there is something about this picture…

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Autonomy, independence and other treacherous words

Even Fawwaz Trabulsi, in his new book, The Modern History of Lebanon, thinks that Mount Lebanon (The ‘Imara that is) enjoyed some ‘degree of autonomy’, since the 16th century. I have a problem with the concept of “autonomy”. I am reading the Arabic version of the book, that Trabulsi himself wrote (he originally wrote in English), where he uses the word ‘istiqlal’. First of all, if it is administrative autonomy we are talking about then yes, as long as you were paying your taxes and aligning ‘foreign policy’ (if that meant anything for confessional feuds) with Ottoman’s interest, you can call the rest of the bothersome task of making these people agree on things an autonomous process. But that’s without counting the numerous wheeling and dealings that Ottoman, French, British, etc. diplomats had to go through to make the system work.

Nothing different from Syrian ‘occupation’, or before that French Mandate and its sequels. The only thing that probably helped foster the “Lebanese” political model is the slowly crystallizing sectarianism that still changed in modes of action after the fall of the Ottoman empire.

But I want to go beyond that. No historian is able to go out of reading history without using present concepts. Instead of trying to locate a ‘starting point’ in Lebanon’s history, why not look at how the different imaginative spheres that created the idea of “Lebanon” or “being Lebanese” changed over time (according to changing political social and economic factors). Then we could probably fix this particular way of writing history. For me, evaluating ‘degrees of autonomy’ is falling in this trap because it emanates from a very present concern, a concern of justifying Lebanese statehood ‘now that it exist’.

My grand uncle passed away recently at the age of 101. There is a lot to be said about this man who was a diplomat and who saw the rise of the present political state, unfortunately, I never had a chance to talk to him and lately he was kind of tripped out. Everybody in the family directly affected by his heritage was eagerly waiting for this moment. He was the proprietor of a beautiful old house in Amchit built by my Great great grandfather (The grandfather of my grandfather let’s say). Anyway, now cousins and what have you are snatching their percentage share of the house. I went there two days ago to see an uncle who was packing stuff, and I stumbled on a picture of my ancestor with his Turkish tarboush, his Ottoman long mustache, his Sherwal and nice collarless jacket. He had this virile, piercing look while holding in one hand one of his kid and in the other, his wife, who’s semi-veiled by the way: the black long veil that Maronite women wore in villages.

This Great great grandfather had made a door inside the house with an Ottoman inscription and the Ottoman crescent and star on top of it. Now why would he do such a thing? Next to his picture, my uncle had put up a picture of his son (the son of the GGgfather, grandfather of my uncle), taken probably 20 or so years later, dressed in a European suit, with French style hair of the 1920s, and kind of a feminine allure. Between one epoch and the other there is the fall of an immense administrative edifice, and the rise of a new one, the nation-state.

How did my Great great grandfather think of himself? Probably that he was an “Ottoman subject’, a Maronite Christian, an Arab (?) whatever that signified for him at the time, a silk and salt trader who needed to be on good terms with Ottoman political circles and many many other things that reminds us that the concept of ‘identity’ is so phony. It does not mean that my GGGfather thought highly of the Ottoman empire, or maybe he did, and all that does not really matter. The point is that he was trapped in a completely different worldview, he was playing by very different rules of the game to ‘become’ what he wants to ‘become’.

So What did “Lebanon” mean to my GGGfather? Surely not what it means to Fawwaz Trabulsi or to any “Lebanese” subject today, including me. How can we recapture what it meant to him and how it was different from what it meant to his son twenty years later, during the French mandate?