‘A House of Many Mansions’

‘Salibi’s vision, then, is a hopeful and optimistic one, envisaging a further harmonizing of the identities of the various population groups in the country to ultimately merge into a single, multifaceted but shared, Lebanese identity. In the long run, this is probably what is bound to happen – at least it is what should be brought about if the country as such is to survive. In the short term, at least on the surface, it may seem like a utopian dream as remote as the ‘Africa Unite’ of rastafarianism. Nevertheless, under the surface it seems that tectonic changes are already taking place, evidenced most clearly, in my own opinion, in the often glossed over lack of violent clashes among the Lebanese after the recent assassinations, even notwithstanding the failure of the traditional (and very much tribally organized) political leaders to solve either the political stalemate in general or the presidential question in particular as a first step in that direction.’
Kamal Salibi, Lebanon’s foremost historian, wrote the excellent study ‘A House of Many Mansions – The History of Lebanon Reconsidered’ (published by lbtauris) in 1988, toward the end of the civil war, and actually had to go into exile at the time because his work elicited extreme reactions and death threats from various parties in the conflict. This is not surprising, since Salibi, of christian backgound himself, incisively and mercilessly debunks the various conflicting historical myths of maronites, druzes, shiites and sunnites alike, noting throughout that, in spite of the raging civil war, a Lebanese identity had actually been formed and consolidated in the sense that at that time none of the parties were striving to abolish Lebanon anymore. The book, then, is not an actual chronological historic account (Salibi had already produced that in his ‘The Modern History of Lebanon’ in 1965, the standard work on the subject until Fawaz Traboulsi’s recently published ‘A History of Modern Lebanon’ – January 2007). Instead, it is a study of the construction of the historical identities and the founding myths of the various sectarian or population groups in Lebanon – whom Salibi argues convincingly to be tribal rather than religious structures, attributing the maronites’ survival as a group with a separate and shared identity to the tribal organisation perpetuated by their religious organisational structures, which served – and continue to serve to this day – political as much as religious purposes. Indeed, patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir even today plays an important political role within the maronite community and is consulted on every important decision. Salibi doesn’t take sides and certainly does not indiscriminately attack any of the parties. On the contrary, his study shows a deep psychological and sociological understanding of the historical and present interests and concerns of the population groups that have willingly or unwillingly been lumped together in what is now, since 1946 if not 1920, the state of (Greater) Lebanon.

Much of his account concentrates on the vision of Lebanon as a ‘mountain refuge’ for maronite and other christians from ‘muslim persecution’. He shows that the maronites have actually taken refuge in Mount Lebanon, leaving their original homeland on the banks of the Orontes river (now in Syria) not from muslim persecution, but from the persecution of the orthodox Byzantine empire, which in the 9th and 10th centuries managed to briefly reassert its domination of the then maronite part of the Levant. Up until that time, the maronites had been happy to live under muslim rule for 3 centuries, and when they fled the Byzantines, they found refuge not only in Mount Lebanon – which Salibi shows to have been under muslim control continuously throughout history, rather than being an independent entity – but also in Aleppo and Damascus, which were not conquered by the Byzantine empire at that time.

As for the Phoenician origins claimed by the maronites, Salibi argues that it is an artifical identity construct born out of the fear of the christian population groups of panarabism in its islamic version, which was seen as threatening their own separate identity – and as desiring to absorb their separate political entity in Mount Lebanon into the greater arab nation. The descendants of the seafaring merchant empire, Salibi shows, are to be found mainly among the sunni merchant class which is still living in Saida (Sidon), Beirut, Tripoli and Tyre. Recent DNA research has confirmed this analysis, by the way, showing that the sunnis of Saida are the ones carrying the largest amounts of Phoenician DNA rather than the mountaineers of ‘Maronitia’ (a nice neologism coined recently by a Belgian friend of mine).

Salibi also painstakingly traces the christian origins of panarabism, arguing that the greek orthodox and other christian arabs developed the secular version of this ideology as a way to counter the panislamist gloss that panarabism as a nationalist unifying effort had carried before (and still often does). In that respect, he cites a very interesting ‘study’ written by a Flemish jesuit priest who lived in Lebanon as a representative of the Vatican, which had long valued its special relationship with the maronite ‘rose among the thorns’ of the Middle East, as they used to call it. The man, Henri Lammens (d. 1937), a professor of oriental studies at the (jesuit-founded) Universit√© de Saint-Joseph in Beirut, wrote a history of Syria shortly after the end of WWI. Writing in the service of French colonial interests (as opposed to British colonial interests which at the time were (sort of) supportive of panarab nationalism) and motivated by his blatant anti-islamic feelings, the man argues that the Syrian nation had been in existence as a separate identity long before the advent of islam and had been mostly christianized in the first centuries after the appearance of christianity – both of which, of course, are historical facts. He uses these facts, however, to argue that the Syrians are ‘natural’ christians who have been long oppressed by islamic rule ‘against their express will’ and uses the maronites as the ultimate example of stubborn Syrian resistance against this ‘oppressive rule’. Unwittingly, the man, who was very influential in Lebanon due to his teaching position and his standing as one of the leading orientalists of his day, thereby laid some of the foundations for the Syrian form of panarabism, by creating (or at least confirming and legitimizing) a separate Syrian identity construct.

The above are just a fex examples of Salibi’s lucid analyses of the various historical constructs prevalent in Lebanon, in which he draws on every available historical source. In the end, though, he argues that, however historically false or correct its extensions into a remote past may be, a separate Lebanese identity has nevertheless emerged in recent times, starting out as a mainly christian and druze vision in the 19th century, enlarged through the ‘gentleman’s accord’ to include the sunnites at the independence of the country in 1946, and reinforced, paradoxically, through the civil war in the 70s and 80s to include the shiite population in a struggle which at one point or another pitted all Lebanese parties against the Palestinian, Israeli and Syrian forces. His vision, then, is a hopeful and optimistic one, envisaging a further harmonizing of the identities of the various population groups in the country to ultimately merge into a single, multifaceted but shared, Lebanese identity. In the long run, this is probably what is bound to happen – at least it is what should be brought about if the country as such is to survive. In the short term, at least on the surface, it may seem like a utopian dream as remote as the ‘Africa Unite’ of rastafarianism. Nevertheless, under the surface it seems that tectonic changes are already taking place, evidenced most clearly, in my own opinion, in the often glossed over lack of violent clashes among the Lebanese after the recent assassinations, even notwithstanding the failure of the traditional (and very much tribally organized) political leaders to solve either the political stalemate in general or the presidential question in particular as a first step in that direction.

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