from the archives

Abd al-Latif Fakhuri, one of my favorite local historians, has an article on the history of epidemics in Beirut in today’s Annahar. Local histories of the various quarters in Beirut are very interesting — if also sometimes inaccurate. In this genre, I find Fakhuri’s work the most interesting because he does serious research in periodicals and literary works to complement other sources. In this article, he goes through a list of epidemics that have struck Beirut in the past, tying into the narrative local beliefs, quarantine measures, epidemic-poetry, advertisements, etc…

It is all written in the spirit of the flu season and, if you are historically minded (and read Arabic), it makes for a very interesting read. I found the local name given to the flu when it first struck in 1889 rather funny: the goat’s nose. anf ‘l-3anza. Inf ‘l-uenza.

Since we are on the topic of local history, there is a small museum worth seeing in `Ayn al-Mraysah. A certain Ibrahim Najem, a diver/fire-fighter of the neighborhood, damaged his legs during decompression many, many years ago. He has since taken to collecting things that most, in utter fascination with “the new,” would have thrown away. The three rooms that constitute this “museum” are a heap of objects many of which are commonplace. But the gems scattered indiscriminately among them and the pleasure of meeting the wonderful Ibrahim make this trip definitely worth it. Contact details can be found here.


It is a slow season, so here is a little something from the archives. The accusation of the love of France is popularly leveled at those who came to eventually monopolize it: the Maronites of Lebanon. But this here is a sweet request for a scholarship written (so it says) by a boy from Damascus:

Je suis un jeune chrétien de Damas; j’ai dix ans; j’ai sucé l’amour de la France avec le lait de ma mère […] Un mot de votre Excellence à M. le Comte de Sercey et mon bonheur sera assuré! Que Dieu protège la France et la rende de jour en jour plus puissante! C’est le voeu d’un jeune Français de coeur. Damas, 17 juin 1904

I am a young Christian from Damascus. I am ten years old. I imbibed the love of France with my mother’s milk […] A word from your Excellency to Mr. le Comte de Sercey [French consul general in Beirut] and my happiness will be assured! May God protect France and make her more powerful with every passing day! It is the wish of a young French at heart. Damascus, 17 June 1904

Source: Archives diplomatiques — Ministère des Affaires étrangères, Paris. Correspondence politique et commerciale, Turquie.

I am honored to be in the timeless city of Cairo, and to be hosted by two remarkable institutions. For over a thousand years, Al-Azhar has stood as a beacon of Islamic learning, and for over a century, Cairo University has been a source of Egypt’s advancement. Together, you represent the harmony between tradition and progress.

Woe is me! After all Tawfiq Pasha’s attempts at modernizing al-Azhar, there goes Obama in his speech branding it as “tradition” and harmonizing it with progress. The Pasha must be rolling in his British-ridden grave. Which reminds me of a fascinating fatwa issued in 1888 by Shaykh Muhammad al-Inbabi, Shafi`i mufti and head of al-Azhar mosque. Responding to the problematic of how al-Azhar graduates were to function in a European-molded world, the fatwa adapts its understanding of religion and reshapes the curriculum by grounding its arguments in practicality and tradition. Enjoy:

It is permissible to study the mathematical subjects such as arithmetic, geometry, and geography, because nothing in them contradicts religious matters. Indeed, it is our duty to learn what [these subjects] contribute to the benefit of religion or worldly affairs on behalf of the community, just as we are obliged to learn the science of medicine, as al-Ghazali advised us in the passages of The Revival [Ihya´`ilm al-din]. Furthermore, it is beneficial to teach those subjects that increase one’s ability to undertake this duty. But, one must not undertake the study of astronomy, seeking out the shapes of stars, planets, and their orbits for the purpose of astrology, seeking to infer from celestial movements the events of the netherworlds. This is forbidden, as al-Ghazali mentioned […]

