Beyond Arabism

Music videos and Lebanese revolution.


Throughout Lebanon's recent assertion of political independence, a striking video hovered near the top of the region's music and video charts: Issa Ghandour's "Min Safer" ("We Depart"). 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 refer specifically to Lebanon, but few who have seen the video are likely to miss the obvious connection, and not only because Ghandour sings in an unmistakable Lebanese accent. The video, directed by Leila Kanaan, evokes in miniature Lebanon's violent recent history, and it 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, the video suggests, is also Lebanon's national tragedy of loss.

In the sense that Lebanon's demonstrators want their country not only to resume its full independence but also to resume its interrupted history, the Ghandour video draws on the same cultural sources as 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 code word for Christian domination. But to others, it is the embrace of social pluralism and of difference–libertine and synchretic–from Lebanon's neighboring cultures.

Thus, when opposition demonstrations broke out in the wake of former Prime Minister 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 the Middle Eastern analyst 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."

This Lebanonism of pluralism and difference draws on many sources. For example, Lebanon has been an emigrant culture for a long time, and its cultural artifacts feature subjects 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 he usually sings in a traditional style. "Ya Ghayab," however, crossed into pop and gained a wide following. Its video is a straightforward recording of Shaker singing before a live club audience. What makes the clip 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 nascent Arabism of that period, while Anton Sa'adeh's fascistic "Syrian Nationalist" movement of the mid-20th century was flagrantly anti-"Arab." (Lebanon itself has also seen Phoenicianism, a maximalist cultural difference movement.) There's a long history of struggle to escape the Arabist straightjacket.

While not necessarily opposed to an Arabist identity, Lebanonism has long been an irritant to those Arab nationalists who seek to subsume the Mideast's different cultures into a single political/historical narrative. Arabists are inclined to disparage this rival as shallow, bourgeois, 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 for cultural change.

Some Lebanonist music videos memorializing Rafiq Hariri were aimed at Syria. Indeed, it is only Syria that 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-Ba'athist 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, has been on daily display in Martyrs' Square.