Memory and the Assassination of Lokman Slim

14 March, 2021
“Ascent” (Hol­i­day Inn), oil on can­vas, 140cm x 200cm, 2016, by Tom Young (cour­tesy of the artist).

Claire Launchbury


State-led amne­sia in Lebanon insti­tut­ed by the amnesty of 1991 absolved all but the most seri­ous war crimes com­mit­ted dur­ing fif­teen years of civ­il con­flict. The coun­try’s amne­sia has kept dis­course about “the events” hid­den or expressed only in euphemism. It has also facil­i­tat­ed the polit­i­cal­ly-expe­di­ent desire for the state to rework his­to­ry for its own uses, mak­ing the truth inef­fa­ble or hid­den. No exten­sive process of truth and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion or a restora­tive jus­tice pro­gram has yet been under­tak­en in the thir­ty years since the civ­il war end­ed in 1990.

Lok­man Slim, who was mur­dered on the 3rd of Feb­ru­ary, 2021, was an activist, pub­lish­er and a truth seek­er who spent his life chal­leng­ing the non-dis­clo­sure of truth. Slim railed against cen­sor­ship in the pub­lish­ing house, Dar al-Jadeed, which he found­ed with his sis­ter, the nov­el­ist and activist, Rasha Al-Ameer. Hold­ing up a mir­ror to those who do not wish to be con­front­ed with the truth of their actions in the past as in the present, as Slim undoubt­ed­ly did, is a brave under­tak­ing. Lok­man Slim did much to shed light on the murky, undoc­u­ment­ed past of the civ­il war, the Syr­i­an occu­pa­tion and beyond.

Lokman Slim at his desk (photo Marwan Tahtah).
Lok­man Slim at his desk (pho­to Mar­wan Tahtah).

Since the thwart­ed rev­o­lu­tion of Octo­ber 2019, there has been a cat­a­clysmic finan­cial crash which has pushed much of the pop­u­la­tion below the bread­line and a sig­nif­i­cant minor­i­ty into abject pover­ty. On the 4th of August, 2020, the dou­ble explo­sion of ammo­ni­um nitrate and oth­er mate­r­i­al stored in the port dev­as­tat­ed large parts of the his­toric dis­tricts of Beirut and destroyed three hos­pi­tals. The Covid-19 pan­dem­ic is one cri­sis among a series of oth­ers. It is a cyn­i­cal real­i­ty that Slim’s killers chose to exploit at a moment when both place and space for out­rage are near exhaus­tion: the coun­try is locked down, the pop­u­la­tion tired, resigned and despair­ing. There is inevitable con­cern that his killing marks a renew­al of the polit­i­cal assas­si­na­tions which killed promi­nent jour­nal­ists and schol­ars such as Samir Kas­sir and Gebran Tuéni in 2005—concern that truth, and its pur­suit becomes a death sentence.

Slim was born into a well-known Shia fam­i­ly, the son of Mohsen Slim, a politi­cian and fierce defend­er of Lebanese inde­pen­dence. Slim’s moth­er, Salma Mer­chak Slim, is a Chris­t­ian from Egypt. His own fiérté laïque as well as his root­ed­ness to Haret Hreik in Dahiyeh, the south­ern sub­urbs of Beirut asso­ci­at­ed in geopo­lit­i­cal short­hand with Hezbol­lah, con­found­ed many. Sec­tar­i­an affil­i­a­tion is not a pre-con­di­tion of Lebanon’s moder­ni­ty but a major con­sti­tu­tive fac­tor in its devel­op­ment and remains the deter­min­ing fac­tor of the hybrid sov­er­eign­ties of its polit­i­cal actu­al­i­ty. He would often speak of his “côté protes­tant” and as friends used to tease him, being sec­u­lar and Protes­tant could also be a sec­tar­i­an position.

Iconic image of war-torn Beirut, circa 1976.
Icon­ic image of war-torn Beirut, cir­ca 1976.


joe cleary literature partition and the nation-state cover.jpgSlim was fearless.

