Healing Culture in Wartime

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ABAAD – Resource Center for Gender Equality, which the author’s project cooperates with, produced this toolkit for integrating feminist perspectives into development work

Forty-one years ago when we organized the Common Differences conference on the UI campus, I was a young professor, already quite engaged in women’s issues, which had led to my research, writing, travels, and overall commitment.

When I retired from the University of Illinois, I felt it was not enough to be writing, researching, and teaching on the subject. I needed to get involved concretely in the field, and in 2009 I joined my sister Jacqueline Hajjar in Beirut to open a center for abused women. We both put our savings into purchasing an apartment in the city center, and it has been functioning since then, welcoming about 12 women, sometimes with their children: sheltering and feeding them; providing physical, psychological, and spiritual healing; and helping them rebuild their lives and gain independence through education and instruction in trades. We have received more than 500 women over the years, some of them with spectacular healing stories, some of whose testimonies I have gathered in one of my latest books (which the women themselves asked me to write).

The author’s book, based on testimonies from the women helped by her project

When the Beirut port explosion occurred on August 4, 2020, I almost died. Upon recovering, I decided to open a center for culture and healing in the area, in Achrafieh. I found a beautiful Lebanese-style house which I purchased with my retirement savings; renovated; and am in the process of organizing with rooms for music, painting, healing exercises, trauma workshops, psychological support, and a small library (including my whole collection of feminist books from Illinois, and my lifetime companion Paul Vieille’s collection of sociological and anthropological books his son sent me from Paris). There will also be a garden for learning healing through plants and flowers, and a little café I named Tante Malaké Café after my aunt who died from the blast. All this is still in the making, but we have already held several conferences and workshops on healing, trauma, literature, and writing; International Women’s Day celebrations; painting exhibitions; and a memorial to honor my sister, who died about a year ago and to whose name I have dedicated one of the rooms.

All this takes time, effort, funds, and perseverance, especially given the disastrous situation Lebanon has been facing almost my whole life long, but in particular in the last few years:

  • The country is in deep economic crisis, which is getting worse and worse. The Lebanese pound has lost 98 percent of its value since 2019. People cannot get their money out of the banks; their savings have been hijacked by a corrupt system and politicians looking mostly after their own careers. The Lebanese Parliament has been unable to agree on a president, paralyzing the country.
  • We have two wonderful female candidates, Tracy Chamoun and May Rihani, who with their well-conceived projects to redress the country would make great leaders, but they are not even mentioned most of the time by a patriarchal system set on keeping its macho privileges. Thus violence against women and children is increasing.
  • Electricity is being provided by the government for only two to four hours a day, which means that most families must pay outlandish costs for generators.
  • Internet connections are poor; and drinking water is scarce, which means most people must pay high prices for drinking water as well as to fill up their water tanks.
  • Transferring funds is quite difficult, even with NGO money coming in; one often has to establish personal contacts to be trusted and even that is not a guarantee.
  • Discrimination against various ethnic and political groups that don’t adhere to traditional thinking has increased. Several progressive associations (Kafa, ABAAD, Dayna, Amel, Doria, etc.) have been working to change laws that terribly affect women—in terms of equality, rape, domestic violence, the ecosystem, etc.—but change is very slow. For example, the Lebanese law acquitting a rapist if he marries his victim has been repealed, but it is not enough. Women should play a bigger part in decision making.
  • Education has deteriorated considerably given the lack of funding and the brain drain of good teachers who left for better positions abroad. Vulnerable and marginalized people lack access to it, and future generations are going to pay the price of this terrible impoverishment.
  • The health sector has also suffered considerably due to the exodus of good doctors and nurses, and the cost of medical care has become completely unaffordable for the poor and even the middle class. Medicine is often not available or at a price beyond reason.
  • Most religious and political party leaders are against feminism, which they consider a threat to their power. They prefer to keep women at home, cooking and taking care of the children. Women must denounce this discrimination.
  • Women’s groups in Lebanon should unite and combine their efforts more in order to reach better results.

The situation in the south of Lebanon has considerably worsened:

  • Since October 8 there has been continuous exchange of fire at the Lebanese southern border between armed groups and Israel. The tension along the border has continuously escalated, including targeted attacks against armed groups’ personnel beyond the border area, getting closer to Beirut and increasingly targeting the Bekaa valley.
  • Civilians, hospitals, homes, and schools have been attacked indiscriminately, with olive trees, agricultural land, and crops damaged by phosphorus bombs. Medics and ambulances have been attacked. White phosphorus is an incendiary substance mostly used to create a dense smoke screen or mark targets. When exposed to air, it burns at extremely high temperatures and often starts fires where it is deployed. People exposed to it can suffer respiratory damage, organ failure, and other horrific and life-changing injuries, including burns that are extremely difficult to treat. Burns affecting only 10 percent of the body are often fatal. These weapons have been used in Gaza and Lebanon by Israel against civilians, which is prohibited by International law.
  • As of January 23, 86,874 internally displaced persons (IDPs) were seeking refuge across Lebanon. The Lebanese Ministry of Public Health reported 151 killed and 535 people wounded as a result of the hostilities to that point—not to mention the approximately 300 Hezbollah fighters who have lost their lives.
  • The socio-economic vulnerability of communities in hard-to-reach areas, where many rely on agriculture, is worsened by the ongoing conflict, increasing the number of people in need of assistance.

​In the midst of such extremely difficult circumstances on all levels, the project of creating the Culture and Healing Center has provided a ray of hope in the midst of despair. It has also been very therapeutic for my own recovery from all the tragedies I have witnessed; and I have felt the need to spread this recovery to all those who have suffered and bled due to the horrors they never stop experiencing.

​The goal of our center is to create an environment where healing from multiple traumas (war, family separation, exile, environment, pandemic, inflation, the Beirut blast) can take place through cultural and educational workshops, support groups, writing, theater, reading, music, singing, painting, engraving, circus activities, physical and spiritual exercises, coaching, cooking, and gardening.

The people of Lebanon are living in very challenging times. Their physical wounds may be healing, but their emotional stress, fears, traumas, and loss of a sense of safety are ever-present. Domestic violence has been increasing; a study by ABAAD – Resource Center for Gender Equality found that 96 percent of domestic violence in Lebanon went unreported in 2021 by young women and girls who had experienced it. Information International, a Beirut-based independent research company, has conducted a recently published study showing a worrying increase in the number of suicides among the Lebanese population. The Culture and Healing Center, supported by the Beit El Fouad Foundation, is a place dedicated to healing and emotional growth.

Evelyne Accad was born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon. She is professor emerita from the University of Illinois and the Lebanese American University in Comparative Literature, African Studies, Women’s Studies, French, Middle East Studies, and the Honors Program. She is cofounder with Dr. Jacqueline Hajjar of Beit-el-Hanane, a women’s shelter in Beirut since 2008.

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