Lebanonism's Greatest Hits

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It's worth noting that throughout the recent assertions of Lebanese political independence and cultural exceptionalism, a striking video has been hovering near the top of the region's music and video charts: Issa Ghandour's Min Safer ("We Travel"). Ghandour's song is a moody evocation of the meaning of place, and the spiritual costs of forced exile from that place. According to the lyrics, the singer, in losing his now-unattainable home, has been exiled as well from his soul.

Neither Ghandour's lyrics nor the video's images make specific reference to Lebanon, but no one who has seen the video is likely to miss the obvious connection, and not only because Ghandour sings in the unmistakable Lebanese accent. The video—which was directed by Leila Kanaan—evokes in miniature Lebanon's violent recent history, and surrounds Ghandour (who is making a futile attempt at return) with the wariness of those who stayed behind, and with the taunting ghosts of his unlived, might-have-been life. Ghandour's personal tragedy of exile, suggests the video, is also Lebanon's national tragedy of loss. In the sense that Lebanon's opposition demonstrators want their country not only to resume its full independence but also to resume its interrupted history, the Ghandour video is drawing on the same cultural sources as is the political opposition. They are both manifestations of a national exceptionalism that may be called "Lebanonism."

"Lebanonism" is a term used by different people to mean quite different things. To such thinkers as Benjamin Barber, it describes an ongoing state of tribal friction. To some economists, it describes the policies that allowed Lebanon to achieve impressive prosperity in a limited time. To some Pan-Arabists, it is an offensive formula for Christian domination. But to others, it is embrace of social pluralism and of difference—libertine and synchretic—from Lebanon's neighboring cultures.

Thus, when spontaneous opposition demonstrations broke out in the immediate wake of Rafiq Hariri's assassination, some observers claimed the phenomenon of Christians, Druze, Sunnis, and others linking arms was a manifestation of a "new Arab nationalism." Not so, wrote Tony Badran. "This is not an Arab nationalist revolution. This is a 'Lebanonist' revolution! This is about the coming together of the Lebanese (Druze, Maronite, Sunni, Shiite, etc.) for Lebanon and the idea of Lebanon as a plural society." That's the Lebanonism I'm addressing, too.

The Lebanonism of pluralism and difference draws on many sources. For example, Lebanon has been an emigrant culture for a very long time, and its cultural artifacts feature dimensions that may be rare elsewhere. Ghandour's video reflects an aspect of that emigrant vein. So did Fadl Shaker's 2003 song and video, Ya Ghayab, a song addressed longingly to one who has left. Shaker is from Sidon, and usually sings in a traditional style. Ya Ghayab, however, crossed into pop and gained a wide following. Shaker's video consisted of a straightforward recording of him singing before a live club audience. What makes the video noteworthy is the crowd: an apparent mix of Muslims and Christians who clearly know the song well, and who seemingly share an identification with the transcending national experience of separation. It's a Lebanonist crowd.

Lebanonism is far from the only exceptionalist movement the region has witnessed: Egypt's Pharaonism of the 1920s also attempted to build a national alternative to the period's Arabism, while Anton Sa'adeh's fascistic "Syrian Nationalist" movement of the mid-20th century was flagrantly anti-"Arab." (Lebanon itself has featured Phoenicianism, a maximalist cultural-difference movement.) There's a long history of struggle to escape the Arabist straightjacket.

Lebanon, Fouad Ajami recently wrote in the WSJ, "was where Arab modernism made a stand." Perhaps contemporary Lebanonism can best be understood as a self-conscious embrace of that fact. While not necessarily opposed to an Arabist identity, Lebanonism provides a vital alternative that has long been an irritant to those Arab nationalists who have sought to subsume the different cultures of the Mideast into a single political/historical narrative; Arabists are inclined to disparage this rival as shallow, bourgeois, and even racist. It's a threat to them, and its political success will make it an even greater threat, because it may become a model not only for political change, but also for cultural change.

Only Syria remains as a failing bulwark of political Arabism; the issue may now be the survival of cultural Arabism as the dominant regional model. There is already evidence that many citizens of post-Baathist Iraq have rejected the old totalist Arabism, and it is very likely that in a liberalizing Egypt (where playwright Ali Salem is seeking to revive a Mediterranean-oriented outlook), Arabism will merely be one voice among many. In the meantime, Lebanonism, in all its free and libertine disorder, remains on daily display in Martyrs' Square.

