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.