Monday, March 28, 2005

Lebanese Sectarianism - the discussion continues...


Thank you for you complements... I really appreciate them.

You responded to my specific observations with broad generalizations about where you feel Lebanon is headed.

I cannot hold you to it, because I think that if I were in your shoes, I'd probably do the same - most likely with less skill than you.

With regards to some of the points you make, I will state the following:

I would like to believe that Lebanese behave the way they do because the country is still in an initial phase of the "development process." I would also like to believe that dynamic systems always correct themselves for the better. A good counter-example to that claim is the re-segregation of American schools that is taking place today as whites and blacks willingly move to separate neighborhoods and send their kids to all-white & all-black schools. However, people here are noticing that development, and trying their best to arrest it.

The thing I keep on having to remind myself about Lebanon is that we don't have to just live together - we've been doing that for ages. We have to start thinking about how it is we want to live together.

A friend once told me that the diversity in America shocked her after leaving Lebanon (which she thought was one of the most diverse countries in the world). My response to her was that in America you have 300 people with different backgrounds, and in Lebanon, you have 20. The difference is that those 300 people each have their own apartment, whereas those 20 all live in one room.

The issue here is not physical space; it is psychological. I feel that in Lebanon, we live with a village mentality in the internet age. People (especially our parents) still judge each other and interact as if they were living in a village. Not only is their “group mentality” very strong, but the criteria for someone to be included in that group is ridiculously rigid. It’s almost like, if someone enters a house with his left foot instead of his right, he is automatically disqualified from consideration.

Whether or not this kind of behavior was a virtue a century ago, when the main form of transportation was horses and donkeys, is not for me to decide. But during an era when thousands of Lebanese from all over the country come together in one university campus, this behavior becomes ridiculous. Have any of you noticed how Lebanese insist on retaining their “village identities” even though their families have been living in Beirut for generations? My reaction to this is why? Why haven’t I grown up believing that I am part of the “cosmopolitan community” in Beirut, rather than a village that I barely visit twice a year? Mustapha, you and I, and the majority of other Lebanese bloggers think in a similar fashion, so why do we still identify ourselves with towns or sects even though we are probably more similar to each other than we’ll ever be to our cousins or relatives?

As I said in my previous post, our whole psychology needs to change. This is no easy task… and success is questionable. However, my hope is that this huge national gathering that took place only a couple of weeks ago will nudge things towards the right direction. In other words, I am hoping for an acceleration of Mustapha’s “development process.”


Solomon2 said...

My response to her was that in America you have 300 people with different backgrounds, and in Lebanon, you have 20. The difference is that those 300 people each have their own apartment, whereas those 20 all live in one room.

I suppose you mean to say that each "group" in America can pretty much create its own community, either geographically, politically, or socially, whereas in Lebanon everyone treads on everyone else's feet, or that there isn't enough alternatives and some resources (Universities, schools, churches, mosques, governments) must be shared to an extent that can be uncomfortable.

Creating the necessary psychological space is certainly a difficult task but not an impossible one. The U.S.A. was conceived, in its Constitution, as a nation with divided sovereignty where most powers, including important police, judicial, and military powers, remained at the State and local levels.

The trend towards centralization began with the Civil War and was accelerated by many subsequent factors -- but by then, we felt ourselves secure in our national identity.

hummbumm said...

Raja, Amen, I could live my whole life in Beirut and not be a beirutie, no i would be from a village in the mountain. Of course if i divulged the name of the ancestral village, one that i have never ever lived in, where my dad never lived in but where my grandfather was born, I would be pigeonholed into a specific lebanese identity. Given that my mother is american, and my grandmother on my father's side is the daughter of swiss-german missionaries, I obviously find my lebanese village identity constricting and very wrong. BUT, this is how the bulk of the lebanese perceive me. In fact given my last name, no one needs to know my village either. I come from a "big" family so I have always had doors open to me, but that priviledge pales next to the freedom and comfort I feel in building my own life in the States, based on me as an individual. It is sad that many of our generation, in many ways worldy and cosmopolitan in the best sense of the words, do still cling to those roots. Knowing where you came from is good, but not if it limits you. These issues are still rife within lebanon. I am hopeful that the mingling in martyrs square and the sharing of a common goal do begin to build real bridges.

Raja said...


Concerning the quality of relationships in Lebanon, I guess you're right. There's nothing like feeling someone is "on your side" for no particular reason - except that by mere coincidence you happen to be related. In fact, I'd be lying if I said that it doesn't feel good.

However, the downside of all this is the type of relationships you have. Since the only thing that brings you together is family bonds, most of what you talk about concerns other family members and “outsiders”! Let me give you an example to elaborate:

Lebanese are supposed to have a panache for "talking politics." However, if you actually listen to what they're saying you'll realize that they're basically talking “family-talk” on a larger scale! So, instead of chatting about how stupid your uncle is, or how selfish your aunt can be... you chat about how stupid that clan is (read sect) or how selfish that other clan is.

