar represents is this idea of the confrontation of history. And the confrontation of memory. Hezbollah is very post-modernist in a way, in the sense that they are so intelligent about crafting the myth of their history, the myth of their present and of what’s potentially down the road in their future. The Hangar though, represents this kind of confrontation with that, because of the projects that it commissions and the residencies. Can you tell us a little bit about that process in the midst of what Hezbollah is trying to do in creating its own myth in history? Does that make sense?

LS: To a certain extent, yes, it makes sense. You know, let’s not forget that Hezbollah is reinventing its history according to its political needs of the day. While as UMAM’s approach and The Hangar’s approach is a more radical one. It’s finally pushing people to reinvent their relationship to history. And to say that history, perhaps at a certain moment we will not need it, but at this moment, history is the critic of the present. So history, or kind of history practice which serves as a critic of the present, obviously goes in the opposite direction than the one of building a myth.

JM: Yes, very poignant. Especially because we visited Mleeta, you know? So it was the full show of Hezbollah propaganda.

LS: Mleeta, as several people said and I agree with them, Mleeta is really a kind of essence of the dehumanization of history. In Mleeta, you go — you turn around, you are in a kind of superman land. And the people can die, but they have no corpse. People can fight, but they have no doubt. It’s totally inhumane as sight. There is no suffering in Mleeta. As if all these years of occupation and resistance were just a video game. In this sense, yes, you know, Mleeta is a kind of a post-modern conceptual installation.

JM: Do you think The Hangar is an emotional opposite of that?

LS: I don’t like comparison. But for sure, it is.

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