Note: I wrote at length about libertine Arabic music videos and liberal values here. As the piece notes, many of the early libertine videos featured Lebanese performers. Since that piece appeared, the phenomenon of these libertine videos has grown to include performers from Egypt and Tunisia as well.

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  1. But it’s the peasants who have the final say-so.

    The opposition now rocks ’cause the Sunni fellahin have thrown their hats in the ring with the Beiruti bourgoisie against the Syrians, and now may be arrayed against the Shiite fellahin unless some agreement is made.

    Amidst the Levantine libertines now are the Hariri hillibllies lined up maybe against the Maaloula McCoys.

    Hopefully, they will reach a bargain and Syria goes quietly as it should and elections become meaningful.

    OTOH the opposition could degenerate into another Kitaib Part 3 adventure, and the new Hizballah become the old Hizballah, and the worst of Lebanon returns.

    I tend to doubt there is that much of a great cultural revolution going on. It’s the same old Lebanon Blue State v. Red State with a little tilt from one finally fully fed-up group.

  2. Don’t you realize that lebanonism leads to bestiality?

  3. It almost sounds like the Lebanese are trying to come together in order to build a better future. It’s a lot better than sliding in the other direction.

  4. Maybe THIS is the end of Arabism?

    Iraqis hold anti-Jordanian protests over bombing

    Mon March 14, 2005 11:24 PM GMT+05:30
    By Michael Georgy

    BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Thousands of Iraqi Shi’ites protested on Monday after hearing reports that relatives of a Jordanian suicide bomber suspected of killing 125 people in the town of Hilla celebrated him as a martyr.
    After breaking into the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad and tearing down the flag, protesters called on all foreign Arabs to leave the country and denounced Jordan’s King Abdullah.
    Anti-Jordanian sentiment has been spreading since Iraqis read newspaper reports that Jordan’s Raid al-Banna blew himself up beside people lining up for jobs in the Shi’ite town of Hilla last month in the single bloodiest attack in postwar Iraq.
    Al Qaeda’s wing in Iraq, led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility for the blast.
    The Iraqi government said in a statement it strongly condemns “the expressions of joy” exhibited by the family of Banna, who it described as a terrorist.
    “Prime Minister Iyad Allawi spoke to the prime minister of Jordan personally today and asked him for a clear answer regarding the family’s activities as the reports are affecting relations between the Iraqi and Jordanian people,” it said.
    Most of the demonstrators were members of the Shi’ite Muslim majority newly empowered by Jan. 30 elections that stripped minority Sunnis of privileges enjoyed under Saddam Hussein.
    Hundreds protested in Baghdad and thousands took to the streets of Najaf, spiritual home of the Shi’ites.

    SHI’ITE RESTRAINT TESTED
    Iraqi government officials say Sunni Muslim militants from countries such as Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia are carrying out suicide bombings against Shi’ites in a bid to stoke sectarian tensions and spark a civil war.
    So far, Shi’ite leaders have urged their followers to show restraint. The protests were the biggest outpouring of Shi’ite fury over Sunni insurgent attacks that have killed thousands.
    In Amman, state news agency Petra quoted Prime Minister Faisal al-Fayez as saying Jordan stands by the Iraqi people in their struggle against terrorism targeting innocent civilians.
    But attempts to defuse growing anger over Hilla and other violence had little impact in the streets of Baghdad and Najaf.
    Near the Najaf home of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric who has always urged moderation, protesters waved posters mocking King Abdullah.
    “We call on the Iraqi government to close all Arab embassies,” said a protestor in Baghdad’s Shi’ite Sadr City district as others yelled “No to Syria.”…

  5. — Near the Najaf home of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric who has always urged moderation, protesters waved posters mocking King Abdullah.
    “We call on the Iraqi government to close all Arab embassies,” said a protestor in Baghdad’s Shi’ite Sadr City district as others yelled “No to Syria.”… —-

    Interesting, it proves the adage that all politics is ultimately local.

    I should have said “Marjayoun McCoys” not Maaloula above, in haste and half-awake. One shouldnt mix Syrian Aramaic-speaking Christians with Lebanese southerners.

