Lebanon: A History, 600-2011

Lebanon: A History, 600-2011

Lebanon: A History, 600-2011

Lebanon: A History, 600-2011

Excerpt

In the short story “Register: I’m not an Arab Woman,” Syrian Lebanese novelist Ghada Samman’s protagonist proclaims from a dream:

I see a cat giving birth to a mouse, a tiger, a squirrel, a snake, and a
kitten—all from the same womb.

I wake up terrified: How are they going to live together? But, then,
why should they live together?

Such has been the dilemma of cohesion in the country of Lebanon that has existed in its current boundaries since 1920. On the one hand, Lebanon is a conglomerate of Christian, Muslim, and Muslim-derived communal minorities, with distinctive identities, legal personalities, and political representation. At the same time, the country has overall features of Arabic ethnicity and dialect, acceptance of religious diversity, common family traditions, and shared pride in one of the world’s finest cuisines. Issues of social justice and political allegiance have cut across sectarian affiliation. The commonalities enabled substantial national coalescence by the 1960s, while shares in sectarian political pluralism made Lebanon’s politicians increasingly comfortable together. Cohesion devolved into warfare and crisis in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Political, communal, and clan divisions became inflamed in hothouse conditions of state breakdown and external interference. Today the Lebanese people are left with their shared fate and the certainty that most will not have a decent life if they do not restore a measure of unity.

A major purpose of this book is to explore problems of cohesion in modern Lebanon since its creation in 1920. Above and beyond family networks and political ideologies, sectarian communities have been central to these problems. The book reaches back to the late Roman period to interpret the origins of the communities. How did the neighborhood of Mount Lebanon, an area about the size of Connecticut or Northern Ireland, come to host almost the entire religious diversity of the Arab world? Origins extend from establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380, through the Islamic conquest of the Levant in 636–644, to the breakaway of the Druze sect from Isma’ili Shia Islam in the 1020s.

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