Filmmaker: Hady Zaccak
A lesson in history reveals how the absence of a common history textbook in Lebanese schools highlights the lack of consensus between Lebanon’s religious communities over interpreting their past – and their future.
In 1989 Lebanese parliamentarians met in Saudi Arabia to end the Lebanese Civil War, which had been raging since 1975.
One aspect of the Taif Peace Accord they signed dealt with education. The politicians agreed that civic education should be uniform across the country in order to promote national accord and that a common history textbook should be created.
After three years of work, historians presented a curriculum they considered to be suitable for Lebanese of all backgrounds.
The book was published but its distribution to schools was suspended following political disagreement over its content.
Now, two decades after the civil war ended, the state still allows Lebanese schools the freedom to choose their own history textbooks.
‘Nobody is objective’
Osama Salhab, whose son Majid is in school, says there has been little change in the content of history lessons since he was a student.
“Much has happened since the time I was studying. There’s been a war, but the curriculum didn’t evolve. I haven’t seen much change from the history that I studied and the history my son is learning now.”
Today’s Lebanese students sit side-by-side in their history classes and learn about the Phoenicians and the Romans, the Ottomans and the Greeks, the French Revolution and the world wars, just as their parents used to.
But when it comes to Lebanon’s more recent history, their schools teach them nothing, because modern history is not part of the curriculum in Lebanon.
“There isn’t a well-documented history that explains the situation in Lebanon from 1914 to 1943, the politicians involved and how they struggled for Lebanon. Everybody has their own perspective. Nobody is objective. They look at others from a political point of view,” says George Abi Khalil.
His daughter, Nour, explains: “We started learning history in French. We didn’t learn about Lebanon’s history. We learned about the First and Second World Wars and the French Revolution. This is what we learned.”
“We learnt more about the history of Europe and the US than the history of Lebanon,” adds another student.
As a result, many Lebanese children turn to their families for answers their history teachers cannot provide without touching on the country’s recent sectarian divisions.
Majid says: “I tried to learn more by asking my dad and by reading books beyond my class level.
“I wanted to know more about the civil war. But there was no information about it in the history book. I tried to know why, what happened, where it happened but I couldn’t get the information.”
The Lebanese Civil War lasted for 15 years and left almost 200,000 people dead and Beirut, the capital, in ruins. But, many of the divisions live on and opinions remain divided – not least over whether the history of the war should be taught in schools.
“I would love to be taught about the civil war. It was a long war and it had a great impact on Lebanon. It was terrible, and it is important that I know more about it,” says one student.
But another disagrees: “No, I don’t think it’s a good idea to learn about the civil war. Of course it is information that is essential to know. But I think the civil war will have an impact on people and students will think in another way about what has happened.”
“This [the civil war] is a sensitive issue but everybody should study it. As Lebanese we should study it to understand its consequences so we don’t repeat it,” argues another.
Privatisation in Lebanon’s education system has led to some schools providing a conservative religious education and promoting a biased understanding of national history.
There are some government-approved history textbooks, but they offer different takes on the country’s past.
Schools can choose books according to their religious affiliation, with some, for example, describing the French as liberators while others call them colonialists.
“The history of Lebanon in general is stagnant,” says one father. “It’s not free in the sense that it is objective and free, telling both sides of the story – those who were right and wrong.”
Introducing a common Lebanese history curriculum in schools is seen as a step towards transcending divisions. But history remains a sensitive topic – and political and sectarian differences run deep.
One Lebanese student explains: “We memorise information for the official exams. But there is a difference between memorising and learning. We study history to learn from it because he who doesn’t know his own history will not be able to write his future.”