“Sleepless Nights”: The unresolved conflict between Assaad and Maryam in post-conflict Lebanese society
by Nicolamaria Coppola for Northern Ireland Foundation
2 April 2014
“Lebanon is a lie. Politicians are liars. Our lives are a lie”. Maryam Saiidi says it like it is, not mince words. She is angry, furious, frustrated and disillusioned. She represents those who cannot forget the past. She refuses to let go of her son’s memory and rejects all attempts to make her feel better. She is searching for the truth, and this is her only raison d’être.
The truth she is desperately looking for concerns the fate of her son. Maryam is the mother of a young fighter, Maher Qasir, who fought alongside communist partisans against the right-wing Lebanese allies of Israel, the Lebanese Forces and/or Phalanges, during Lebanon’s terrible 15-year Civil War (1975-90). He went missing during a clash at a university, and he is one of more than 17.000 such people whose fates remain unknown.
Maryam is one of the two characters at the centre of “Sleepless Nights”, the Lebanese documentary shown at Queen’s Film Theatre as part of the Belfast Film Festival. The other character is Assaad Shaftari, a former intelligence officer of the Lebanese Forces, who was responsible for many killings during Lebanon’s Civil War. Shaftari knows more than he admits about the destiny of the so-called “missing people”. Often tortured and then shot, the people termed “missing” were dumped into mass graves whose whereabouts largely remain a secret.
Shaftari seems to know the truth about the tragic epilogue of Maryam’s son, but he refuses to release crucial information that might help the woman in finding, at least, the location of mass graves in which her son could have been buried.
The hardest scene to watch is, without a doubt, the confrontation between Assaad and Maryam at a photo exhibition on the missing people. Maryam starts to shout against Assaad, accusing him of the atrocities committed during the Civil War. Assad seems to consider Maryam’s shouting as a way of cleansing himself of his culpability. During the war, he reports, he made a deal with a priest to receive absolution for the murder of 500 people, allowing him to murder a further 500 before their next session together.
Maryam does not give up and is willing to question anyone who could provide her with information regarding her missing son, and confront anyone who is an obstacle in her quest. As Eliane Rahed, the film’s director, stated in an interview: “Her confrontational and dynamic attitude created a dialectic line to Assaad’s character, and their encounter in the film brought new meanings and explorations of the difficult ‘truth’ and ‘reconciliation’ process in today’s Lebanon.”
The conflict between Assaad and Maryam is the unresolved conflict between those who do not want to talk about the dark years of the Civil War and the atrocities committed in that time, and those who want to know the truth, whatever the cost.
Although officially ending in 1990, the conflict in Lebanon is still ongoing; it is experienced through the words of both Assaad and Maryam. Assaad wants the establishment of a Christian society in Lebanon and the transformation of Lebanon into a Christian state that is ally of Israel, while Maryam states that Lebanon is a fake manufactured state in which the conspiracy of silence makes people like her unhappy.
Assaad has never been sentenced for his crimes committed when he was an officer of the Lebanese Forces, because Lebanon’s Civil War ended with an amnesty exonerating all who committed political crimes during the conflict. The most important and the prevalent thrust of “Sleepless Nights” is that the amnesty does not work, neither for the victims, who have no closure, nor for the perpetrators, whose guilt without punishment, at least in Shaftari’s case, provides no hope of release.
“Sleepless Nights” teaches us that it is better to face the truth, rather than to ignore it. The documentary points out that it is possible to read the past starting from the present, reflecting the effects of the lack of national debate between enemies of the past, and between the people who still carry wounds from the Civil War.
The Lebanese Civil War has been one of the worst conflicts of the last century. The provoking reasons can be traced back to the French mandate in the first decades of the 20th century, which altered the political and social system, creating a religious conflict and polarizing the identity patterns of the Lebanese population.
The Lebanese Civil War is a perfect example of sectarian conflict in which religion takes a crucial role. The main characters of Lebanon’s Civil War were the Maronite Christians, whose militia, the Lebanese Force or Phalanges, had the support of Israel, the Sunnis, the Shias and the Druze group.
It is important to clarify that the conflict in Lebanon has never been about theology, but religion has a central role in marking identity in Lebanese society. Leaders use religious symbols to mobilize people and reinforce sectarian identities, in order to enhance differences among people sharing the same basic culture and languages. In Lebanon, communal identity, shaped by the religious belonging, remains the bedrock of the society.
Nowadays, mutual coexistence between Lebanon’s different sects and their proper political representations is the basis of the post-civil war societal system. The principle of mutual coexistence has been formulated within the Taif Agreement, which was signed on 22 October 1989, in Taif, Saudi Arabia, and constituted the outcome of a process of reconciliation and compromise among the Lebanese deputies, political groups and parties, militias and leaders, with the effective support of the Syrians, the Arabs, and the international community.
Despite the accomplishment of the Taif Agreement in ending the Civil War, Lebanon remains an insecure and occasionally violent place. Lebanon is still a divided country, where the identities of its different sects are always on the edge of a new clash. The documentary “Sleepless Nights” captures Lebanon’s damaged soul, and it opens the unhealed wounds caused by the Civil War, through the firsthand narrative of Maryam, who is consumed by the need to know her son’s fate.