Mah­moud Dar­wich’s epic account of the Beirut siege, Mem­o­ry for For­get­ful­ness, is sub­ti­tled in its French trans­la­tion, Le temps: Bey­routh, le lieu: un jour d’août 1982. This dis­ar­ray, where place becomes time, and time a place, works to illus­trate the com­pli­cat­ed pol­i­tics of mem­o­ry that have endured in Lebanon since the end of the civ­il war, as well as the cycles of tur­bu­lence which have fol­lowed. Bor­ders, such as those wrought by colo­nial par­ti­tion or by the fault lines of civ­il war, like the one that divid­ed Beirut for fif­teen years, or the ter­ri­to­r­i­al mark­ers for the “war yet to come” leave or antic­i­pate scars. These bor­ders find rep­re­sen­ta­tion in cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion as fab­u­la­tions of geog­ra­phy, accord­ing to Joe Cleary in his analy­sis of lit­er­a­ture and par­ti­tion in Ire­land, Israel and Pales­tine (cf. Lit­er­a­ture, Par­ti­tion and the Nation-State, Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press). Car­to­graph­ic ini­ti­a­tions of divi­sion, the lines in the sand, are places of dis­cur­sive invis­i­bil­i­ty, places where things remain unsaid. Slim’s mur­der in the south of Lebanon—not near his home—bears wit­ness to Beirut’s fault line being ban­ished to the mar­gins, relo­cat­ed to a dis­placed site of trau­ma out­side the city, an unut­ter­able elsewhere.

Both as a chal­lenge to the absence of jus­tice and as a means of artic­u­lat­ing dis­cours­es that oth­er­wise might be cen­sored, vibrant civ­il soci­ety ini­tia­tives have stepped into the void. Cul­tur­al respons­es to this denial of memo­r­i­al expres­sion have been artic­u­lat­ed across lit­er­a­ture, cin­e­ma and projects dri­ven by an impe­tus to archive in the absence of an offi­cial nation­al record. It is in this field where Lok­man Slim’s mem­o­ry work was excep­tion­al, notably in the projects under­tak­en by the NGO, UMAM: Doc­u­men­ta­tion and Research, which he found­ed with his part­ner in life and work, Moni­ka Borgmann.

German poster of the Slim-Borgmann film shot by Nina Menkes.
Ger­man poster of the Slim-Borgmann film shot by Nina Menkes.


Slim and Borgmann pro­duced two award-win­ning doc­u­men­tary films, Mas­sak­er (2004), which col­lates inter­views with per­pe­tra­tors of the three-day mas­sacre at Sabra and Chati­la in Sep­tem­ber 1982 and Tad­mor (Palmyre) (2017) which cast light on the tor­ture of Lebanese pris­on­ers in Syr­i­an jails. UMAM’s wide-rang­ing mis­sion involves the dis­play of cul­tur­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the civ­il war but also run­ning ini­tia­tives which drill down into the painful lega­cies of the past, such as the miss­ing, tor­ture, crimes against human­i­ty, pris­ons, as well as small­er scale archiv­ing projects res­cu­ing film and hotel archives which would oth­er­wise be lost.

Against Impuni­ty

Mak­ing peo­ple face their pre­con­cep­tions, chal­leng­ing their opin­ions, skew­er­ing hypocrisy and demand­ing inde­pen­dence of mind seems was inspired by his own bold approach to life. In 2005, he found­ed the NGO Hayya Bina, which worked with women in rur­al com­mu­ni­ties to encour­age peace-build­ing ini­tia­tives, includ­ing teach­ing them Eng­lish, to devel­op rela­tion­ships beyond sec­tar­i­an alle­giances and to have access to dis­cours­es beyond the nar­row ones they would encounter oth­er­wise. Many of the projects he ini­ti­at­ed were designed to hold per­pe­tra­tors to account to con­front them with the truth of their actions. In Mas­sak­er, for exam­ple, Slim and Borgmann inter­view six for­mer mili­tia fight­ers as they talk about their par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Sabra and Chati­la mas­sacres of Pales­tin­ian civil­ians, women and chil­dren. They are shown graph­ic doc­u­men­tary footage, maps and pho­tos of the decom­pos­ing bod­ies in the after­math of the mas­sacre. Focus­ing on the bod­ies of the per­pe­tra­tors, their tor­sos adorned with tat­toos, hands with wed­ding rings clasp­ing rosary beads, their faces remain hid­den as they talk, some with regret, some still with har­row­ing vio­lence, of their actions dur­ing those days and nights.