[..] The study of natural sciences [is permitted], that is, the description of bodies and their characteristics and how they transform and change, as in The Revival, in the second chaper of the “Book of Knowledge.” If the research is done according to the method of the legal specialists, there is no prohibition of it. Likewise, the learned Shihab al-Din Ahmad bin Hajar al-Haythami advised us in a part of his book, Fatawa al-jami`, of several important issues at the time, such as familiarity with the characteristics of metals and plants for use in medicine, and knowing the workings of tools that may benefit the welfare of the worshipers. But, if it is done according to the methods of the philosophers, it is forbidden, because it leads to falling into doctrines that contradict the shari`a […]

[…] There is no harm in teaching the mathematical subjects as the instrumental subjects are taught, and the same is so for natural sciences and the science of composition of parts [chemistry], as long as they are taught in a manner that cannot be immediately understood to oppose the legal tradition, as with the remaining rational studies, such as logic, discursive theology, and argumentation. Indeed, it is incumbent upon us to know these three subjects to the extent required to defend religious doctrines.

1 Dhu al-Hijja 1305 H

Muhammad al-Inbabi, Servant of Knowledge and the Poor, at al-Azhar. May he be forgiven.

(Source: The Modern Middle East: A Sourcebook for History, eds. C. M. Amin, B. C. Fortna, & E. Frierson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 480-481)

Seventeen days later, the Hanafi mufti Shaykh Muhmmad al-Banna’ issued a fatwa of his own agreeing with al-Inbabi’s. The subjects of study discussed were incorporated into al-Azhar’s curriculum in 1896.

The following excerpt is from a book by Tawfiq Hasan Abi Nadir al-Shartuni written in the good ol’ tradition of returning Lebanese migrants. Though not devoid of nagging, it still contains some astute observations emanating from an inside/outside position which a returning migrant occupies. The book, al-Hayah fi Lubnan, was published in 1927 and I recommended it if only for the sheer reading pleasure. If, as a side effect, the feeling of “plus ça change, plus ç’est la même chose” causes indigestion, independence day is the best time to honor this curious blend of emotions — pleasure and indigestion — that comes with feeling some sort of attachment to Lebanon:

الزعامة والاحزاب
لا زعامة في لبنان الكبير ولا في سوريا فما وجدت رجلاً يدعوه الشعب زعيماً بكل معنی الكلمة او بالاحری يحصل علی كل صفات الزعامة واما الاحزاب السياسية المنظمة فهي غير موجودة في البلاد ولم ارَ ما عدا الاحزاب الطائفية سوی بعض احزاب شخصية. وقد كنت بالامس اتجاذب اطراف الحديث واحد المأمورين المعروفين فقلت له الی اي الاحزاب تنتمي في سياسة شؤون البلاد فاجاب علی الفور انا من حزب فلان مسمياً لي شخصاً من ابناء لبنان المعروفين فسألته ما هي مطاليبكم الاساسية وما هو بروغرامكم الذي تعتقدون من ورائه باقالة البلاد من عثرتها فارتبك في الجواب اذ لا بروغرام ولا اساس مكين لسوء الحظ لاحزابنا ثم اردف هذه العبارة لا احد يقدر ان يُنهض البلاد من انهيارها سوی اعجوبة ربانية فعندئذٍ فهمت ان الاحزاب السياسية في لبنان وسوريا ليس من شأنها السعي وراء سعادة الوطن ورقيه بل للتربع علی كرسي الوظائف لا غير

Za`amah and parties
There is no za`amah [political leadership] neither in Greater Lebanon nor in Syria. I have not found a man called by the people za`im in all the meaning of the word or rather with all the characteristics of a political leader. As for organized political parties, these do not exist in the country and I have only seen in addition to confessional parties, a few personal parties. Yesterday, I was having a conversation with a well-known official and I asked him: “What party do you belong to in the management of the affairs of the country?” He answered immediately: “I am from the party of filan,” naming a prominent Lebanese man. I asked him: “What are your political demands and what is the program with which you intend to lift the county out of its crisis?” He fumbled for an answer since there is unfortunately neither program, nor a stable basis for our political parties. He then added: “Only a divine miracle can lift the country from its collapse.” I understood then that political parties in Lebanon and Syria are not concerned with the happiness of the homeland and its advancement, but are solely concerned with attaining posts.

