By the time I began fieldwork in early spring of 2009, Odette Salem had just passed away, yet another victim of a car accident in Beirut as she was crossing the road on an ordinary day. Her death would not have appeared so dramatic—considering the high number of such causalities in Lebanon—had it not been for the larger context within which this car accident seems to have turned Odette, a widowed Lebanese Christian from West Beirut, into the quintessential suffering mother. Hundreds of people attended her funeral, including those who knew her personally but also ordinary citizens who had heard of her story.
In 1985, ten years into the Lebanese civil war, both her children, Marie Christiane (nineteen years old) and Richard (twenty-two years old), were abducted in West Beirut when meeting their uncle for lunch. Odette, much like the relatives of the other seventeen-thousand disappeared, never heard from the victims again. And much like other relatives, the search for her abducted children became her life mission. Although there seemed to be a sort of agreement among the mothers of the disappeared and the activists that all those who had a disappeared family member suffered and that suffering cannot be quantified, a silent informal hierarchy nonetheless existed: the younger the victims, the worse; the less politically involved prior to the abduction, the more dramatic; abductions of children were believed to be harder to bear than those of husbands and other relatives, especially if in the comparatively low numbers the disappeared was female. In addition, usually every family had only one close family member missing, at times perhaps also a cousin or a more distant relative. By these unspoken standards, Odette was thus the symbol of the war legacy, suffering from the ultimate form of violence and injustice. In one day both her children were abducted. Inferred from their age and their sectarian identity as Greek Orthodox from West Beirut, it was obvious that they were not politically active during the war. The abduction of her nineteen-year-old daughter along with Odette’s brother and son, symbolized the randomness of violence during the war; abductions did not necessarily always serve larger political projects of systematic ethnic cleansing of neighborhoods. This lack of logic made particular abductions harder to bear.
Odette’s dramatic story and her death as she was crossing the street to attend the weekly gathering of the mothers of the disappeared at the protest tent in downtown Beirut added to her identification as the symbol of a suffering mother. Comments on popular blogs appeared following her death. One could read poetic statements like, “Goodbye Mrs. Salem, your story should never be forgotten and always be told to safeguard our country from further bloodshed and tears.”
Lebanese Detainees in Syria
From among the seventeen thousand missing, about 650 families claimed that their victims who were abducted in Lebanon were transferred illegally to Syria and detained across the border in one of the notorious detention centers. The NGO Support for Lebanese in Detention and Exile (SOLIDE) created a permanent sit-in in downtown Beirut in April 2005, as the Syrian military was withdrawing its forces from Lebanon. It was a gathering point for relatives with these claims, but also of Syrian Kurds and other subaltern and marginalized citizens. As the issue of disappearances remained opaque, with many local militia and regional military involved during the war, relatives’ claims that the victims were in Syria would often suffice to be part of the protest tent. Over the years, many families who had originally thought their relative a victim of local abductions gathered at the protest tent as well to blame the Assad regime for their suffering. Syrian detention centers were thus places of despair but also of hope for relatives, who projected some possibility that the victims may return decades after their disappearance.
Odette had been a guardian of the protest tent from the moment it was established in April 2005 until her death in May 2009. She slept at the tent most of the time, cooked for other relatives, made coffee, and was the mother that journalists and humanitarian organizations approached when they visited the tent. She had established herself as a public figure among those who had any point of contact with the issue of the missing in Lebanon. The image of her two children was a familiar one, signifying the futility of the war and the injustice the families had to bear.
DNA Database and Producing Motherhood
Local branches of international humanitarian organizations such as International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are in regular contact with local human rights activists, both in informal conversations and more formalized meetings, such as workshops and street activism where they introduce human rights activists to the latest international laws and the most recent scientific methods to address the state and to search and identify the disappeared. When Odette died in 2009, the debate to create a DNA database based on blood tests taken from the mothers of the disappeared had been going on for a few years already among local activists. But questions of storage, the political implications of such a practice, the cost, and the role of humanitarian organizations in educating relatives were still looming.
To create a nationwide DNA database in a country where there are no civil codes to regulate personal status affairs raises several dilemmas: The biological relation between mother and children is established through registration of the birth of a child with the local religious courts. However, nationality is transmitted by paternity and mediated through religious identity in Lebanon. In other words, to be considered Lebanese means that one’s father must be Lebanese and thus it also means he belongs to one of the eighteen officially-registered religious communities.The process of registering the biological relation between the mother and child is therefore decoupled from questions of legal citizenship. While the legal dimension establishes citizenship through the father, the meanings attached to this citizenship is established through the search practices and protest acts of the mothers. In addition, genetic fingerprinting or DNA identification tests are most accurate when blood samples are taken from the mother, thus making the biological connection between the mother and child a fundamental element for shaping the meaning of de facto citizenship. Odette was the first among the mothers of the disappeared to pass away, which opened the debate over who keeps the searches going and what happens to the cause when the immediate family members are no longer there. Death, and Odette’s death in particular, was thus perceived as interrupting the mission of the mothers. As Odette passed away amid this DNA database debate, activists made sure to store her DNA to facilitate identification of the eventual remains of her children. She was the first mother whose genetic fingerprint was taken. Her coffin was taken from the hospital directly to the protest tent before proceeding to the burial.
Commemorating her death at the protest tent, that is in a public space in downtown Beirut, was an act to establish a direct relation between the state and citizens. The ceremony served as a form of public protest against state amnesia, and a reminder of the urgency of the cause, as mothers, those main witnesses for the disappeared, were aging and dying. The production of the absentee as a citizen has so far depended on those witnesses. Odette’s public commemoration was yet another attempt to turn the cause of the disappeared from a story of an individual search and suffering into a more impersonal national cause with political and legal implications. It was a ritual commemoration to demand that the state act as a witness of the disappeared, projecting the idea that the state is an eternal, stable, and coherent institution. Her large image glued to the protest tent became the icon of a suffering subaltern indexing the aspirations of these women to engage with legal institutions to recognize their search for the disappeared as primordial, ingrained in the very meaning of motherhood. The image also signified that Odette continued to serve as a witness even after her death, thereby relieving the mothers from the pressure of a secular temporality. The ticking clock, their eventual death, haunted these aging women as they associated their own deaths with the end of the search, and therefore dying with a sense of their own incomplete vision of motherhood.
The mothers, through their politics of presence, therefore, become mediators between the state and the absentee, negotiating the very meaning of state and citizenship in Lebanon. By transgressing the gender norms as they participated in activities usually associated with men, and simultaneously by playing on gender norms as the weaker sex to protect themselves against state violence, they altered gender relations and the very meaning of the maternal. By teasing patriarchal power from the margins they attempt to break free from the confines of the personal status law that narrows their parental authority to mothers with no rights over their children’s legal citizenship issues. One way to read the public display of their own suffering is therefore to see the performance as resistance to the very divinity—that they experience as disempowering—imposed on their motherhood.