  6. — “Don’t you realize that lebanonism leads to bestiality?” —

    Well, it’s certainly connected to a lot of self-abuse.

  7. The Sunni fellahin!?!?!?!?! What are you talking about!? The Sunnis are vastly urban! Spare me this pseudo-proletarianism.

  8. See, now why would you go and flush your credibility by sticking the word “spontaneous” before demonstrations, when their obvious organization, use of the same tactics as in Serbia and Ukraine, and high degree of media sophistication make it clear that there is an orchestrated opposition campaign?

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s just such a tired bit of propaganda to declare protests one approves of to be “spontaneous.”

  9. See, now why would you go and flush your credibility by sticking the word “spontaneous” before demonstrations, when their obvious organization, use of the same tactics as in Serbia and Ukraine, and high degree of media sophistication make it clear that there is an orchestrated opposition campaign?

    exactly, mr joe. i’m still waiting for someone among the reason staff who are so convinced of the ubiquity and necessity of a lebanese nationalist movement to explain who pays for all this stuff. because it seems to me that others are credibly attacking the financial and political organization of the color-coded revolutions as being american ngos with implicit government backing — and that these rallies exist because they organize a disaffected sliver of society and draw in the young with the atmosphere of a public party.

    i would be more interested in these television revolutions if they were clearly not manufactured by american third parties to provide the bush administration a pretext for issuing ultimatums.

  10. Gaius, perhaps you could source your bold claim that protests in various countries are “manufactured by american third parties to provide the bush administration a pretext for issuing ultimatums.”

    Not exactly calling bullshit, but your comments seems specious and self-serving.

  11. joe

    The “spontaneity” that has struck so many commentators alludes to the demeanor and behavior of the protestors. The arrival of anti-Syrian protestors at the demo sites was probably facilitated to some extant, but the protestors themselves don’t act like sheep.

    Have you got an axe to grind with Lebanese who want Syria out? How ’bout those voters in Afghanistan and Iraq – do they get on your tits, too?

  12. I suppose to be sufficiently spontaneous in Joe’s eyes, hundreds of thousands of people in Beirut would have to be passing through a central square at the same time on the way to the grocery when, all of a sudden, they decide to start chanting, voicing political opposition, etc.

  13. Want to know who’s helping fund these demonstrations? People like me that’s who. Check out lebaneselobby.org. Last weekend the website was taking donations via paypal from Lebanese ex-pats around the world. The money was used to provide bottles of water for the demonstrators in downtown Beirut and to rent buses to provide free transportation yesterday for people coming to Beirut from the surrounding villages. Last time I check, I wasn’t working for the Bush Administration. If somebody from the White House hired me, they sure as hell haven’t sent me a paycheck yet.

    This Cedar Revolution is as “genuine” and “spontaneous” as it gets.

  14. mr veritas, your email is at harvard university — and who paid for your impressive site? 🙂 forgive my skepticism, but a scattershot of three-day-old websites seems unlikely to be able to fund all this.

    Gaius, perhaps you could source your bold claim that protests in various countries are “manufactured by american third parties to provide the bush administration a pretext for issuing ultimatums.”

    well, the ultimatums are obviously coming fast and furious. but as far as who might be “manufacturing”, i don’t know — i’m saying i’d be much more inclined to give credence to this stuff if it were demonstrably not manufactured. as it is, mary wakefield noted well just how artificial is all is:

    “Out Syria! Out Syria! Out Syria!” cried the crowd. “We’re revolutionaries!” said my friend happily. But I felt a bit gypped. Everybody around me was young, good-looking, having fun, but that wasn’t really what I had had in mind. Only 1,000 or so people? I thought it was the whole of Beirut. Why was everybody under 30? Even in the middle of the crowd, right at the front, it felt less like a national protest than a pop concert. Bouncers in black bomber jackets wore laminated Independence ’05 cards round their necks, screens to the left and right of the platform reflected the crowd back at itself, and up against the Virgin Megastore wall were five plastic Portaloos. To the left of the main speaker, a man in a black flying suit with blond highlights, mirrored Oakley sunglasses and an earpiece seemed to be conducting the crowd. Sometimes he’d wave his arms to increase the shouting, sometimes, with a gesture, he’d silence them. The upturned faces of the revolutionaries were bathed in white light from the TV arc lamps.