The only benefit that I can see coming out of such a network of tight relationships is “social order” within the separate communities. Everybody is scared to do something stupid because they're watching out for their (and their family's) reputation.

However, the price for this social order is phenomenal! It comes at the expense of

a real national identity,
zeal for the future and progress,
the "trust" that thinkingman brought up,
women’s rights,
and the list goes on and on....

The issue here is not space or “democracy.” It is a problem with attitudes... with the way people perceive their world and interact with each other. That is the reason I brought up the "to do" culture that exists among Americans. I am hypothesizing that once people start to identify themselves with what they do rather than what village or family their come from, they, and Lebanon as a whole, might end up better off. How do you do that? I don’t know. I can tell you that whatever the eventual solution, education and government will have a big role to play.

I also wish I could organize a national conference; a conference where Lebanese could sit down and decide whether the price of their coveted “social order” is really worth it. But since that is simply impossible, I wonder how I could get them to think about that. Anyone have any ideas?

Brian H said...

"Ihath" at, in her essay "Losing my Mother-in-Law", has the following passage:

". “It is hard being a foreigner all my life, but I got used to it,” she told me. Yeah! I could relate to her feelings, I have been a foreigner all my life as well. Turns out that Kufer Kana is a 15 minute walk from Mash-had. Since Mash-had in on a hill top you could see Kufer Kana by standing on the top of the house roof." This is just outside Nazareth. I guess the attitudes are about the same.

Brian H said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Doha said...


Interesting insights you bring forth. I do agree with you that the culture of what you do is not important here in Lebanon and it's not only a question of how we compartmentalize ourselves into family, clan, sect, and region clusters, but gender plays a large role.

I love politics, have studied it, and work in it as well. When I return home, I suddenly become a woman...bound to certain "scripted" roles, even to scripted dialogues and conversations. It doesn't matter then what you do; perhaps women in our part of the world are in order to respect placed based on their marital status...And it's not that I don't long to have a family of my own, but what bogs any woman down is that the efforts she places in what is called a "man's world" are brushed aside at times...

Raja said...


ultimately, I think it is up to people like you and me to stay the course, and change things back home.

I'm determined to change things before I leave this world!

Raja said...

Oh, and by the way, I just wanted to add that the solution is not some deep-seeded "mystery" that needs to be found. It's very simple!

All Mustapha, raja, Tony and Ali need to do is realize that they're all doctors. That they have an association, and therefore, the best thing to do would be to come to an agreement on what policies would benefit their profession most. Who knows? Maybe they can contract that task out to Darius, the Economist!

The point is that when they do come to an agreement concerning policies, they form a united political front and lobby the government to adopt them.

It only makes sense, right? What benefits their profession is supposed to benefit them individually!!!

I find it interesting that whereas here in the United States, professions and interest groups infiltrate the political parties to pursue their own goals; in Lebanon, the politics is reversed completely.

You hear things like: Oh the President of the Engineering Association is "Aoun's man"... or the President of the Doctor's Association is "Berri's man."

We have it all Backwards!!! Who benefits from the fact that Berri or Aoun has "his man" as head of the Doctor's association other than the head himself (and his team)?

This is starting to sound like our national politics! ;)

Anyways, it is all kind of ridiculous.

And I just want to add that in my opinion, this behavior comes in a package that includes many other "kwirks," including what doha mentioned in her earlier comment.

Zeyad said...

Well it's not so different here in Iraq. We have a modern society on the outside, but in reality, your tribal, sectarian and regional background determines and dominates everything. So basically we're still living in a medieval society (the correct sequence is usually familial/sectarian/tribal/regional)

"Where are you from?", "What's your tribe?" and "What family?", are the usual questions you get when you meet someone in Iraq. The other person will base his judgement of you solely on your answers to these questions. You would notice relief all over the person's face if your 'background' turns out to be the same or close to his. It doesn't matter if your personality is the complete opposite, or that you might hate this person's guts. If you are in a strange town, that person will offer everything he has to accommodate and assist you.

When I was in Basrah during my internship. People who I have never met my whole life, but who share my 'background' would confide in me, offer me help and basically trash their neighbours or friends (from the other background) in front of me just because I am automatically someone who is supposed to be trusted.

They would ask questions like "shlonhum ahalna fi baghdad?" (how are our 'people' in Bagdad?)

The other 'side' would respond with "Oh.. so you're from ---, from the --- family/clan.." Needless to say, this 'other' will never perceive me the same again, and it doesn't matter if we share the same ideals or opinions.

I can't deny that it can be comforting. To feel you have someone you can 'automatically' trust or rely on . But it's a whole different matter when it comes to politics though.

It's obvious that our societies can survive in this manner for thousands of years to come. We all live together and will continue to.

Zeyad said...

By the way. Karfan, the new Syrian blogger has touched on something very similar in this post, We Belong. A definite must read.