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The newsletter of the independent and free Lebanese, issue 2, January 1999

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Hello there ! I hope everyone is all right since the last issue. Some of you responded to the article "War in the South" and you can see their replies in the section entitled Feedbacks 1, on the homepage. I remind you that all your replies are welcome and that if you do send me your opinion, you are entitled to a space on this website. And if you want to subscribe or unsubscribe to the newsletter, just send an e-mail saying so.

Just so you know : 3 persons replied to the first article, 10 of you signed the guestbook, 10 signed up to the mailing list (that makes a total of 97, just a little effort....) , and quite a number of you voted for this site on Libanis top 50 Lebanese sites. Thanks !!! Keep participating ! If you feel like sending material or ideas for this website, Ahlan ! No one is watching you ! Express yourselves while democracy rules....

This time, we have chosen to discuss the problems of confessions and identities in Lebanon. This isn't new, but it's still unsolved. After years of war, it seems that there's still much to do on the way of reconcilement, as show various reports in newspaper of students' brawls, due to conflicting sectarian or political opinions. That's our own internal duty, and if we can succeed, nothing will be able to tear us apart. It all starts with a smile and an open heart....

Youssef Ilych Hacienda

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"Lebanese, huh? Where you from?"

"Beirut."

"You what? Christian? Moslem?"

"Go to hell brother! I’m Lebanese!"

The day I’ll hear Lebanese answering like this on the streets at home or abroad, I’ll be truly happy!

In almost 100% of the cases (I say almost, because I don’t like being wrong, and because I try not to be concerned as much as I can), when two Lebanese meet, they ask two basic questions. First one: What is your family? And then, naturally, where are you from? And if the name or the place of origin is not explicit enough to characterize the person’s background (i.e. give clear indications concerning sect/clan affiliation), many curious don’t hesitate to ask (in a disguised manner, preferably), the unavoidable question: what’s your confession?

Harissa2.jpg (22957 octets)For centuries, we have been used to speaking and thinking like this. In a traditional society where the primary cell was the family, this seemed all too natural. Even today, in villages, people are still called Um Walid, Abu M’hamad, or Ibn Ilias. And after the family and the village, the next natural element of identification for a person was his religion. Borders were something vague and inaccurate, and anyway, they had a tendency to change quite regularly through history. Moreover, in Lebanon, we were by far more accustomed to being under someone else’s rule - whoever this was - than to governing our own destinies. Our land was, and still is, a land of diversity, and that’s one of the reasons why it produced such a rich history.

But hey! Wake up! This is the 20th century, for God’s sake! Time passed by and things have changed. The great and beautiful world around us has never stopped spinning. If these means of identification were okay back then, they’re not suited anymore for a modern nation.

Maybe a few decades of independence were not enough to learn. Then we had the war. Others fought it on our land, but we can’t deny a certain internal Lebanese responsibility. But now that we have seen how deadly such discrimination and categorizing can be, there’s no other way out than beginning to think on a wider scale: that of a nation. Why would one make the difference between people who have been living on the same soil for centuries? We have to think and act like a community, for the sake of every one of us. In the past, living together in peace was good enough. But today, we desperately need a stronger feeling as a nation to survive in an environment that’s hostile on every side.

I know that such a national reconcilement is even a bigger task than Solidere’s pathetic reconstruction of central Beirut, but it’s a much more useful one that we can’t avoid going trough. And unlike the reconstruction, it’s a job we can’t mess up, or our country will end up as a Syrian province, or worse, a water supply and shooting range for Israel.

Now the time has come to put aside our sectarianism and feudalism. You want to enjoy your religion in peace? Fine. Then call yourself ‘Lebanese’ before anything else, and fight for a free and tolerant Lebanon, where anyone can pray his own way, in peace. Because if we don’t unite today, Lebanon may not exist as a true state tomorrow, and gone will be our freedom.

wpe1D.jpg (13749 octets)Each one of us might have distinctive features inherited from religious, regional, or family background. A tobacco grower from the region of Nabatiyeh might consider himself very different from a lawyer of Tripoli, and had Lebanon been a bigger country, he would probably never have been there. Just the same, a Shi’a from Beirut might feel he’s got nothing in common with a Maronite from Zghorta. Well, it’s certainly true. And in such cases, I don’t think it has only to do with religion, but with a whole social, personal, and historical background. But if you pushed this logic to its natural end, you would also discover that you have nothing to do with your neighbor that you have been greeting every morning for the past 15 years.

Indeed, every one of us is different, and most important: unique. I recently read a book by Amin Maalouf entitled "Les Identités Meurtrières". It explained how an "over-identification" might threaten the society and its stability. Basically, it all boils down to the problem of fanaticism. One of the strong ideas of the book is that we all have multiple identities, whoever we are. Each one of us is a unique product of different influences. Family, culture, place of birth, education, friends, each of these elements and many more helped shape what we are now, unique human beings. And often, conflicts stem from the fact that we acknowledge only one facet of our identity and that we deny all the others. If others do the same thing, then we get a society that’s divided along rigid and unavoidably conflicting lines. Proclaiming ourselves to be one thing and nothing else is a very reductive vision of our identity, and it’s all the more dangerous that it puts us in opposition with all the others who don’t possess this discriminative characteristic which can be religion, race, language, or whatever.

