The Lebanese Rocket Society
Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige
Soda Film + Art
Arabic with English, French and Arabic subtitles
Running time 95 minutes.
With the news full of the horrors of ISIS and their genocidal war in Iraq and Syria, I thought I’d turn to a far more optimistic and inspiring episode of recent Middle Eastern history: how a group of Lebanese students in 1962 were inspired to join the nascent space race and begin building their own rockets. It’s a piece of history that has been all but forgotten. The film not only documents the rise and fall of the Lebanese space programme, but the film makers’ own attempts to jog people’s memories of it on Lebanese radio. They then turned the rocket programme into an art project, constructing a full-scale statue of one of the rockets, which they presented to the Lebanese Armenian college at the centre of the rocket programme. They also made their own version of the Golden Record, the disc containing the sounds of Earth, which was carried into space on the Voyager 2 probe destined to leave the solar system for the depths of interstellar space and possible contact with aliens. In the hands of the film’s producers, the record held the sounds of Lebanon.
They also created an animated film, by Ghossein Halwa, depicting what Lebanon might be like in 2025, if the programme had continued. In Halwa’s film, the Lebanon of the near future is a prosperous, bustling space age state. Space technology has given the country security by allowing it to guard its borders against foreign invasion. It has also contributed to the country’s material wealth by discovering oil reserves off its coast. Beirut and its suburbs are a true, futuristic city like the vast megalopolis’ in Japanese manga films and the SF classic, Blade Runner. Vast space craft, Arab versions of the Space Shuttle, are launched to explore the depths of space. But it’s also a fun a place, where you can trip the light fantastic in zero-gravity nightclubs.
One of the new generation of spacecraft from the alternative Lebanon of 2025.
The Founder, Manoug Manougian
The programme was the brain child of Manoug Manougian, a professor of mathematics at Haigazian college, an Armenian college in Lebanon. Manougian’s interest in space travel seems to have been sparked, like many a child’s, by reading Jules Verne. Now teaching maths at university in Tampa, Florida, he says during one interview that it may not be accident he ended up there. Verne made it the location for his astronaut’s journey into space in his Voyage to the Moon as it was at the right latitude for launching a flight to the Earth’s companion world. Inspired by the achievements of the Americans and Russians, Manougian was inspired to begin his own experiments. He and a group of his students began making and launching a series of rockets. At first these were tiny ‘baby rockets’, not much larger than fireworks and about the same size as some of the model rockets hobby rocketeers enjoyed by hobby rocketeers. The rockets became increasingly larger and more sophisticated, until they reached the end of what could legally be built. The fuel used by the rockets was strictly limited to the armed forces. Furthermore, there was a problem with funding as any further increase in size would make the rockets prohibitively expensive for a small, civilian project. Manougian’s group had caught the interest of the Lebanese army under Captain Wehbe, who stepped in to give the young rocketeers the money and equipment they needed.
Involvement with the Army
The alliance with the army brought its own problems, however. Manougian and his students were only interested in peaceful research. The college’s founder, a Protestant pastor, was very much afraid that the rocket would be used as a weapon, and was initially strongly opposed to the research. He resolved to put a stop to it when he saw his own 12 year old daughter come out of one of the campus’ laboratories, her forearms grey from mixing the rocket fuel. He decided to go round and tell Manougian to put a stop to it.
He was persuaded otherwise by the massive publicity the programme was giving Lebanon and his college. The newspapers were full of stories about Manougian and his band of space cadets. Other, similar groups sprang up elsewhere in Lebanon. One such was a group of 13-15 year old boys, who launched their own baby rockets. The Lebanese also received international assistance and co-operation from France and America. Col. Wehbe attended a course on rocketry and the American space programme in Florida. He also attended the launch of a French experimental rocket in North Africa.
International Tensions and War
The programme was doomed by the political tensions in the Middle East. The film makers point out that the 1960s was a period of tension and conflict between the superpowers, America and Russia, and their allies and clients in the Arab world. Against them was Arab nationalism, led by the Egyptian president Abdel Nasser, which briefly resulted in the union of Syria and Egypt, and the anti-imperial forces. Lebanon was buzzing with spies and political intrigue. One of the speakers recalled how one frequent drinker at a hotel bar in Beirut was none other than Kim Philby, the notorious British traitor. The Lebanese’s success in building larger and more sophisticated missiles attracted attention and alarm from other nations. Their last missile was to have a projected range of 500 km, bringing into range Cyprus, Syria and Israel. Manougian’s rocketeers received a sharp message from their diplomatic staff in Cyprus. The British authorities were understandably annoyed after they made a mistake with one of their rocket’s trajectory, so that it almost landed on a Cypriot fishing boat.
Other Arab nations were also keen to acquire Lebanon’s success and expertise. Manougian recalled how he was approached at an official party by another Armenian, whom he didn’t know. The man asked him if he was looking for funding. When Manougian said he was, the unknown man replied that he knew someone who wanted to meet him. And so Manougian found himself driving through Beirut with the man at 2.30-3.00 O’clock in the morning, before ending up at hotel, in front of which was a crowd of people. He was then approached by the heir of one of the other Arab states, who asked him if he’d like to come and do the same in his country as he’d done for Lebanon. Manougian states that he felt it would have been impolite to refuse the offer, and so simply replied that he’d have to think about it. He then fled back to Texas to complete his education, explaining that at the time he only had a B.A., and not even an M.A.
