During the course of my research, I happened upon a journalistic piece written by Salma al-Sa’igh (1889-1953) in 1923. Salma’s parents were originally from Hasbayya, but left after the 1860 massacres to settle in Beirut, where Salma was born. She was educated in Wata al-Musaytbah elementary school and Zahrat al-Ihsan. Like many educated women of her time, she made her living as a teacher, teaching in Maqasid, Kulliyat Beirut lil Banat, and the Lazarite school. She got married in 1912 only to divorce a few years later. In 1939, she traveled to Brazil to look for a long lost brother and she ended up living in Sao Paolo for eight years when World War II broke out. There, she joined the Andalusian League and translated contemporary Brazilian literature to Arabic. She also has translations from French to English and numerous articles some of which were collected by the journalist and indefatigable supporter of women’s rights, Jurji Niqula Baz, in the book al-Nasamat (Beirut: al-Matba`ah al-Adabiyah, 1923).

The following comes from the collection. Although this humorous and observant excerpt comes from a very different time, Salma points out to patterns of thought and a level of political immaturity that has many parallels today – the dependence on an ‘outside,’ even in complete independence being the most salient.

بابل في سوريا
كنت اعد – علی اصابعي – لئلا اغلط بالعد فيضيع الحساب
حزب الاستعمار الانكليزي
حزب الاستعمار الفرنسوي
حزب الاستقلال مع الوصاية الانكليزية
حزب الاستقلال مع الوصاية الفرنسوية
حزب الاستقلال مع الوصاية الاميركية
حزب الاستقلال التام الناجز بلا وصاية
حزب الضم
حزب الفتح
حزب التجزئة. والساحل. ولبنان الكبير. ولبنان الصغير. ولبنان الاصغر
قلت: أفٍ ! يكاد نفسي ينقطع
فقال جليسي وكان ضليعاً في السياسة:
استقلالنا سناخذه تاماً. تاماً… لا رقابة ولا وصاية. نريد ان نستجلب من اوروبا اختصاصيين لتعليمنا طريقة الاحكام. اختصاصيين بالاجرة من اي صقع ومن اي قطر نريد
من بلجيكا وهولانده وسويسرا واسوج والدانمرك
وكاد يقول حتی ومن داهومي
قلت في نفسي هذا حزب جديد اعده مع الاحزاب اما اسمه فسيكون حزب بابل او التبلبل او البلبلة…
ما شاء الله…
ولم اتمالك نفسي فغضبت غضب رجال الصلاح ونفثت من اعماق روحي نفثةً احملها منذ اربع سنوات وتكاد ان تقتلني
قلت له: ان الشعب الذي لا يعرف ان يقول لا اريد لا يحق له ان يقول اريد…
سنون اربع اذابت منا الشحم واللحم، افنت الاعصاب، ودقت العظم ونحن وقوف نتفرّج ولا نعرف ان نقول لا نريد
لا نريد ان تستبيحوا اموالنا
لا نريد ان تشلّوا تجارتنا
لا نريد ان تميتوا اطفالنا جوعاً

Babel in Syria

I was counting – on my fingers – so as not to miscount and lose my place.

I counted:
The party for English colonialism
The party for French colonialism
The party for independence with English guardianship
The party for independence with French guardianship
The party for independence with American guardianship
The party for complete independence without guardianship
The party for subjugation
The party for objectification
The party for division. For the coast. For Greater Lebanon. For Smaller Lebanon. And for an even smaller Lebanon.

I said: Uff! I am losing my breath.

My companion, who was an expert in politics, said to me: We will take our indepedence and we will take it completely. Completely… Without mandate or guardianship. We want to bring experts from Europe to teach us governance. Paid professionals from any area and any region we want. From Belgium and Holland and Switzerland and Sweden and Denmark.

He almost said ‘even from Dahomi.’

I said to myself: There’s a new party to count with the other parties. As for its name, it will be the Party of Babel or Babbling or Babelation.
Praise be to God…

I could not hold myself back and I became angry with a righteous anger. I exhaled from the depth of my soul a breath that I had been holding for four years that it almost killed me. I said to my companion: The people who do not know how to say ‘we do not want’ do not have the right to say ‘we want’.
Four years have melted the fat and flesh off our bodies, frayed our nerves, and hammered our bones. And we just stand there, watching, not knowing how to say ‘we do not want’.
We do not want you to squander our money.
We do not want you to paralyze our trade.
We do not want you to starve our children to death.

(N.B. I have tried to capture the plays on word in the translation, but I think they can still be improved on. I would appreciate any suggestions).