Sunnis and Alawites Clash in Northern Lebanon
Long-standing feuds among Sunnis and Alawites in Trablus, Lebanon’s second largest city, have erupted into severe clashes involving light arms and rockets all throughout yesterday and today. These clashes are following familiar patterns from the time of the Lebanese Civil Wars in the north (early 1980s-1989). The Alawites, who form around 8 percent of the population of the Trablus District, are mostly concentrated in a northern suburb called Ba’al Mohsin, and they are surrounded by Sunni neighborhoods to the west (Tebbaneh) and to the south (Ba’ear بقار and ‘Ebbeh قبة). I think the Baddawi Palestinian refugee camp lies to the northeast of Ba’al Mohsin. Ba'al Mohsin is also called Jebel Mohsin.
click to enlarge picture
Early on, I had taken an interest in the Alawites of Trablus and those further north in Akkar Province. My interest stemmed from research I had been conducting on the Alawites in Syria, as well as a question which I had posed for myself: “Would monitoring Sunni-Alawi relations in Lebanon’s north be a suitable gauge for the likelihood of Sunni-Shia sectarian strife across Lebanon?” My reasoning was based on the notion that if jihadism would take root anywhere in Lebanon, then it would be in Akkar and Trablous, and a key and easy target for the jihadists would be the Alawite minority since Sunni-Alawite strife would have wide reverberations in nearby Syria, a majority Sunni country ruled by an Alawite minority.
There was one particular incident that caught my attention: Alawites and Sunnis in the village of Darin (Akkar) had clashed over which sect get to lay claim to the shrine of Sheikh ‘Isa al-Tanoukhi (unknown saint, not referenced in Muhammad Ahmad Ali’s ‘alaam al-‘alawiyeen encyclopedia, 5 vol., 2002). The shrine was allegedly burnt on March 24, 2007 and a fist-fight over the shrine broke out on April 9, 2007, which warranted the intervention of the Lebanese Army.
So naturally, I wanted to make my way over there, and I did that on July 19, 2007 (see my diary notes below). I don’t think I’ll get around to writing anything substantial about what I’ve learned so far, so the next best option is to share some quick thoughts with anyone out there who’s interested in this stuff. So, it is with that goal that I’m jotting down the following:
First, some numbers: 23,000 Alawite voters participated in the 2005 elections, and their distribution is as follows:
-60 percent in Trablus (Alawites constitute 3 percent of the whole province of Al-Shamal/Trablus, around 14,000 ‘eligible’ voters over the age of 21)
-38 percent in Akkar (Alawites constitute 4.7 percent of Akkar Province, around 9,000 ‘eligible’ voters over the age of 21)
-2 percent in the rest of Lebanon
-Sunnis constitute 77 percent of registered voters (422 eligible) in the village of Darin while Alawites account for 23 percent (129 eligible), yet no Alawites reside in Darin today. This is a pattern across many villages in Akkar where Alawites are in the minority of registered voters; they seem to have migrated to villages and towns where Alawites already constituted a majority such as Mas’oudiyah.
I don’t feel like getting into the history of the civil war in Trablus or the historical roots that underlie the animosity between Sunnis and Alawites.
But I do want to casually mention some pointers:
-When looking at Alawite history, one has to resign oneself to the realization that we’ll always be left with more questions than answers, partly due to the secrecy and syncretism of the Alawites themselves who don’t have clear-cut and non-contradictory answers as to their story in the Levant.