“Life Goes On,” oil on can­vas, 100cm x 120cm, 2008 by Tom Young (cour­tesy of the artist).

Fac­ing the Past

In 2007, Slim and his col­leagues began a project to trace and doc­u­ment the miss­ing of the civ­il war, many of whom were dis­ap­peared in Syr­i­an jails or buried in the mass graves under Beirut which are yet to be offi­cial­ly rec­og­nized. This mul­ti­di­men­sion­al project involved col­lab­o­ra­tion with col­lec­tives of rel­a­tives of the miss­ing and employed researchers to inter­view fam­i­lies across the coun­try, result­ing in a data­base of 1,250 names. As an exten­sion to the data­base, an accom­pa­ny­ing pho­to exhi­bi­tion made up of the por­traits it con­tains toured the country—expanding as it did so—encouraging new cas­es to be dis­closed. Plac­ing mul­ti­ple por­traits of the miss­ing in one place not only broke the silence but it also gave phys­i­cal shape to the scale of the issue. On April 13, 2010, which marked the 35th anniver­sary of the start of civ­il war, the pho­to exhi­bi­tion was dis­played at the bul­let-scarred unfin­ished cin­e­ma in cen­tral Beirut known as The Egg (due to its ovoid con­crete form). This exhi­bi­tion forms the back­ground for a strik­ing scene in the 2012 doc­u­men­tary Sleep­less Nights by Eliane Raheb. Maryam Sai­i­di, whose son Maher dis­ap­peared at the age of fif­teen dur­ing a noto­ri­ous bat­tle between Pha­langists and the Lebanese Com­mu­nist Par­ty in June 1982, is filmed in an increas­ing­ly angry con­fronta­tion with Assaad Shaf­tari, a for­mer high-rank­ing intel­li­gence offi­cer in the Forces Libanais­es, who has since pub­licly atoned for his role in the war. The exhi­bi­tion por­trait of Maher appears over Shaf­tar­i’s right shoul­der as a silent wit­ness to the pair and their argu­ment. Despite the con­fronta­tion, no con­fir­ma­tion of Maher’s fate is ever offered and Sai­i­di con­tin­ues her life, stalled, unre­solved and unable to live beyond her son’s disappearance.

As a devel­op­ment of their work on the dis­ap­peared, Slim and Borgman­n’s 2019 doc­u­men­tary Tad­mor goes much fur­ther than sim­ply bear­ing wit­ness to the humil­i­a­tion and tor­ture Lebanese pris­on­ers endured at the noto­ri­ous Syr­i­an jail. Con­ven­tion­al doc­u­men­tary inter­views are inter­po­lat­ed with scenes where the for­mer pris­on­ers staged every­day scenes of their incar­cer­a­tion. Slim and Borgmann explain that this evolved from the inter­views where they found that pris­on­ers start­ed to mime or recre­ate their tes­ti­mo­ny when words were not enough. Togeth­er they worked first to make a tour­ing stage per­for­mance, then filmed the scenes at an aban­doned school out­side Beirut. Batons used to beat them are made out of foam as they re-enact­ed dor­mi­to­ry inspec­tions, clean­ing and, in a notable scene, eat­ing. In both Tad­mor and Mas­sak­er, Slim and Borgmann achieve extra­or­di­nary lev­els of trust with the par­tic­i­pants in their doc­u­men­taries, enabling them to artic­u­late their own truth.