    Eventually I worked out what was bothering me. “This whole thing is for the cameras,” I said to my friend. “It’s a television show.” “Don’t be so cynical,” she said. “It’s a celebration — they brought down the government, remember.” I walked over to the vast tent that covered Hariri’s grave in the Virgin car park. Production assistants with clipboards busied themselves around trucks full of monitors and amplifiers. Girls from a company called Future TV were putting make-up on teenagers selling “Freedom bracelets”, and the Future Youth Association stood behind a trestle table giving out stickers and blue ribbons in memory of Hariri. In front of the grave, hundreds of multicoloured candles had melted on to the ground. Wreaths of lilies lay in piles and two or three white doves tottered about in the wax. By Hariri’s head, a mini advertising hoarding demanded “The Truth”.

    not exactly the boston tea party.

    just as one has to wonder who paid for the stage and jumbotrons in kiev, it is only reasonable to ask who’s paying for all this. some have forwarded american ngo’s as the financiers.

    i hope to be shown wrong. i don’t want american ngos with bush admin backing to be implementing gene sharp’s ideas for regime change — with bombs as a fallback position. and i think it’s obvious that, regardless of who’s paying for what, one of sharp’s preconditions is satisfied in lebanon — A sincere desire for change on the part of a portion of the population which cannot be challenged. but i think also that, given the level of deception that regularly eminates from american government, it’s very prudent to ask hard questions before taking anything that appears to be manufactured, well financed and in bush’s interests at face value.

  15. Oh Jesus gaius!

    How old are you? We used to do better than that in the 60’s. Reader’s Digest wanted to know who paid for it…our parents, I suppose.

    Get a life!

  16. Dear Gaius Marius,

    I assume from your name that you must be a Roman general.

    But seriously… I assume that you are not a member of Julius Caesar’s family, which would make your nom d’internet nothing more than a fanciful homage to the old general. Likewise, the fake @harvard email address I listed was an admittedly lame joke (seeing as how “veritas” is Harvard’s motto). I might just as soon list my name as lucrezia@borgia.org, but that wouldn’t mean I was working for Alexander VI’s family.

    As for your arguments that this is simply too slick to be authentic, I feel compelled to ask, What would you expect it to be like? Would it be more “real” for you if the Lebanese opposition protesters were all unshaven men dressed in dirty nightshirts chanting, “Allah Akbar”? Was it all the Prada clothes that made it insincere? Or was it the Gucci handbags? Would the Ukrainian Orange revolution have been more “real” for you if they looked like starving peasants? What makes you think that today’s revolutionaries would not be media savvy? Do you realize that a large part of Hariri’s wealth was in telecommunications? Naturally his family is using his media empire to further what the overwhelming majority of Lebanese see as an opportunity to finally be free of their occupiers.

    I am not suggesting that one website was the sole source of funding for yesterday’s demonstration. There are probably over a hundred different Lebanese lobbying organizations throughout the world. The members of the Lebanese diasporas are wealthy and influential in many countries. Just because their interests happen to correspond with a Bush Administration objective to advance democracy in the Middle East does not mean that they are ipso facto a devious tool of the neo-cons anymore than the Catholic Church was a “devious” tool the Reagan Administration used to advance Solidarity in Poland in the 1980s in order to collapse the Soviet empire.

    And even if this is the sort of “devious” sneaky thing my government is doing (i.e. supporting freedom and democracy movements in benighted corners of the world that have only know oppression), then call me crazy, but I say, “Glory Hallelujah!” Maybe government can be a force for good after all.

    And by the way, that’s Ms. Veritas, thank you very much!

  17. “i would be more interested in these television revolutions if they were clearly not manufactured by american third parties to provide the bush administration a pretext for issuing ultimatums.”

    Even if these demonstrations are manufactured by “American third parties”, I don’t question their authenticity. …and I’m not sure G. does either.

    If G. is pointing out that it denigrates the organic authenticity of these movements when people claim that the Bush administration’s foreign policy is ultimately responsible for what we’re seeing on television, well, then I think I agree with him.

  18. If you’re go-ing
    to Mart-yr’s Square,
    Be sure to wear
    Something that covers your hair…

    (because some shitstick communitarian in the States thinks someone from central casting has botched the overall costume design theme)

  19. “Have you got an axe to grind with Lebanese who want Syria out?”