-There are two books that one would have hoped would answer some questions about the Alawite presence in Trablus and Akkar, but don’t. Hashim ‘Uthman’s tarikh al-shi’a fi sahil bilad al-sham al-shimali [The History of the Shias on the Northern Coast of the Levant] (1994) and Ahmad Ali Hassan and Hamid Hassan’s book al-muslimoon al-‘alawiyoon fi lubnan [Muslim Alawites in Lebanon] (1989) both make the case that the sporadic pseudo-Alawite principalities that ruled Trablus and other parts of the Lebanese coast at certain points in time could have left behind an Alawite presence. This thesis is compelling but not conclusive. Certainly, many Alawite sheikhs/scholars had last names that indicated origins from all over Lebanon, including Tyre and Sidon. But the Alawite presence in Trablus today is seemingly due to a recent migration (see Isam Khalifa, lubnan fi arshif Istanbul [Lebanon in the Istanbul Archive], 1996); Tebbaneh was a Christian enclave before being dominated by impoverished Sunni migrants (same with 'Ebbeh), and Ba’al Mohsin does not seem to be a built-up area in the 19th century. There is an Alawite saint called “al-Baddawi” and his shrine could have given its name to the Baddawi refugee camp. Moreover, some writers have argued that the Dhinniyeh Mountains to the east of Trablus are named so because of a historic presence of batini [esoteric] Shias in the past, who fit the bill for Alawites. Alawite lore considers Akkar (and even the Galil!) as one of the original lands to embrace the Alawite faith. This lore also states that the ‘Sunni’ Kurds who were defeated by the Alawites in the Nusayri Mountains proper (that is, the ones in present-day Syria) settled in Akkar, displacing the Alawites there. Lastly, there is a Sunni fatwa in early Ottoman times by Sheikh Nooh al-Dimeshqi in 1516, which could have been focused on the Alawites or other batinis of Trablus/Akkar, and which was used in justifying widescale massacres or deportations.
-Almost all the villages in Akkar that have Alawite majorities or minorities also contain varying proportions of Sunnis and/or Greek Orthodox Christians. This could either mean that Alawites have been converting to Sunnism (NOTE: this is a general trend in the Levant: heterodox minorities either emigrate to where their coreligionists are more numerous or assimilate into Muslim orthodoxy. An example would have been the ‘Ismailis of Akkar who used to inhabit the villages of Kusha, ‘Eteh, Nora Al-Tahta, Ain Tenta, and Delin; today there are no practicing ‘Ismailis in Lebanon according to several people I spoke to in Akkar) or it could be that Alawites have moved into Sunni or Christian villages or vice versa. It is also reasonable to believe that Alawites may have converted back and forth from Christianity as was related to me anecdotally by Alawites in Syria. The only village that is wholly Alawite in Akkar is Barbara, which I visited (see notes below, 210 eligible voters). But even the name indicates a Christian origin. I haven’t found any mixed Alawite-Maronite villages in Akkar.
-There are at least two villages with a mixture of Shias and Alawites (Qarha and Deghlah) and another two with wholly Shia populations (Rayhaniya and Habshit/Qab’ait (?)), which may indicate that some Alawites, whose historic presence in Akkar is far more ancient, had converted to mainstream Shiism in recent centuries or even decades. There is evidence that such a trend is also taking place in Syria itself; I met two hawza educated sheikhs in the village of Jobet Burghal, who were trying to administer Quran lessons there with very little success. Here’s another thing: I have no way of proving this, since there isn’t enough of a historical record to determine the validity of my theory either way, but I believe that the “Jebeli Shias” of Kisrawan, who the Mamlukes almost annihilated in the early 14th century would have turned into what we know today as Alawites had their historical progression in the mountains gone undisturbed. Today they are survived by the remaining mainstream Shias in the highlands above Jbail (along the ancient route to the temple of Adonis; some aspects of Alawite antinomiamism and veneration of Khidhr, though not unique to them, could be rooted in whatever survived from Levantine fertility cults) and of course on the western Beqa’a Valley, from which they spread east and multiplied.
-Whoever drew Lebanon’s map must have consciously tried to incorporate the northern Maronite enclave of ‘Ebeyyat within Lebanese territory. But this also had the odd feature of drawing the border in such a way as to put a buffer of minorities—Alawites, Shias, Greek Orthodox, ‘Ismailis and Maronites—between the Sunnis of Akkar, who form the bulk of the inland population to the south of the province, and the Sunni ‘corridor’ that runs through the lowlands from the Mediterranean coast to the city of Homs on the Syrian side. The Ottomans had consciously settled Sunni or loyalist tribes along this line (they even settled Cretan Greeks there in the early 20th century) to keep that economic route safe from marauding Alawites from the Syrian side of the mountains as well as mountaineers from the Valley of the Nasara (Christians). The trade route used to go up from Tripoli to Homs and from then on to Aleppo and elsewhere. The only break in the ‘minorities buffer’ are the Sunnis of Wadi Khalid, who were only awarded Lebanese citizenship in 1994, but there’s no contiguous territory between them and the other Sunnis of Akkar.