At the time of his mur­der, Slim was work­ing on a large-scale mul­ti-site project on pris­ons across the Mid­dle East and North Africa, the MENA Prison Forum. Col­lat­ing tes­ti­mo­ny, research, reports from across the region, indeed beyond into cas­es in Europe, and the Forum pro­duces resources such as a prison lin­go dic­tio­nary as well as an index of lit­er­a­ture, film and aca­d­e­m­ic work on the top­ic. Not con­tent with sim­ply archiv­ing the past, Slim was moti­vat­ed by its impact in the world beyond, so the final part of the project con­cen­trates on out­reach and advo­ca­cy, includ­ing a uni­ver­si­ty syl­labus on his­to­ry, cul­tures and prac­tices in pris­ons in the region.

Artist and graph­ic design­er, Abra­ham Zeitoun who worked with Slim on an exhi­bi­tion which chal­lenged Lebanese iden­ti­ties in the con­text of hos­til­i­ty to refugees arriv­ing from Syr­ia, describes encoun­ter­ing an intim­i­dat­ing intel­lect, who bat­ted away obsta­cles and refused to coun­te­nance prob­lems.  “And Lebanese…” was an evolv­ing exhi­bi­tion based on archival work at UMAM that sought to explore the var­ied and dis­parate roots of some of the most “Lebanese” pub­lic fig­ures in the form of a series of por­traits of peo­ple of renown from Saint Maroun to Fairouz who it was demon­strat­ed were not real­ly Lebanese at all. In order to inter­ro­gate the com­pet­ing self-images Lebanon has of itself, the por­traits were exhib­it­ed at right angles to the wall enclos­ing peo­ple with­in the dis­play in front and behind forc­ing them to face what­ev­er “Lebanese” might have meant, means and might mean in the future. In par­tic­u­lar, it demon­strat­ed that these mul­ti­cul­tur­al iden­ti­ties were no dif­fer­ent to those seek­ing asy­lum with­in its bor­ders and expand­ed beyond a small nation-state on the East coast of the Mediterranean.

The remnants of the bus in the Ain el-Rammaneh massacre that many believe launched Lebanon's civil war, 1975-1990 (photos courtesy Claire Launchbury).
The rem­nants of the bus in the Ain el-Ram­maneh mas­sacre that many believe launched Lebanon’s civ­il war, 1975–1990 (pho­tos cour­tesy Claire Launchbury).

From retriev­ing and exhibit­ing the bus involved the April 13, 1975 Ain el-Ram­maneh mas­sacre that many point to as hav­ing launched the civ­il war, to projects with glob­al reach, Slim’s pio­neer­ing work, involved pub­lish­ing cen­sored texts and pro­tect­ing archives at risk. He was a found­ing mem­ber of the group which devel­oped the inter­na­tion­al prin­ci­ples for pro­vid­ing safe havens for archives at risk, advis­ing across the world where archives were sen­si­tive due to their human rights content.

Lok­man’s work sheds unflinch­ing light on oppres­sion and atroc­i­ty. He was tremen­dous, engag­ing and delight­ful com­pa­ny, a cyn­ic who loved, a dis­senter who reformed. While his lega­cy con­tin­ues in the fear­less work of Moni­ka and their orga­ni­za­tion, he was a friend whose loss will always be unconscionable.

“Eter­ni­ty’s Gate”—the gate to Lok­man Slim’s house in Her­at Hreik on the day of his memo­r­i­al ear­li­er this year, with mourn­ers gath­er­ing. Oil on can­vas, 50cm x 40cm, 2021, by Tom Young (cour­tesy of the artist).


An ear­li­er ver­sion of Claire Launch­bury’s arti­cle was pub­lished by Le Monde Diplo­ma­tique’s Eng­lish edi­tion in March 2021.


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