The Army’s Takeover and End of the Project
With Manougian absent, the rocket programme began to experience a series of disasters. Three of the rocketeers were badly burned in an accident when the perchlorate rocket fuel being mixed exploded. The College decided the rocket programme was too hazardous, and so had them removed from campus. it was then gradually taken over by the Lebanese army. Manougian, Joseph Sfeir and the other leading rocketeers were peaceful visionaries, but the army made it clear that they had always been interested in developing it as a weapon. They just didn’t tell the project’s civilian leaders. Well, said one of the officers, if you told Manougian it would be all over Haikazian college, and if you told Sfeir, it would be all over his home province. Under the army’s control, the tests became more secret and closed to the public, unlike the earlier launches. Eventually the project was closed down due to international pressure. One of the rocketeers identified the French as responsible. Another recalled how he knew the then-president personally, and asked him, which country was responsible. ‘Was it from the north?’ he asked. ‘From the north, from the south, and elsewhere’, came the reply. Clearly Lebanon’s success at creating such a missile had made a lot of people understandably very nervous.
The film laments how very, very few Lebanese now remember the programme, despite the massive publicity it had at the time. They feel that the 1967 War and the losses of Arab territory to Israel and subsequent conflicts have blotted out all memory of the programme, and made Arabs afraid to dream and strive for utopias. There is very little Science Fiction in the Middle East, they opine, because there’s always the danger that someone in the future will consider it subversive.
What actually comes out of the film, in contrast to the militarism and political intrigue, is the peaceful idealism and patriotism of the projects leaders and founders. Manougian states that Lebanese Armenians are very loyal to their adopted country for taking them in after the Armenian massacres that occurred throughout the Turkish Empire and the Middle East. It’s a situation the film’s producers strongly sympathise with. One of them has an Armenian grandparent, while the other is part Palestinian. They see the space programme as what their country, and the Arab peoples themselves, can achieve if only they dare to dream and look for utopias. The film was made in 2009-10, during the Arab Spring, which they hail as the Arab people once more daring to dream of better societies without tyrants or despots. As for Manougian, he is still very much a visionary and campaigner for peace. He’s active in a project, ‘Peace through Education’. The film makers hoped by making the film they would restore its memory. The sculpture of the rocket was painted white to show that it wasn’t a real missile, and taken through the streets of Beirut to Haikazian College to show what Lebanon had achieved peacefully, through idealism.
The Lebanese Rocketeers – The Arab ‘Mice that Roared’
The film and its rocketeers remind me somewhat of the Ealing comedy, the Mouse on the Moon. This was the successor to the comedies about the minuscule state of Little Fenwick, an English village that manages to gain independence from the rest of the UK, Passport to Pimlico and The Mouse that Roared. The Mouse on the Moon chronicles the events as Little Fenwick joins the space race, rushing to land on the Moon ahead of the Americans and Russians. Apart from well-known Ealing stars like Margaret Rutherford, it also has Bernard Cribbins, known to grown-up children of a certain age as the narrator of The Wombles, and to a new generation of children as one the friends of David Tenant’s Doctor. It shows what small nations and ordinary people can do with skill, vision and military backing. Sadly, from the perspective of 2014 the film’s optimistic embrace of the Arab Spring seems misplaced. The despots throughout the Middle East have either successfully clamped down on the civil rights movements, or else the dissident movements themselves have led to the raise of dangerous and unstable Islamist militias. Egypt’s brief experiment with the democracy and the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood has collapsed, and the country is once more under the control of the army. Nevertheless, for a brief moment another world of peace and freedom seemed possible.
Human Progress Made when Peoples and Cultures Come Together
The other point that comes out of the film is the amazing advances in science and civilisation when difference peoples and cultures come together in peace to try to learn from one another. Lebanon was known as the Switzerland of the Levant. It’s a mosaic of different peoples and religions, including Christians, Muslims and the Druze, a highly unorthodox form of Islam. Islam was able to make great strides in science in the Middle Ages, because the early caliphs were keen to draw on the knowledge and expertise of their empire’s subject peoples. The caliph Al-Ma’mun founded a bayt al-hikma, or House of Wisdom dedicated to science and medicine. They drew on Greek, Persian and Indian science and mathematics, and employed Christians, Zoroastrians and Hindus, as well as Muslims, to translate scientific and medical works into Arabic. Al-Ma’mun himself sent a scientific mission of scholars, including the pioneering mathematician al-Khwarizmi, who gave his name to word ‘algorithm’, to acquire scientific knowledge and texts from the Byzantine Empire, the Greek Empire of the East. Western science, in its turn, because massively enriched from the 12th century onwards when European scholars acquired copies of the lost Greek classics and Arabic scientific and medical texts. Peaceful contact between nations and cultures, and the great advances they could make by learning from each other, is now threatened today by the rise in militant xenophobia and, in the Middle East, by the genocidal Islamism of groups like ISIS.
Bill Hicks’ Vision – ‘We Can End World Hunger and Colonise Space’
This film shows the opposite, of what can be achieved through peaceful co-operation. It goes some way to proving the point the late comedian, Bill Hicks, used to make at the end of his gigs. Hicks used to state that if the world spent the amount of money it spends on arms instead on developing, we could feed the world. ‘Not one person would starve. Not one. And we could go and colonise space, in peace, together.’
Bill Hicks sadly died of cancer, but the dreams lives on.
Here’s the great man in action, taken from Youtube.