-In trying to identify Alawite villages, I used two resources: the detailed survey in Edward Robinson and Eli Smith’s Biblican Researches in Palestine, vol.3 (1841), as well as the Parliamentary Elections 2005 software. I was also equipped with a very good map, which was very useful all over Akkar except in the areas above Akkar al-Atiqa where I got lost, twice.
-I’ve taken two day-trips to Akkar in which I feel I had covered a lot of ground: one was on March 20, 2006 and the second was on July 19, 2007. My rough notes from the more recent trip can be read below; they are not of the literary value of Isaac Babel’s 1920 Diary, but I think that it may be of interest to those trying to understand the Sunni-Alawite clashes in northern Lebanon. I’ve kept all the original wording of my notes and I’ve put in some minor clarifications within brackets.
But to answer the question I had posed to myself above: the Alawites are too few to be a threat to Sunnis in either Akkar or Trablus. However in venting Sunni anger at Hezbollah, Alawites can be beaten up in lieu of finding other Shias to beat up. I think the remaining Alawites of Akkar will either go to Syria or crowd into Jebel Mohsin should the bloodletting begin around them. Their shrines, or at least the ones that the Sunnis haven’t laid claim to, will probably be destroyed.
Here are the notes:
Thursday, July 19, 2007: Beirut
Started driving towards Trablous, just outside Minyah, [graffiti] next to the water mellon stand:
ابو بكر عمر عثمان علي دم السني عم يغلي غلي
[Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali, the blood of the Sunnis is boiling]
Signed by سرايا المجاهدين, تل الحياة [Mujaheddin Platoons of Tal Hayat]. Pro-Harirism with Islamist tinge. Drive by Nahr al-Barid, the place is tiny. Says a lot about the prowess of the Lebanese Army [The battles there were still ongoing, smoke was billowing out of the camp; the fighting lasted for three months]. Then drove through حيصا and مسعودية [Hayssa and Mas’oudiyah], Alawite towns, pro-Syrian, and pro-Asad graffiti. No hijab. [Terrain] plains, looks like Diyala.
The Basil al-Asad high school. Then onwards to Darin, the shrine of شيخ عيسى التنوخي [Sheikh ‘Isa al-Tanoukhi], spoke to the brother of the mukhtar [headman] (who is M. al-A. al-M.), K. al-A., their grandfather’s house was well-built, of black basalt stone. Told us the stories, from his grandfather’s time (the father of A.) who saw a dream in the years before WWI, the طاعون الاصفر [Yellow Plague], was sweeping villages all around, in a dream, a merchant riding a mule with three camels in tow loaded with yellow melons, a knight emerged from the thicket of the shrine, and barred entry to the merchant by killing him. The area of the shrine 134 m2, as well as the hilltop shrine of شيخ محمد بالغزيلة [Sheikh Muhammad in Ghizeileh] and the nearby shrine of شيخ السلطان [Sheikh al-Sultan], all registered as Sunni awkaf [religious endowments]. Joined by his son, M. G., “During Syrian times, Alawites وضع يد [forcefully seized the shrine], and took another 3000 m2, picnics and drinking [reference to Alawite custom of picnicking and consuming alcohol in the vicinity of their shrines]. The fight started when Alawite youth, 60 of them, barred the kids of Darin from getting near the shrine.” Now it is closed, earlier, [spoke to the] shepherd [at the shrine] who said that all he knows are his sheep, had directed us to the mukhtar’s house. [M. G.]: “The Alawites are transgressors, always. Too few of them, half a Sunni village equals all of them.” They support طلال المرعبي [Talal al-Mira’abi, the Mira’abi family have been the feudal leaders of Akkar in +150 years]. Nothing positive about Syrian presence. Akkarites voted Hariri in sympathy after the assassination.
The fight occurred around the time of Easter. Said our goodbyes and then drove to the shrine of al-Sultan. Shepherd there, picture of Ali and Hassan and Hussein. Asked him if he were Alawite, denied it. Old graves. Referred to the al-A.s as the “Begs”. Elongated grave.
Then drove up to Hetla, mixed Alawite, Greek Orthodox, more Greeks; the ضابط في الأمن [officer in the security services], in his undershirt, asking for our papers and threatening to arrest us. Then gave us directions to Kweikhat. From there went to Kusha, shrine of “Sheikh Omar” in قتة [‘Etteh]. Two minor forts that later belonged to the feudal lords.
