Book Review: The Social Life of Memory. Violence, Trauma, and Testimony in Lebanon and Morocco

Norman Saadi Nikro and Sonja Hegasy, eds. The Social Life of Memory. Violence, Trauma, and Testimony in Lebanon and Morocco. Palgrave, 2017.

The volume is a part of a book series exploring the relationship between cultural heritage and conflict. It derives from the research project Transforming Memories: Cultural Production and Personal/Public Memory in Lebanon and Morocco (2012-2014). The volume brings together scholars from various theoretical backgrounds, including social anthropology, geography, comparative literature, Middle Eastern studies and cultural studies, to contribute to the field of social-memory studies. The key theme of the volume is the different meanings of memory in its relations with time and place. In eight chapters, the reader finds examples from literature, journalism, films and urban landscapes that constitute the social life of memory in various aesthetic forms, political mobilization and intergenerational relationships.

In the introductory chapter, the editors provide a rationale for studying Morocco and Lebanon together. Despite their distinct political and social contexts, Morocco and Lebanon have similar experiences of violence that were often characterized by enforced disappearance and direct clashes. The editors argue that, despite the different trajectories of the respective postcolonial histories of Lebanon and Morocco, the people in both countries have experienced repeated violence, patterns that persist despite many positive initiatives in education, cultural production, the economy and public welfare. In both Lebanon and Morocco, the political situations are characterized by protest movements of new generations, who discover new forms of preserving and transforming memory in both private and public realms. These practices show that dealing with the past is not a prerogative of the states and cannot be limited to formal practices of commemoration.

Chapter two suggests a novel understanding of waiting as a prolongation of violence after the period of political repressions during the reign of Morocco’s Hassan II between 1961 and 1999, known as the Years of Lead. On the other hand, waiting is also conceptualized as a political position taken by the family members of the disappeared. By giving a detailed account of one disappeared political activist’s and his family’s experience of waiting, Laura Menin brings to the fore the potential of waiting as a form of protest and political mobilization. She shows the multiple meanings of waiting in order to capture the effects of the politics of disappearance.    

Temporality is a key theme in the intergenerational transformation of memory. Chapters seven through nine approach what Marianne Hirsch calls “postmemory” from different perspectives, partly through the storytelling and testimony of older generations who bear witness and new generations that have different (if any) knowledge about what happened. The authors show how sectarian narratives reveal different layers of memories (within family, political parties and sectarian communities, cultural memories and students’ own reinterpretations) and influence the intergenerational transformation of memory.

In Chapter nine, dealing with local activism in the Rif region of Morocco, postmemory takes another form. The narratives of those who experienced and participated in uprisings (including the uprisings in 1984 and 1987, known as the Bread riots) constitute a foundational ground for the contemporary activism both in Morocco and among the Moroccan Berber diaspora.   

The comparative mode of the volume emerges in the two empirical contexts of Morocco and Lebanon and within the conceptual level. The foundational conceptual discrepancy originates from Pierre Nora’s thesis that memory has become concentrated as lieu, that is a formal practice of commemoration. Contrary to Nora’s thesis, the contributors to the volume suggest that their research shows, firstly, how different social and cultural practices put forward a broader understanding of memory as social environment or milieu. Secondly, they suggest that memory takes place as tensions between lieu and milieu, i.e. tension between official practice of commemoration and other practices of preserving memory that are initiated in societies.

Several chapters of the volume contribute to the field of memory studies by bringing a critical perspective on the ways that memory is understood and how the past may be reinterpreted through the future. A number of “how” questions are stated in order to specify the focus of the volume: e.g., “how emerging, local practices of social exchange and cultural production involve re-socializations of memories of trauma and violence” (p.8).

The diverse theoretical backgrounds of the contributors lead to various methodologies being applied and some authors are more transparent with the way they approach the material than others. Pamela Chrabieh in Chapter seven is particularly clear, while the others are less well articulated—Chapter three is an example. Some chapters are more theoretically substantive than others, which augments their contribution. Chapter eight, written by Norman Saadi Nikro, offers an excellent example bridging the conceptual and empirical domains, as he analyzes interviews of an older generation conducted by high-school students within the oral history project Badna Naaref (we want to know) through the relational prism of bearing witness.

Even though each chapter provides insight into the studied contexts, it may be challenging to draw conclusions about the conceptual relevancy of individual experiences, works of art and other examples for a broader context of managing postcolonial history. Moreover, the volume offers controversial and diverging evaluations of one and the same entity, including, for example, the Moroccan Equity and Reconciliation Commission (ERC). While Laura Menin focuses on the shortcomings of the ERC’s failure to name the perpetrators and the absence of criminal prosecution, Sonja Hegasy and Brahim El Guabli describe the positive effects of the ERC on the Moroccan civil society, media landscape and its potential for bringing mnemonic justice. Those different approaches to the same process exemplify the core thesis of the volume. The chapters of the book do not provide guidelines for historical judgements, instead they show the multiple ways of interpreting and engaging with the past, where it is not truth that shapes the history, but the future and its needs.

The overall impression of the book is positive. Contributing to social-memory studies, the volume is also a contribution to the transitional justice literature. Even though the concept of memory takes central place, the chapters reflect on problems of justice, forgiving and living together. The book attempts to bridge gaps between the theoretical concepts and practice, where individual experiences from real people give a face and voice to the abstract notions of memory and history, time and place. After reading the volume, reader gets a palette of different meanings of memory as a social practice, as an event. Having shown different examples of the social life of memory in postcolonial Morocco and Lebanon, the authors succeed in elucidating the idea of memory as milieu and show the tensions between the formal official account of memory and radical social and political practices.

That said, in order to grasp the multifaceted contexts, methodological and conceptual nexuses, the reader would benefit from being familiar with the Moroccan and Lebanese contexts before reading the volume. Moreover, I wish there were more interaction between the chapters, specifically within the introductory chapter. Different methodological and theoretical explanations leave an impression of incoherency. Although the separate chapters have value in themselves, they are not happily assembled in one book. Alternatively, there could have been a concluding chapter that would tie together all the various ideas and projects the volume contains.

Uppsala University