In Focus

Jamal al-Sati and the Lebanese Left

The historical context for Jamal al-Sati’s video centres around the guerilla war that the National Resistance Front was then fighting against Israeli forces in South Lebanon, a war that began with the Israeli occupation of approximately 12% of Lebanese territory in 1978, with the pretext of providing security to the north of Israel.1 In the video, al-Sati explains how he became radicalised after experiencing first-hand the indignities of occupation in his home village of Kamed el-Lawz:

I saw how our enemies, the Zionists, destroyed our villages and towns; they humiliated us, forced our people to leave their houses and villages … As a communist, I decided to regain my national pride and dignity, and so I became a member of the Lebanese National Resistance Front – the Front that enlightened the way to freedom and national dignity for millions of people.

Al-Sati signs off the video by greeting all the martyrs of the Communist Party and the resistance, before paying tribute to Farajallah el-Helou, one of the founding fathers of the Lebanese Communist Party, and the then Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.2 Viewed within the context of a Lebanese society that had long grown accustomed to seeing martyrdom testimonies aired on television, al-Sati’s speech was not particularly original or even remarkable. If anything, his testimony repeated the formulaic phrases of heroic resistance that had become commonplace throughout the Arab world. Yet this video was different to others in one significant respect: what it showed was not the final cut broadcast on the Lebanese television channel Télé Liban – an unequivocal statement that would leave nothing to doubt – but three versions of the same testimony, repeated one after the other, which, until then, had never been made public.3

In viewing these versions, Mroué was struck not by the differences between each testimony – ‘they were minimal, even unimportant’ – but by the unintended effect that this repetition had in destabilising a certain mode of address: ‘up until then all we had ever seen on television were the final cuts: clear statements made without any hesitations, errors or stuttering’.4 By contrast, in the video al-Sati could be seen stuttering at times as he read from his script. For Mroué, what these fallible moments revealed were the signs of individuality that were censored from the depersonalised speech of martyrdom: ‘The instant we saw the “stuttering” of the martyr, we realised something simple, so simple that it was obvious – the martyr is not a hero but a human being.’5

In the 1970s and early 1980s avowedly secular and non-sectarian groups such as the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and the Lebanese Communist Party (LCP) successfully mounted martyrdom operations against Israeli targets in south Lebanon.6 The Lebanese National Resistance Front (LNRF), a broad-based political coalition comprised of the LCP, the Organisation of Communist Action, and the Socialist Action Party, was formed after the siege of Beirut in September 1982. While the LNRF was an outgrowth of a genuinely popular resistance movement to the Israeli invasion, allegiances of this sort were extremely difficult to sustain in a nation where confessional roots very often worked to override all other social bonds. In the end, the major threat to the existence of the Lebanese Left came from ascendant Islamic parties that drew support in the traditionally under-represented and politically and economically disadvantaged Shi’a communities of Lebanon. Starting in 1986, the LCP became the target of a series of assassinations aimed at decimating its leading members. These included Khalil Naous, Suhayl Tawila, Mouhdi Amel, Labib Abed Assamad, Michel Waked, Deeb al-Jasir, and Hussein Mroué, Rabih Mroué’s grandfather and a prominent intellectual figure in the party. At the same time, the newly formed Hezbollah was taking steps to establish a monopoly over the military resistance to the occupation. By 1987 Hezbollah, the self-proclaimed ‘Party of God’, had asserted control of the access routes to the Israeli-established security zone in southern Lebanon, prohibiting any group from launching independent operations in the area. This history, which remains absent from official accounts of the Lebanese Wars, provides the background for the final chapter of Mroué’s and Khoury’s performance Three Posters, in which an interview with Elias Atallah is shown on the monitor.

In Three Posters, Mroué showed brief excerpts from a taped interview with Atallah, a leading figure in the Lebanese Communist Party and the person responsible for overseeing al-Sati’s operation. On one level the interview implicitly raised questions of political agency: whose decision was it to launch suicide operations and what role did the individual have in that process? How free was al-Sati to choose this particular course of action? On another level there is the question of the LCP’s ‘justification and endorsement’ of these operations. Atallah admitted that while ‘there was no objection to the suicide-operations scheme’ within the Politburo (the chief political and executive committee of the party), there was some discussion about ‘its deep[er] meaning’.7 Indeed, the question remains how the practice of martyrdom, which has long been associated with religious rituals of sacrifice, can be put into the service of a Marxist political project. Does this apparent contradiction help explain how a tactic of leftist resistance could be so quickly co-opted into a framework of Islamic resistance under the aegis of Hezbollah? For his part Mroué argues that the suicide operations enacted by communists ‘as a secular, left-wing act’ were actions ‘open to interpretation, challenge and debate’.8 On the other hand, he also suggests that for fundamentalists ‘there is a clarity in the motivations behind such missions and little if any room for debate’.9 The Lebanese scholar Munther Jaber contests this opposition arguing instead that secular and Islamic resistance should be seen as overlapping political formations that come out of a longer history of militant propaganda:

Hezbollah is continuing the same old Leftist approach. We saw countless faceless and nameless martyrs in the images of the fedaiyeen [resistance fighters] produced by Palestinian resistance [in the 1960s and 1970s]. Even at the higher ideological level nothing really has changed. If you go back two or three decades one finds the same militant message in the songs of Sheikh Iman (‘war, war, war, war is the only path’) or in Marcel Khalife. Hezbollah is repeating the same basic message.10

At this point it is useful to remember that the performance Three Posters was a context-specific work, written and staged with a Beirut audience in mind. As Mroué explains in the final section of On Three Posters, the distinction between secular and Islamic martyrdom operations was unfortunately lost on foreign audiences and critics who insisted on linking the work to contemporary debates surrounding Islamic terrorism in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks. This fixation on more recent suicide attacks often avoided any discussion or analysis of the longer history of martyrdom within Islam.11 For Mroué, it was a challenge to keep Three Posters free from ‘current events’ and to insist instead on its Lebanese context. In Beirut Three Posters was intended to function as an ‘auto-critical assessment of the Left’s absence today in the Lebanese political arena’.12 Yet rather than simply lamenting the defeat of leftist movements, Khoury and Mroué insisted on the necessity of forming links with past political struggles, particularly when those struggles were prematurely judged to have failed or were pre-emptively dismissed as naively utopian. By the time of On Three Posters, and indeed by the final moment of the video, in which viewers are left looking at an empty chair after Mroué explains his refusal to continue performing the original work, the re-examination of the past operates as a critique of the present, which in Lebanon is marked by the ascendancy of militant Islam in the political landscape.13