Source: Tawfiq Hasan Abi Nadir al-Shartuni, al-Hayah fi Lubnan: Yatadamman mabahith tarikhiyah wa-ijtima`iyah wa-adabiyah wa-akhlaqiyah. Beirut: al-Matba`ah al-Adabiyah, 1927.

A musalahah (reconciliation) has been concluded in Tripoli, similar to the musalahah in Taalbaya and Saadnayil earlier this summer, only this one involved bigger fish. To those less familiar with Lebanese political jargon, musalahah is the younger sister of the “no winners, no losers” (لا غالب ولا مغلوب) formula. Both are invitations to pretending that nothing happened. It is very telling that although they were invited to the musalahah, the fighters on the Tibbaneh side were not responsive.

But something else caught my eye. Something that would have been so funny had it not been equally tragic:

وسجل على هامش توقيع الوثيقة تحفظ النائب السابق علي عيد على توقيع الوثيقة لسبيين: الأول ورود اسم النائب بدر ونوس قبله، ما عدّه عدم حفظ اللياقات والمواقع، والثاني طلبه إيراد عبارة ممثل الطائفة العلوية مقابل اسمه، ما استدعى تدخلاً من الحريري ومن النائب السابق أحمد حبوس، وتأكيد الحريري لعيد أنه مستعد لتدوين العبارة بخط يده إذا كان الأمر يحل المشكلة، وقد أدى ذلك إلى تجاوز أزمة عدّها البعض شكلية وكادت تنسف الجهود دفعة واحدة

Ex-member of Parliament Ali Eid Ali’s two reservations were noted in the margins of the document [of reconciliation]: First, that the name of parliamentarian Badr Wannus comes before his own, which he considered a breach of etiquette and ranking, and, second, his request to add “representative of the Allawi sect” before his name. This necessitated an intervention from Hariri and ex-member of parliament Ahmad Habus and Hariri stressed that he is ready to write the phrase in his own handwriting if it solves the problem. The crisis, which some considered formal, passed after it almost sabotaged the efforts [at reconciliation] altogether.

The inferiority complex of this petty za`im of a minor minority is only the mirror image of the overblown self-confidence of the other za`im of a larger minority. This specific mix of pathos, machos, and wackos is just too much.

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).

A little snippet from last week’s news: the USS Mount Whitney is on its way to Lebanon for “an unscheduled deployment.”

This comes after the USS Cole entered the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal a week ago. But the USS Mount Whitney is different. It is the flagship of the US Navy’s 6th fleet and has a very “democratic” history, with such interventions on its CV as Operation Uphold Democracy and Operation Enduring Freedom. It has also served less war-like purposes, such as assisting in the 2006 evacuation from Lebanon.

The Americans have been visiting our waters even before the days of oil. In 1903, when the inhabitants of Beirut were at it again with Muslim/Christian clashes, two American men-of-war arrived in the neighborhood, prompting the British consul to hope that they “would have a salutory effect on the Vali and other officials responsible for safeguarding the public peace” (Foreign Office Records 195/2140, September 5, 1903).

The British and French also engaged in some gunship diplomacy of their own, all under the pretense of maintaining peace and order:

The frequent visits of warships during the autumn of 1896 and the early part of this year were undoubtedly conducive to the maintenance of order both on the coast and in the interior, where many British missions are established.

(Foreign Office Records 195/1980, October 28, 1897)

These visitations at this sensitive juncture when the Lebanese leaders are trying to reach some sort of agreement in Doha is no coincidence. It constitutes part of a long-standing historical practice rooted in tradition and nurtured by more than a century of love for the other and subtle diplomacy.

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