Picked up M. al-H., “unibrow”, trimmed beard, studying law, 22, in Trablous University, learned English from rap songs. No more Isma’ilis, they immigrated to Salamiyyah [enclave of Isma’ili settlement east of Hamah begun in 19th century]. Doesn’t know about his own roots, the Iskender family, second or third largest in Kusha, converted from Isma’ilism to Sunnism.
[Earlier interview with Ahmad] Fatfat: “Around Trablous, Alawites, Orthodox in al-Koura, Maronites in Zgharta, all within 5Km radius, [jihadist] fundamentalism is impossible.”
Al-H. would fight against مشروع [the project of] the Shia Crescent. Volunteer for the security services. Asked us for our info. The Alawites are being provocative; [he had] studied in the Basil al-Asad high school. Not religious. The Salafists [composed] half the town, in قنبر [‘Enber, next town to the east]. [Salafist trend] stopped after a new sheikh came [who was a] Hanafi.
Then drove up towards the beautiful valley, Maronite and Greek Orthodox villages towards Barbara. There, shrine of الشيخ محمد عجمان [Sheikh Muhammad ‘Ajman]. Met the caretaker, H. al-W., used to be in the [Lebanese] Army, kind of effeminate, wife uncovered, psychotic brother, six children, [concerning Darin incident]: “problems between مراهقين [teenagers]”. [Concerning potential for Sunni-Alawite clashes]: “we trust that the army will protect us.” Pontificated on American policy, “We like America, I served with Charlie and others in the Marines.” Also, “if things too bad for Alawites [here] then Syria will intervene, won’t care about Security Council.” [I] showed off my shrine erudition. He visited 50-60-100 “domes” [meaning shrines]. Told us about Sheikh Yusuf, Abu طاقة, in بربعو [village of Reb’ou in Syria]. The entrance narrows on the person telling the lie. Also, “We are protected by our saints اولياء, should anything happen [sectarian clashes].” Also, “the Christians think that the shrine belong to St. Barbara.” [At the shrine] picture of Khidhir, St. George. The Isma’ilis of عين تنتا [nearby village of ‘Ain Tenta] have turned Sunni. [Also added that the Turkumans of ‘Ain Tenta and other areas are friendly to Alawites.] The Alawites of عين الزيت [‘Ain Al-Zeit, nearby village] are مواخسة [Makhusis, splinter Alawite sect], “Let them tell you about their beliefs” [Alawites of Barbara are Kalazis, I assume]. Every saint I mentioned, he would say عليه السلام.
Said our goodbyes, then drove around mountain, into the valley of قبيات [‘Ebeyyat, Maronite town], under the Jebel Akroum. Stopped to have lunch aound 5:30, chicken sandwiches.
Then took the road to Akkar Al-Attiqa. Some women without hijabs, beautiful area, “would be a waste on Salafists”. Kurds. Took the hard road up to Fneidik. Around Jebel Qamou’a (?) [Got lost here, also got lost somewhere around here on my first visit to Akkar], عين الشوح. Shuh forests, [cedar-like trees], ارز فنيدق, lots of flatlands for agriculture, [wild] grain growing well. But no settlements? Then through pine [forests] to Fneidik, very little Salafi dress, no visible fundamentalism, then Mishmish, then قبعيت [Qib’eet], is this where they held Terry Waite? Is it Shiite? [Signs of] Israeli strikes on either side of it. To cut it off?
The mountains [across the Nahr Al-Barid river valley] relatively under-populated, and thickly grown with forests, running up to Qurnet al-Sawda. Then got a bird’s eye-view of Nahr Al-Barid [camp], then drove through Bibnin. A funeral, for a soldier? Then just beyond Nahr Al-Barid, the silencer دشلمون, falls, found a “gaggle of orphans” لحيمجي [child mechanics] to fix it. The fight among the kids. All of them have brothers or cousins fighting with the Army. Inside, “Saudis, Syrians, مشكل Arabs, Palestinians” but no Lebanese. Either 7 [jihadists] left or 300. Car got fixed, then drove through Trablous, ساحة الله. Then drove [back to Beirut] at night.