The views expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SyriacPress.
By Dr Amine Jules Iskandar President of the Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon
August 4, 2020. Helpless Beirut watched how an unparalleled explosion destroyed the Lebanese people’s wheat supply. On that cloudless summer day, the Lebanese grain supply was cruelly strewn over a bed of rubble. Against the backdrop of torn wheat silos in the port of Beirut, one cannot help but think about what our ancestors had to go through in 1914–1918. We relive their pain and suffering. On several occasions, they too witnessed Djemal Pasha’s Ottoman fury coming down on their silos, which he set on fire. Our ancestors were forced to watch helplessly as the Ottoman military leader burned their last reserves of food. Djemal Pasha was able to convince the world that it was a natural famine caused by an unfortunate combination of circumstances. He claimed that the food shortage was caused by an invasion of locusts in times of war and blockade.
The protracted occupier acted with ease. He felt at home. He had never considered himself a foreigner since the land he was ravaging had been under Ottoman rule for centuries and the people he was sacrificing were inferior to the Pasha’s “noble” cause. The threat his Ottoman Empire faced from the enemy justified famine and the suffering, death, and mass emigration it caused.
Djemal Pasha could boast of having organized the resistance well. To this end, he had requisitioned all pack animals, food, fuel, construction equipment, medical supplies, doctors, and able-bodied and young men who could fight. While the Lebanese lacked all basic goods and materials, while they succumbed to the weight of epidemics, they saw their fuel, wheat, and medicines taken to the roads of Syria. The diaspora was also banned from sending funds to their family and relatives in Lebanon. Adding to their pain, the Ottoman Pasha delivered public speeches and gave the Lebanese condescending lessons in nationalism in which he called on them to resist the enemy he had defined and imposed on them.
One hundred years later, the wheat is wasted on the ground. And again, the values of resistance are being condescendingly preached to the hungry and poverty-stricken Lebanese. Fuel and medicine are taken from them to be sent to Syria. Their doctors and youth are pushed into exile. Aid in foreign currency is blocked. An eternal and absolute enemy rooted in dogmas and ideology is imposed on them. Nature, too, participated in the capricious scenario, seeding viruses in the role of locusts. And let us not forget and mention the feudal nepotism and corrupt merchants who haggle over everything from politics to the most essential values.
What happened that forced this proud people to relive all these calamities after more than a century? What is the reason for this repeated pain when the other peoples of the Ottoman Empire have organized themselves into better functioning nations?
Reviving Linguistic and Cultural Heritage
Sensing the Ottoman Empire was on its last legs, the various indigenous components had begun to awaken and organize themselves to revive their own linguistic, historical, artistic, literary, and spiritual heritage. After four centuries of Ottoman rule, their languages were alive, but barely. Or at least could no longer meet the demands of modernity that came with the 19th century industrial revolution. They started reviving their heritage and languages, creating modern versions of Greek, Armenian, Hebrew, and Serbian. They prepared themselves for the day, when circumstances would allow, to erect their own nation-states.
In some cases, the idiom was completely dead (Hebrew), archaic (Greek), or simply ignored by large sections of the population, as was the case for the Armenians of Cilicia. The Armenians who arrived in Lebanon during and after the 1915 Ottoman genocides on the Armenians, Syriacs, and Pontic-Greeks did not speak a single word of Armenian. Orphanages and schools were then founded across Lebanon, employing Armenian-speaking teachers from the diaspora who taught Armenian folklore, art, history, and spirituality. Within a single generation, the language was brought back to life.
The Armenians permeated the Lebanese landscape with their Christian architecture and monuments for their martyrs. The Armenian identity was saved. The Armenian presence was saved. Without this awakening and revival, the Armenian presence would have disappeared completely. So, by reviving their language, Armenians were able to enrich Lebanon and its heritage with an extra dimension that went beyond finance and economics.
The Choice of the Mount-Lebanese
Like other populations in the latter years of the Ottoman Empire, the people of Mount Lebanon faced post-independence challenges. It was an urgent matter of creating a national narrative, necessary for every budding nation-state: cultural development, linguistic regeneration, (re-)writing history, and enhancing the arts. It was also important and fundamental to pay respect to the martyrs of Kafno, the famine-genocide of World War I. A commemoration that should remember the unbearable suffering of their parents, children, brothers, sisters, and ancestors; a remembrance that their death and sufferings were not in vain. And to ensure that it never happens again.
But, unlike all the other Judeo-Christian components of the ailing empire, the people of Mount Lebanon preferred to immerse themselves in general amnesia in order to build a new political entity: Greater Lebanon. During Kafno’s infernal years of 1914–1918, school education was interrupted throughout the governorate (Moutassarrifiya) of Mount Lebanon. The mountaineers who managed to reach the Ottoman city of Beirut arrived there only to die. The country had become a vast cemetery. The intelligentsia had migrated to the most distant lands of the diaspora. The degradation of culture and illiteracy was rampant.
