Thursday, January 19, 2012

Salibi - A House of Many Mansions

I've continued to read a lot about the Arab world during my residence in Qatar. It has been a tremendous help in understanding local and contemporary issues, even though much of what I've read has been history. My most recent read was given to me by a Lebanese colleague - Kamal Salibi's A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered (1998/2011).

"Reconsidered" is a very important point in the Salibi book because his purpose in retelling the Lebanese history is to counter what the author believes has been a somewhat fanciful history used to justify particular political perspectives. "Many mansions" is also a very important point as Salibi tells the story of so many different people coming and going from the geographic area of Lebanon over time. He traces the origin of the peoples of Lebanon back to tribal groups who came from Yemen, who became the Phoenicians, and then were mixed with more modern cultural groups such as the Druzes, Maronites, and even those encroaching down from what we now recognize as Syria. Because of Lebanon's advanced practices and proficiency in trade, it became a crossroads which was very attractive to any national, cultural, or religious group that wanted to dominate the region.

While the comings and goings of different cultural groups contributed to the tense blend that is now Lebanon, the most divisive moment came when the British broke their promise to Arabs to allow them national independence in their historical homelands and, instead,
"partitioned this Arab Territory with the French, and committed themselves to hand over a particularly precious part of it, namely Palestine, to the Jews." (p. 29)
This moment contributed to the growing belief and dynamic of Arab nationalism, an ideal that Salibi asserts was flawed from the start.
"While there was much that could be said for Arabism as a valid national ideal, most of the Arabs who adopted it were tribal or quasitribal communities of different kinds, and also of different religions and sects, who had not undergone uniform social and civic development." (p. 52)
This diversity of perspective within Arabism was exploited by outside forces from the West as well as from inside the Arab community within Lebanon to achieve various political benefits, an issue which continues to plague Lebanon to the current day.

One of Salibi's most interesting conclusions is that Lebanon in many ways represents the dilemma of the broader Arab world. It survives with a delicate balance of many cultural and religious perspectives; accepting a less romanticized version of what Lebanon has been, and is, will be essential to its future.
"What Arab nationalism, which is a phenomenon of the last hundred years, continues to propose and promote as Arab national history is no less fictionalized than the history of Lebanon. It has succeeded in deluding the general run of the Arabs into believing that the political unity they had once experienced under Islam was in fact an Arab national unity." (p. 218)

In essence, Lebanon's complicated past is much like the broader Arab world; recognizing the lack of true unity of both will hopefully lead to the West ceasing the practice of throwing all Arab peoples into one category and it will allow Arabs to work toward shared purposes while affirming the essential differences which will most likely remain for all time. This realization, and accepting it not as defeat but release to reality can come to fruition if all accept that no guilt for lack of unity need be asserted or sustained. In Salibi's words,
"No Arab country today need feel any guilt about accepting its actual existence as a wilful or unwilful departure from an Arab national historical norm. It is only when the Arabs succeed in ridding themselves of the highly idealized Arab nationalist vision of their past that they will be able to live together in the modern Arab world." (p. 231)