By Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon
Since its independence in 1946, Lebanon has never sought to build itself on sound and solid foundations, nor to endow itself with an identity let alone a raison d’être. As early as 1949, barely three years after the departure of the last French soldiers and officials, journalist and founder of the French-speaking Lebanese daily L’Orient, Georges Naccache, was shocked by the state of decline and “disarray” of his country after returning from a stay abroad. In just a few months, everything fell apart and into disrepair. Lebanon was already visibly deconstructing itself. Electric cables were lying here and there, worn out phone boxes were next to new ones supposed to replace them. The dismal state of roads and public buildings and the attitude of civil servants and state officials; “All images that evoke the distress of ungoverned things,” revolted this journalist in his painful lucidity in the face of the widespread lethargy.
The recklessness of this state without vision and without conscience, challenged personalities such as Presidents Alfred Naccache and Emile Eddé, intellectuals such as Charles Corm and Fouad Ephrem Boustani, as well as prelates such as Patriarch Antoine Pierre Arida and Bishop of Beirut Ignatius Mubarac. All opposed the mercantile and irresponsible policies of President Béchara el Khoury (1943-1952), the patriarch going as far as to excommunicate him. For these intellectuals, the nation could not be built on an identity of nothingness. The Volkstum, or national culture as defined by Johann Fichte, was the sine qua non for building a stable and viable state. Therefore, Charles Corm produced a work on Phoenician art, and the Maronite patriarch ordered the publishing of books for learning the Syriac language. Bishop Ignatius of Beirut insisted on Lebanon’s belonging to the Mediterranean world, and Professor Boustani denounced the country’s – culturally unjustified – membership of the Arab League. However, all these warnings were brushed aside by feudal dynasties who made politics a family affair and took pride in their virtuosity in reinventing balances between sects.
These confessional balances were obtained by emptying the two scales of the balance. We have weighed the void with nothing. The official history taught by the state suppressed all the centuries from the end of pagan Phoenicia to the beginning of the Maan dynasty, i.e., the period when the Maronite Church was formed and when Islam arrived in the Levant. This cultural desert has allowed speculation to run rampant, turning this land into a completely empty space where today’s components have ended up after the seventh century AD.
Courage and audacity
The champions of independence did everything to stifle history, indirectly attacking architectural and urban heritage considered to be worthless. In his book “Totalitarisme et Avant-Gardes,” French philosopher Philippe Sers demonstrates the crucial role played by art not only in the construction of identity and spirituality, but also in the process of human liberation. Art calls out, it denounces and, thereby, confronts the totalitarianism that it unmasks and deconstructs. Where is our resistance today while we face a religious, terrorist and totalitarian militia? In our production machine of professionals, what have we done to spirituality? It is no longer surprising to see our youth today leaving our country as if it were a simple infested hotel. Georges Naccache warned about this a long time ago, as if it had been written one day before October 17, 2017: “We are governed in violation of all the rules of conduct of nations. We live in an acrobatic balance at the mercy of the slightest incident. The first shock will precipitate the debacle.”
Maurice Gemayel had repeatedly warned against what he called the policy of plastering. Instead, decisive action was needed, a radical turnaround. Courage and audacity were needed. But we preferred to throw Georges Naccache in prison rather than look the abyss in the face. They preferred to exile the bishop of Beirut, isolate the patriarch, and let Maurice Gemayel collapse in the hemicycle of Parliament. Because we wanted to keep the illusion alive, to keep floating in the chimeral image of the ‘holiday country’, planned as a festival and conceived as a casino.
We have managed to embellish the most distressing situations with grotesque make-up in order to avoid an in-depth revision. We have invented theories that contradict all philosophies. We have clung to misinterpretations of Christianity to justify our laxity and erasing identity, language, demographics, land and borders.
- No, Christianity does not advocate the disappearance of nations. On the contrary, in its teaching nations are equal to persons, endowed with the same inalienable rights with regard to specificity, identity and the right to property and therefore to the territory.
- No, a country cannot be constructed without history, without art, without green or built heritage, without identity and without the language which expresses this identity and inscribes it in tangible reality.
- No, emigration is far from a Phoenician quality that we can be proud of. It is just the syndrome of bitter social failure.
- No, the mercantile spirit is not genetically Phoenician, but the sickening behavior of a meanness, incompatible with the responsible policy of nations.
Bridge or message
In the virtuosity of our vocabulary, we have been able to hide a lack of frankness and discernment. Lebanon sometimes called itself “a bridge” and sometimes “a message.” It sought every escape not to have to admit its inability to be what it simply is supposed to be: a country. On this, Georges Naccache wrote rightly, as if he wrote it today, “Lebanon, for fear of simply being what it is, and by dint of wanting to be neither this nor that, realizes that it is now in danger of being nothing at all “.
For many clairvoyants, a serious, courageous and radical initiative would only be possible after the total collapse of all state and private institutions, when there is nothing more to lose. But behold, the general collapse has already taken place and there is no change in behavior. Politicians continue to champion the tinkering and “patching” up of a stillborn country, rather than inventing and starting a concrete process which can really empower our future.
To again use one of Georges Naccache’s premonitory expressions; how many more times are we going to “pay the price for the embraces of Gemmayzé and Basta?” It is not with slogans and moving images that you save a country adrift. But is it really adrift? Or to be more realistic: has it ever existed? Therein lies the terrifying question that everyone is running away from. Questioning must take place at the base, because, as we now know, “two negations will never make a nation”.
Dr Amine Jules Iskandar is an architect and the former president of the Syriac Maronite Union – Tur Levnon. Amine Jules Iskandar has written several articles on the Syriac Maronites, their language, culture, and history. You can follow him @Amineiskandar2
The views expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SyriacPress.
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