The liberation of Lebanon by the forces of the Triple Entente should have engendered the same type of rebirth as it had done for the other components like the Armenians, Greeks, Cypriots, and others. But this was not the case in Lebanon. No effort was made to revive the moribund Syriac language, no effort to write the true history was made, and the inclusive national narrative lay dead. No honoring, no monument was ever erected for the 220,000 victims of the Kafno famine-genocide.
A mental state of arbitrariness and chaos turned into conscious and premeditated acts in 1943. The Syriac language was simply sacrificed on the altar of Greater Lebanon. The Syriac language was left out as one of the national languages of the new entity. As a result, mountain schools in the 1960s en masse stopped teaching Syriac when the last Syriac language teachers retired. The Syriac Maronite Church saw itself forced to hold Mass in Arabic from then on; parishioners could no longer understand and follow the traditional hymns and books printed in Syriac or Garshouné**. Imagine proud countries like Italy or Poland would today suddenly decide not to teach their own language any more under the pretext that no other country uses it.
Having cut itself off from its linguistic Syriac heritage and identity, the official history of the country also had to correspond and be aligned to the new concept of national identity of Greater Lebanon. The 220,000 martyrs who died in excruciating suffering were then sacrificed simply because they were mostly Christians. The new Lebanon preferred the 40 nationalists executed in Martyrs’ Square. Their cross-confessional makeup better suited the ideology of the young state.
Official history textbooks subverted fact with a history more suited to Greater Lebanon. How to explain all these victims? We are told of the mass death of one-third of the people of Mount Lebanon. In reality, it was half the population. Two-hundred-and-twenty-thousand people died, out of a population of 450,000 inhabitants. The other half only survived because they had managed to flee the country. Most of them would not return to their ancient homeland.
Official history also drew on hypocrisy. Additional events that had worsened conditions for the people of Mount Lebanon, such as locusts or crooked traders, were blamed for the whole disaster. In Lebanon, we never officially spoke about the requisitions or deportations, or of the bishops that were court martialed and executed. About the silos of wheat that were gutted, sacked, and burnt; they were never mentioned.
Even worse, we wanted to meet the Other by becoming the Other, by adopting his language, his history, his literature, and his own national narrative. Total acculturation took hold over Christian schools, which no longer transmitted anything of the ancestral Syriac language or long national history. These educational institutions opted for total assimilation by copying the Other. But one cannot establish a dialogue with the copy of oneself. What should have been a close encounter, degenerated and sunk into a monologue of reductive and destructive narcissism.
The Ideology of the Fusion of the Peoples
The new nation was built on a bed of lies and self-denial. Can a people who desist from everything that constitutes it, who discontinue all its human and cultural particulars, find its place in the hall of nations? To build Greater Lebanon, it was decided to sacrifice historical Lebanon by erasing all the characteristics and virtues that make up its unique human and cultural capital. These characteristics are precisely the needed ingredients for a healthy body politic, and their disappearance makes Lebanon vulnerable to all external influences and neighboring conflicts.
We cannot build and evolve as a people or build a nation on the denigration of the essential, the existential. We considered the differences between the inhabitants of Historical Lebanon and those of the peripheral regions as obstacles to coexistence. These cultural, historical, and linguistic differences were thus sacrificed on the altar of national unity.
This ideology of fusion of the peoples as if they were vulgar metals has above all prevented us from seeing clearly, from listening with interest to Robert de Caix de Saint-Aymour, and from seeking an inclusive political system able to incorporate cultural and religious diversity and include historical aspects of the different components of Greater Lebanon.
It was not with the technical advantages bequeathed to us by first the Catholic missionaries and then by France, and it was not with the advanced infrastructures left to us by the Ottomans and then the French, that we could build a nation. A port, tram-, rail-, and road-network, electricity- and water-plants, a postal service and telegraph, or even hospitals and universities, all are not the fundamental ingredients of a state; certainly not of a nation. Even less the “double negations” bitterly denounced by Georges Naccache.
The nation-state, whose ability to overcome crises sets it apart from the state itself, is made up of much more than the above material benefits and utilities. It is a collection of common aspirations, of vision, myths, and a national narrative. Above all, it is the result of a historical journey carried by faith, culture, and language. These intangible guarantors of identity cannot be the subject of concessions and compromises. They are the very essence of who we are. You cannot build a nation on lies, let alone amnesia. Because, as Rémy de Gourmont said so well, “When a people no longer dares to defend its language, it is ripe for slavery.”
* Kafno, which means famine in the Syriac language, is the name of the Great Famine-Genocide of Mount Lebanon between 1914 and 1918.
** Garshouné, which means foreign(er), is the so-called writing of a foreign language (in this case Arabic) using the Syriac alphabet.