Charles Corm and the Lebanese Spirit

A business magnate, author, poet, and philanthropist. Charles Corm built his empire to serve his nation. The authors of the Lebanese national novel were patriarchs such as Estéphanos Douaihy, bishops such as Gabriel Barcleius, and intellectuals such as Charles Corm. They founded Lebanon in people's minds before helping in its construction.

This article was originally published in French by Ici Beyrouth on January 7, 2023. The original can be found here.

By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon

A novel. That is what the history of a nation is. Not a dry discipline of science consisting of a collection of cold facts. No, above all, it is a novel. It is on this fictionalized writing that identity is developed and peoples are established. And it is these peoples that produce nations. Author Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869) foresaw a great destination for Lebanon when he wrote: “Egypt (of Mehemet Ali) has but a man; But Lebanon has a people”. The authors of the Lebanese national novel were patriarchs such as Estéphanos Douaihy, bishops such as Gabriel Barcleius, and intellectuals such as Charles Corm. They founded Lebanon in people’s minds before helping in its construction.

Charles Corm (left, waving), at the headquarters of Charles Corm & Co. in Haifa.

A business magnate and philanthropist

Charles Corm had a very special fate. He built his empire as a business magnate, author, poet, and philanthropist, and then put it all at the service of his nation. In 1911, when he was only 17 years old, he graduated from Saint Joseph University and at the same time received an honorary prize in philosophy. The following year he traveled to New York, where he became fascinated with the skyscrapers and cars that criss-crossed the city. He would return there after the Great War, hopping on to Detroit, to meet Henry Ford there. He succeeded in acquiring Ford Motor Company’s right of concession for the entire Middle East, from Turkey to Iran. Charles Corm introduced the black T-Fords to all capitals of the region and acquired wealth and quality connections in diplomatic, artistic, and literary circles.

Passionate about New York, he built the headquarters of the Ford company in Achrafié in 1929 in the form of a skyscraper that remained the tallest building in Lebanon until 1967. In 1928 he himself designed the plans for this remarkable and emblematic building with vertical architecture. The restored building now houses the Charles Corm Foundation. Endowed with a Phoenician Cultural Center and seat of the Phoenician Review, it is now affiliated with Saint-Joseph University.

Charles Corm and Co. would quickly become the largest multinational corporation in the Middle East, establishing itself as a patron of culture, of road and rail infrastructure, of building the National Museum, National Library, National Conservatory, and even Parliament. Above all, Charles Corm wanted to promote Lebanon’s image in the world. To this end, he funded and created the Lebanese pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, with an exhibition of renowned artist Saliba Douaihy. Corm’s comrade, Saïd Akl, said of him that he “spent his own money to build the political, social, and cultural benchmarks needed to support our vision of Lebanon.”

The gardens and the residence of Charles Corm (ex-headquarters of the Ford Motor Company) taking up the aesthetics of the Empire State building.

A guarantor of identity

Like any self-respecting nation, Lebanon too had to be endowed with its own art. To this end, Charles Corm founded the Phoenician Review in 1919 and published extensively on Phoenician art. He also wrote his famous book 6000 ans de Génie pacifique au service de l’humanité, in which he established the principle of continuity between modern Lebanon and Phoenician antiquity.

His Phoenician milieu would become the obligatory entourage for Lebanese and foreign intellectuals as well as nationalists. Together with wise men like former presidents Émile Eddé and Alfred Naccache, or before them the Syriac Maronite bishop of Beirut Ignatios Mubarak, he had spoken in favor of maintaining the French mandate over Lebanon, because the country was still too fragile and unfinished to be left to its own fate.

His curiosity about the country’s culture led him to take an interest in that of his immediate neighbors, notably the Druze of the mountain of Soueida, in his book Le Volcan Embrasé, and the Armenians of Cilicia in his book Les Ciliciennes. In La Montagne inspirée (The Inspired Mountain), published in 1934, Corm wanted to express his identity. This poetic work, translated into English, won the Edgar Allan Poe International Prize for Poetry.

In La Montagne inspirée, Charles Corm searched for the foundations of his identity, history, and existence. “But sadness, sadness, unspeakable sadness!” he had exclaimed: “Our grandmothers spoke Syriac in Ghazir. The Syriac language where the Phoenician skill and its harsh desire live through.”

As a French-speaking and convinced Francophile, he couldn’t help but emphasize the primacy of the indigenous language as the basis of the national culture. He lamented that “a nation is an orphan if it has no language of its own. Others’ languages remain a borrowed costume. How doubtful, shameful, puny, bloodless, strange and importunate one appears there!”

Document from the French military government addressed to Charles Corm, civil director of supplies, from 1918 to 1919. Dates from the end of the aid mission.

Kafno: The Great Famine

In Les miracles de la Madone aux sept douleurs, he exposed all the details of the atrocity of the Great Famine. Since he did not have a camera, he drew the dying people on the sidewalks. In the field of drawing, he reconnected with his father Daoud Corm, a great artist of Lebanese church paintings and mentor of Gibran Khalil Gibran. Charles wanted to show eyewitness(es) of this most painful memory. Without false modesty, he described the torture suffered by his fellow citizens. This torture, which he saw with his own eyes at a young age, he described and fought. After contributing in his own way to help the victims of the Great Famine, he was appointed by the French upon liberation in 1918 to take on the organization of civilian aid supplies in Beirut.

It is not necessary to recall in depth that the French aid sent by Commander Albert Trabaud and Bishop Paul Akl’s militia had to be carried out at night, because the Ottomans forbade any aid likely to reduce the number of victims of hunger.

There is no need to bring back the stories of wheat burned or spilled into the sea when its transportation to Damascus proved impossible, or to recall the confiscated stocks of seeds and dried fruits, the beasts of burden requisitioned, the cut forests, the endless obstacles put in place to obstruct Governor Ohannes Kouyoumdjian’s silo projects to save the people of Mount Lebanon. The arrests, the military tribunal, the numerous archives of the Quai d’Orsay or the American Red Cross, all seem so pale compared to the poignant stories of our grandmothers.

What David Corm tells us about his father is a reality that stands still alive, an open wound, in the face of  the negation of the Kafno Holocaust. Charles Corm was arrested for feeding starving children. This living testimony annihilates all the relativist theories that still apply to drown in scholarly analyses the martyrs of the Mount Lebanon genocide.

Sketches by Charles Corm, depicting the scenes of suffering under Kafno (the Great Famine) in “Les miracles de la Madone aux sept douleurs” or “The Miracles of the Madonna of the Seven Sorrows”.

Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar is an architect and the former president of the Syriac Maronite Union – Tur LevnonAmine Jules Iskandar has written several articles on the Syriac Maronites, their language, culture, and history. You can follow him @Amineiskandar2

For the article in Spanish see Maronitas.org