How “Arab” Are the Sunnis of Beirut?
There’s a book by an Iraqi author from Basra, who fancifully renders his name as ‘Dr. Yusuf bin Ahmad bin Ali al-Husseini al-Hashimi’. I pulled it off the shelf to check something when the fighting began in Beirut, and I got myself re-acquainted with it. It was first published in 1971 under the title, Beirut wa ‘aa’ilatiha al-sab’a wa ‘useriha al-hadhira ['Beirut and its Seven Families and its Current Families'], and reprinted in Amman, in 2003. The author identifies himself as a historian (PhD 1958) and the head of the ‘Archive and Research Division in Al-Majd University’ of Baghdad—an institution I’ve never heard of. He also cites several other publications that he’d authored about Abbasid history. Al-Hashimi states that his father was a high-standing diplomat stationed in Damascus and Beirut while serving the Iraqi monarchy and that as a consequence he had been raised in Beirut and attended its schools. For this present work, he cites several generic resources on Beirut as well as the Ottoman Archive and the Yildiz Palace Archive in Istanbul.
If his work is credible, then it would seem that the vast majority of the hundreds of Sunni Beiruti families that he lists are either Berber (most of them 14th century arrivals from the Maghreb and Andalusia), Turk, Kurd, Balkan or ‘Mameluke’ in origin—not ethnically Arab. Another interesting feature is that many families migrated from Egypt, Syria, Tyre (Saida) and Trablus in the last 120 years; some of those listed even arrived in the 1960s and 1970s.
It is easy to forget how ‘new’ Beirut really is: in 1820, it had a population of 6,000, but by the end of the 19th century it had expanded to 120,000. Throughout Muslim history, the ancient town of Beirut never amounted to much, even when local dynasties ruled Lebanon for a while. Beirut had to wait for an economic break to draw in the migrants, and that only came about in the 19th century due to a whole bunch of banal market factors. Yet Beirut became something of a symbol for Arab ethnic vitality, just as nascent Arab Nationalism was asserting itself in the wake of the Ottoman collapse to become the ideology of Beirut’s Sunnis and most of its Orthodox Christians.
Watching Arabic-language news and reading the region’s papers, one is struck with the meme that Hezbollah’s rampage through the Sunni-dominated neighborhoods of Beirut amounted to a taint of its ‘Arabness’ by a foreign—in this case ‘Iranian’—transgressor. In other words, Beirut’s purity had been besmirched. The operative verb is استباح, translated to mean so many things: to allow what is not allowed, to invade and expand, etc.
The Shias, mostly from the south, had arrived to the metropolis in large numbers relatively late, in the 1970s. They were ‘newcomers’ crowding out more established migrants.
Arab Nationalism as a political force may be dead, but its myths are still very much alive. One huge surviving myth is that the Ottoman legacy of the Middle East—which in the 19th century involved massive transformations and massive movements of people—can be disregarded since, according to the Arab propagandists, the Ottomans occupied Arab lands that remained static for hundreds of years. It is this myth that allows Sunni Beirutis—a cocktail of Near Eastern ethnicities—to decry their desecrated Arab ‘purity’ with a straight face, rather than understanding that their past was anything but static. A similar fallacy survives among the Maronites who claim the Qadisha Valley and Kisrawan as their ‘homeland’ when the evidence points to roots elsewhere.
And it is this willful ignorance about their past that will continue to haunt the Lebanese, forever looking down upon their neighbors as unwelcome squatters, forgetting that they too had come from somewhere.
I’ve been thinking a lot these days about what Beirut means to the rest of the Middle East. I thought about my own family and all our links to Lebanon: both my father and my sister studied in Lebanon; two of my siblings were born in Beirut; all my siblings went to boarding school in Lebanon, and it was there that my mom was shot twice by a sniper during the first rumblings of the civil war—I came to the world about a year later. Our savings were placed in Lebanese banks. We all had valid Lebanese residencies and were going to move there in the late 1980s but my father changed his mind. Extended relatives from my father's side are intermarried with Lebanese Shia. My first cousin (she’s my paternal aunt’s daughter, her father was a Sunni Arab Duleimi) is married to a Maronite. That’s in addition to all the family friends who live or vacation in Lebanon that one catches up with while over there.
And on my trips around Lebanon, I was always surprised that I’ve ended seeing more of their enchanting country than the overwhelming number of Lebanese. As a foreigner I’m welcome everywhere, mainly because I’m looked upon as someone who isn’t going to stay. But in contrast, a Lebanese following the same itinerary may be looked upon with suspicion when wandering into the lairs of other sects and religions.
I guess there really isn’t much of a point to this post: I’m just relaying some thoughts and sentiments that have been stirred up by recent events in Lebanon. I’ve been anticipating something like this for a while and it was with this urgency that I set out to cover every geographical nook and cranny of the country, knowing that I won’t be able to travel freely after the violence breaks out. But there are certain places I saw, and certain people I met, that I would want to re-visit, not for research purposes, but for how good they made me feel. Now that it's happened, watching this beautiful country maim itself is just plain painful, and it makes me a little angry; it’s really is one of the most interesting and engaging places of the Middle East. And I feel that it’s all going to get worse.