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What It Takes to Become a Nation V: War Over History in Lebanon

September 19, 2012

Why people live and die for nations? What it takes for people to feel they have a stake in the nation? As a previous post in the series What It Takes to Become a Nation discussed, people buy into the nation when they share a common vision of their past. Events of the past are resumed by the historians and collated to form a unique body which makes up the family history. When independence was declared in 1943, Lebanon for many was a country without a nationality. Historians turned to the past to trace where the new Greater Lebanon was coming from. Yet, there was no agreement as to what was to be remembered and/or forgotten. As a common ground for the History of Lebanon failed to materialize, people found themselves part of a nation without history.

War Over History. During the years of French Mandate in Lebanon public civic education was complemented and in most of the cases substituted by religious schools. It was in those schools that the war over THE history of Lebanon was fought, as Kamal Salibi narrates in the book A House of Many Mansions. Two teachers in the Sunnite schools run by the Maqasid Society in Beirut defied the very concept of an historical Lebanon. In their views Lebanon was historically part of Syria  and for that reasons any claims to a specific history of Lebanon was groundless. They formulated their vision in an history textbook for elementary schools called “History of Syria and Lebanon”: Lebanon and Syria were inseparable. The French High Commission in Beirut and the Christian establishment reacted to this challenge and commissioned the publication of another history textbook. The book was finalized in 1937 by two Christian scholars and it emphasized the special historical character of Lebanon.

Both visions reflected the main political movements of that time: Lebanonism and Arabism. The first claimed Lebanon independence and specificity within the borders of Greater Lebanon. The second supported the annexation to Syria given that a Lebanon with the borders of the French mandate had never existed before. The two movements faded into oblivion in the post-independence years but the war over history did not stop there.

When the civil war broke out in 1975, the Chouf area, a mountainous region traditionally inhabited by the Druze community , fell under the exclusive control of the Druze leadership (the civil war ignited a process of cantonization whereby each canton was inhabited by only one community). One of the first decision of the Druze leadership was to replace the history taught in the elementary schools with a new version. As they saw it, the history of Lebanon had never been a concerted march by Maronites and Druzes towards the achievement of common national aims. From their point of view, the history since the Ottoman empire was the history of Maronite usurpation of Druze rights.

History Today. The war over history continues today even if the object of contention shifts from one subject to another. Today children in schools are not taught about the country civil war: history, for them, stops in 1943. When a new curriculum was proposed by the Ministry of Culture this year it was strongly opposed by some political movements because it failed to mention the presence of Syrian troops on Lebanese ground and the so called “Cedar Revolution” which ended the troop deployment in Lebanon in 2005. The minister defended its choice on the ground that the term Cedar Revolution was coined by American diplomats and could therefore upset many in the country who did not associate themselves with such worldview. As in the past, any discussion reached a deadlock. Lebanese in the past as today fail to create their own family history: there are different versions of History but not one unified version. In this way fellow nationals fail to feel part of the past and of the present of the nation called Lebanon.

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