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?


16 Replies to “Autonomy, independence and other treacherous words”

  1. koukoulbaath al salat wal salam 3alayk. I am re-reading my story and I am noticing that you guys may get confused with uncles because I talked about my grand uncle who died at 101 who was a diplomat etc. and my uncle (who is the nephew of this uncle) who was taking care of the house of which he inherited a small share. If you are talking about this uncle well I guess he’s more 8th of march that’s for sure although with certain reservation. But he definitely hates 14th of March dudes.

    The story of my family (mother’s side) is quite interesting in its colourful political differences. More on that later.

    Maha, what loss? My grand uncle? yeah he was such a nice guy. Stayed witty and quite lucid till the age of 95 or something, then only witty he was which made him an even nicer dude. I don’t know him much though. Saw him only at social celebration (Christmas and Easter, and a couple of birthdays).

  2. By the way, its ‘great great grandfather’ in English. Pretty inadequate terminology. But perhaps two ‘greats’ should equal one ‘grand’.

  3. “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.

    Next to his picture, my uncle had put up a picture of his son 20 or so years later dressed in a European suit, with French style hair of the 1920s, and kind of a feminine allure.”

    Bech, I’d love to have time to deconstruct this bit, mais je te laisse le soin de le faire, it’s too easy.

  4. A very interesting article on the meaning of autonomy, independence and the idea of statehood.

    Historically, ‘we’, as in the people occupying the land that is now Lebanon, are very well established. But then ‘we’ are also fairly new immigrants using the Mountains to escape and be protected from persecution.

    We belong to a history that is perhaps as rich if not richer than most countries in the world and our forefathers, the Phoenicians, were the most creative, most scientifically advanced people on the planet at their time. As we all know, Phoenicia was not a state, but a conglomeration of city states, each of which was occupied, invaded and ruled over by many various armies to-ing and fro-ing across Europe and the Mid East. And yet, here we are thousands of years later, after all those who ruled over them, after the Romans, the Crusaders, the Islamic Empire, the Ottoman Empire and Sykes-Picot, and we still remember them for what they were and who they were.

    For me that means that your autonomy, your independence and your self-determination cannot be taken so easily if a society is healthy, dynamic and diverse enough. If a society is all the above, it will be strong enough to wait it out or fight it.

    Were the Phoenicians dynamic and diverse? We only need to look at what they achieved scientifically (Writing, Map Making, Sea faring,), spiritualy (Greek and Roman gods can be traced back to the Phoenicians), and socially (relatively stable societies and economies in times that were anything but, buildings of some stature and size – Baalbeck). And as a true testament to them, we still in live the same towns and cities they founded.

    Are we dynamic and diverse? We have great scientists but they all have to go abroad to achieve anything as our society has no place for research and philanthropy. Spiritually, we are splintering more than ever into our various secterian groups and socially, we value the dollar above all else; Our elite spend their money on deconstructing society rather than the building of edificies that bring people together – And tree lined roads are a nod towards greenery in the vast grey blocks that make up our cities.

    Independence and autonomy? Do we deserve it? Is our society still too childish to know what to do with it? Did Bechs great-great grandfather and the Phoenicians know the secret that we have lost? That if you give your overlords a door with an inscription on you get to build a beautiful house behind it that will still be standing when you and them are long gone. Or do we continue to allow the presumtive overlords to build ugly walls amongst ourselves never achieving what we know we can achieve and reaching the heights our forefathers achieved?

  5. Hi It is refreshign to read some of the articles and comments here.
    Yes. I so agreee with you in regards to Fawwaz’ book; as much as i like Fawwaz ideas, his 19 th century chapters are so “traditional” and so disappointing. For an interesting article on Mt Lebanon during the 18th/19th century Edmund Burke wrote a “beautiful” article in an edited book on Lebanon. (Unfortunately the name is skipping my memory.. If i remember the full title and citation i will pass it on.)
    He situates the Mt lebanese peasants revolts in historical context and ascribe it to changing circumstances in the region (e.g., land tenure.) Thus, there is nothing mystical, or peculiar, about Lebanese Revolts. It was a common practice in the Mediterranean (Sicily and Tunis, if am mot mistaken, are cited by way of comparison.)


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