What we have to do is to learn to assume responsibility for all the elements that constitute us. Amin Maalouf also notes that it’s not easy, given the conditioning that has been imposed on us. Accepting all the different facets of our identity goes against what we have been used to for centuries. However, it’s the only way of building a peaceful and open society in a country like ours where diversity is the key word. This is a necessaryarmchurch.jpg (23209 octets) step at the personal level as well as the level of the whole society.

In Lebanon, we have always had trouble figuring out exactly what we are. Or to put it in a more exact form, we have never been able to agree on a common identity, each group having very rigid views of what the Lebanese people are and should be. Are we Phoenicians, Arabs, or just a desperate melting pot of all the people who were persecuted elsewhere in the Middle East? That roughly sums up the debates that have torn the nation apart.

But that’s not the point! We can’t deny that even a single person cannot pretend to have a single identity, but rather many of them. How can that be with a nation? It’s time to accept the inheritance of the past and to take up facts as they come. And these facts stand as follow:

We truly have a very rich past and history behind us, and we are the descendants of the Phoenicians who left behind them a great civilization and a tremendous influence over the Levant. Ancient Phoenicia is the land that became known as Lebanon along history. We might not have an ethnical Phoenician origin as many historical studies deny the fact that there is a continuity between the Phoenician people and the people that inhabited and shaped the Lebanese land in the last few centuries (mainly Maronites and Druzes from Mount Lebanon). But that’s not the point as we keep the heritage of Phoenician history and civilization.
But we now live deep in the Arab world, we share its culture, language, and fit in its geographical boundaries. The Phoenician nation does not exist anymore and Lebanon is undoubtedly a true Arab country. Apart from Armenians, Kurds, and maybe a handful of Jews, Lebanon is a country peopled by Arabs, whether they be Shi’i Arabs, Christian Arabs, Sunni Arabs, or Druze Arabs. Arab civilization strongly identifies with Islam, but it has a historical tradition of diversity and tolerance, especially towards people who share religions of the Book.
Obviously, Lebanon has been a land of immigration throughout history, and scores of different people have come to live together on this tiny piece of land. We’ve also been constantly invaded throughout centuries. So if individually we can trace up our ethnic origin (and we are often the product of different origins); at the scale of the nation, it’s impossible to say that we have a unique and undisputed origin.

Then, things get clearer. To me, it’s useless debating on the origin of the Lebanese people. Today, we are Arabs, first Lebanese and then Arabs. Just like the people living in Egypt are Egyptians, an Arab people, or like the Italians that never stop being themselves and different from their neighbors, but are Europeans after all, not more not less European the French are. In Lebanon, we have been more open to the world and to the West than other Arab countries, but that does not stop us from being Arabs.wpe19.jpg (14501 octets)

We should just fully accept each of the various influences that made up our identity; and among ourselves, we should negate neither what we have in particular, nor what we have in common. Whether it is religion or anything else that separates us, we have to remember that we are all human beings after all, and as such, entitled to live in peace, freedom and security.

On top of that, I enjoin you to keep one thing in mind. Always remember that the people of the Book all worship the same God. What closer thing can they have in common? Who is going to shoot at his own brother? If we were foolish enough to do that, we now know the price of such stupidity. In Lebanon, we also share the same language, the same culture, and we have been living together inside the same miserable 10452 sq. km. What else do we need?

We need to make this concrete.... How? Well, it sounds simple: we just have to stop discriminating in all the aspects of private and public life. In public life, efforts have to be made on behalf on the government, but under the pressure of the people. We have to give ourselves the means of achieving what we believe in. But the most important part is to change our old habits. Let’s start thinking in a new way! Let’s stop making a difference and caring about our religions or origins, there are so many other things to do.... In public life, we have to build a fair social and political system where religion and politics each have their own place. I stand for a non-religious system (instead of what we have now), but I believe that we should stop using religion to divide people, but rather to unite them, as we all happen to believe in the same God.

wpe1F.jpg (8402 octets)Let’s stop looking behind us. In post-war Lebanon, we all got blood on our hands. Only if we look ahead, we can make it together. It’s time to draw a line over the errors, resentments, and fights of the past. We all made mistakes, but we want to live together, in peace. It happens to be that times are hard for all of us, so let’s stick together! Our Lebanon, from the mountains and the cedars to the seaside, belongs to all of us.

It’s hard to come up with really concrete solutions (as we would propose a political program or a budget forecast) as the key to this problem is a change in mentalities, in every one of us. You can’t tell or force someone to think in a particular way, however we have to do our best to stick with ideas of progress, and spreading them around us.

As long as we manage to build a fair society, rivalries won’t have reasons to exist anymore. Each one of us will feel at ease being Lebanese, and proud to call him so. And this whatever his individual identity components are (religion, family, village, origins....). Let’s get to work.... Now!

Y.I.H.