    No, not at all. As I’ve stated before, I want to see Syria out of Lebanon.

    What bothers my is all the dishonesty. Lies are not a reliable foundation on which to build a political movement. If the spontaneity of the protests – people poured out of offices and schools all by themselves, with nobody pulling strings – becomes a major part of the narrative, and evidence to the contrary become known, it leaves the movement open to charges from the likes of Hizbollah that the yankee zionist blah blah blah are using propaganda and lies, and deals a blow to the opposition’s efforts.

  20. Ms. veritas, best of luck with your noble cause. I, for one, consider it a very good thing that cosmopolitan liberals, rather than tribalist fundies, are playing a leadership role in the movement.

    But still, there are some dangers you seem determined to ignore. In the runup to the Iraq War, there were huge demonstrations in the American versions of Beirut – New York, Boston, San Francisco, Washington DC, our own diverse, cosmopolitan, progressive cities – that were attended, mainly, by the American version of the Syrian opposition protestors – upper middle class young people, much more liberal and less religiously observant than most Americans. The rallies were sponsored by political groups who were not only well outside the mainstream of American politics, but who could be described (credibly, if not always fairly) by the opposition as openly hostile to the beliefs of most Americans.

    The American equivalent of Hizbollah – the religious war-mongers, the ones from the countryside with an affection for firearms, you know, Red America – had a field day. Bunch of spoiled, godless hippies. They’re more interested in having a party than in respecting their country. This isn’t about serious political thought, it’s just a social event among spoiled kids who like to make trouble. Blah blah blah, if you’d care to look in the archives of Hit and Run from December 02 to April 03, you can find plenty of hawkish Reasoids making exactly these points.

    Long story short(er), the lack of a broad coalitino with groups that have credibility with traditional Americans, combined with the protests’ affiliation with groups that most Americans disapprove of, drove away a lot of potential allies (like me, a big war opponent who refused to have anything to do with those people), openned them up to charges of treason and cultural elitism, and ultimately made the protests wholly ineffective.

  21. “The American equivalent of Hizbollah – the religious war-mongers, the ones from the countryside with an affection for firearms, you know, Red America…”

    The Red States are the equivalent of Hizbollah. What a finely nuanced argument that is. The Red States used to be compared to the Taliban, but what the heck — next week it might be Sinn Fein.

    Your reasoning for this brilliant hypothesis is that Hizbollah and the Red States have the following in common:

    1) Religious fervor
    2) Rural locale
    3) Affection for Firearms

    So naturally this would infer that the opposition members are just like the war-protesters in America because:

    1) They are secular;
    2) They are urban;
    3) They are upper middle class.

    1 – Maybe you should ask the traditionally veiled Sunni women in attendance at Monday’s opposition demonstration whether they would consider themselves “secular” or religious.

    2 – Maybe you weren’t paying attention to the news reports that the opposition protesters on Monday poured in from the rural villages.

    3 – Maybe you weren’t paying attention to my original post re: donations being sent to fund free transportation for people who could not afford to get to Beirut.

    But let’s put aside these contradictions for a moment. Any two groups could be compared to each other if the generalities are big enough.

    We could just as easily compare the American war protesters to Hizbollah:
    *Both think Israel and America are the greatest threats to peace;
    *Both hate American imperialism;
    *Both have a fondness for vast welfare systems.

    Do I think American war protesters are the equivalent of Hizbollah? No. And I don’t think Billy Bob Republican from Backwoods, GA is equivalent to a member of Hizbollah either. I thought folks of your political persuasion favored “nuance”?

  22. Gee, as a Sunni Beiruti (in reference to Matthew Hogan’s comment), I’m amused to hear that I’ve been categorized as a Hillbilly and Fallah (peasant). Then again, isn’t it so convenient for westerners to brand Moslems as inferior and uneducated, while the Christians are dubbed as ‘bourgeoisie’? Did you decide this sitting in Arkansas or have you actually been to Beirut? It’s fair to say that either camp has its trailer trash and its elite. On another note, Charles Paul Freund’s cultural-cum-political analysis is a refreshing, insightful one. Issa’s song, among others, is quite sophisticated in its message (even if he’s… gulp…a Moslem)

    Iyad
    Hamra, Beirut

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