by D. Krikorian
“War is sparring. We are in a war against dictatorship and against the monopoly of one opinion. We only have our voices. They are armed.” - Lokman Slim
On 4th February 2021, Lebanese political activist Lokman Slim was assassinated. He was shot and killed in his car in Nabatiyeh, Lebanon. His death came after his disappearance during the night while returning from a visit to his friends’ residence.
Slim was a visionary, an intellectual, a thinker and a cultural producer. His work focused on documenting the history of Lebanon, and promoting the rich cultural work coming from the country’s artists and writers.
He was an advocate of change. His passing symbolises the silencing of freedom of speech as oligarchs continue to cement their dream of plunging the country into obscurity.
Slim was Shia: his father was a former Shia deputy, and his mother was an Egyptian Christian. However, he advocated for unity and was a prominent critic of the Lebanese leadership and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shia party.
It is a dangerous time in Lebanese history, where terror and political power-plays subdue the country’s citizens. In a year and a half, the once vibrant country has sunk to lows unprecedented since the Civil War (1975-1990). Lebanon has lived through the 2019 revolution (Tharwa), the liquidity crisis, the ongoing pandemic and the calamitous 4th August Beirut blast. Slim has joined a long list of victims killed in the 46 years since the start of the Civil War.
But why are cultural activists being silenced and targeted? What does it mean to erase the producers of art, literature and memory?
Criticising the Regime
The cultural production of text and research is powerful. Slim, with his wife Monika Borgmann, co-founded the citizen research centre Umam Documentation and Research and Hayya Bina, a civic platform. Together, they advocate for freedom of speech and uncover the conflicts behind the tumultuous state in Lebanon.
Issue 5 (October 2020) of Umam and Hayya critiqued the return of Saad Hariri as Lebanon's Prime Minister; the role of President Michel Aoun; Amal, a powerful Shia party led by Nabih Berri, the speaker of parliament since 1992; and Hezbollah.
The tone is urgent. It warns that the “stability doctrine” continues to endanger and engulf Lebanon. This doctrine, promoted by political leaders and their private armed forces, argues that the continuation of their power is necessary to protect Lebanon's frontiers. In reality, it promotes a false stability that keeps them in power and the people’s 2019 revolution at bay.
In parallel, Slim’s publishing house Dar al Jadeed - co-founded with his sister Rasha Al-Ameed - presents itself as “a free, independent and avant-garde publishing house.” They have published materials banned by the Lebanese General Security. Dar al Jadeed currently distributes the first Arabic translations of three books by controversial Iranian president Muhammad Khatami.
The critical and vocal initiatives of Slim condemn oligarchic actions and the authority of the political system. The sharing of ideas creates a point of communication, which counters the one-dimensionality of oligarchical ideology. Freedom of speech becomes the tool by which communities come together to talk, disagree or even agree.
At the very least, it encourages people to confront each other. Lebanon has been religiously divided since the Taif Agreement, which brought an end to the Civil War in 1989. It installed a sectarian regime where leaders pit religious groups against one another to control the people. These publications show that there is newfound knowledge worth uncovering if we are willing to reach out. We might break the cycle of fearing and 'othering' our diverse communities.
"Lokman Slim was doing something that no one had dared to do: he was writing a book on the history of Lebanon. But the leaders don’t want that."
This idea comes through in other cultural and artistic practices that unveil collective and individual memory. In 2001, Slim and Borgmann co-founded Umam Productions, and independent production company that documents sensitive subjects in Lebanese culture.
Together, Slim and his wife have also directed award-winning films, such as Massaker (2004) on the massacre of Palestinian camps Sabra, Chatila and Tadmor (2016).
Amidst the Syrian uprising in 2011, former Lebanese detainees re-enact and recount the years of their horrific experience in one of the Syrian Government’s most appalling prison, Tadmor (Palmyra). Some were liberated after being kidnapped during the Syrian occupation of Lebanon from 1976 to 2005, others lost their lives. They break their long-held silence and describe the torture and inhumane captivity suffered at the hands of the Assad regime.
Each has a personal account. Yet the collective nature of their shared incarceration creates a collective memory. Tadmor displays the heart-breaking and triumphant story of long-stripped and regained humanity.
Alongside his Mena Prison Forum, Slim and Borgman's films break taboos concerning the painful memories of the Lebanese Civil War, where countless lives were shattered, altered, or lost. Tadmor's subject is critical against the government’s refusal to retrieve disappeared and kidnapped people, many of whom are still dwelling in Syrian prisons, have died, or whose fates remain unknown. Cultural producers question the inadequacies of the political leadership. Slim and Borgmann create a cultural space that can retrieve memories and re-build collectivity beyond propagandistic narratives.
History Against Oligarchy
With the retrieval of memory comes the desire to preserve history. Slim initiated the platform Memory at Work, which archives publications from the Lebanese Civil War.
This is dangerous for the oligarchs: many have participated during the war and in its aftermath. The government leadership is made of militias that fought during the war. In 1991, parliament passed an amnesty law obscuring the majority of war crimes. The history of the conflict was never integrated into the school curriculum, so efforts to write this history have been performed on an individual level.
To date there is no collective initiative to seek justice, remember and heal. The leadership has preserved a historical amnesia and censorship to erase history from public memory. However, Slim believed in confronting the atrocities of the past as necessary to building Lebanon’s future.
The Dream of More
According to photojournalist Marwan Tahtah, Slim contacted him to make the exhibition “Autumn is a Second Spring” (2020-2021) with Borgmann at his cultural centre the Hangar. The exhibition displays photographs taken by Tahtah of the Lebanese October revolution in 2019.
The exhibition was supposed to continue despite the pandemic. There were plans to continue further collaborations with Tahtah, with talks of a book published with Dar al-Jadeed. Today, those plans are on hold. Nevertheless, says Tahtah, there is hope that they will one day continue.
Slim was an intellectual and an activist with numerous ongoing projects. More importantly, he was doing something that no one had dared to do: he was writing a book on the history of Lebanon. The leaders don’t want that. They don’t want to let us write our stories and history and uncover what happened during the war. Lokman defied them. His dream was Lebanon.
Slim’s activism surfaces a latent history that may encourage people to turn against the regime and to uncover its crimes. This has already manifested itself in the October Thawra. Culture, activism, history, freedom of speech and memory are invaluable in threatening corruption. Lokman Slim’s assassination was an attempt to silence that threat and a message to all activists, protesters and free thinkers: beware.
His death is a tragedy and a great loss for Lebanon. His legacy is a testament to the ceaseless prominence of cultural production and activism. Borgmann insists that she will keep his legacy alive and that their initiatives would continue.
Death is not the end. History is still in the making. Our voices will not be silenced. The dream of a peaceful Lebanon is still and will always be alive.
D. Krikorian is an art historian and graduate student from UCL's MA History of Art programme.