Kamal Salibi, crossroads to the man


In 2009, at the death of David Dodge, a former president of the American University of Beirut, I wrote that one might be tempted to portray his passing as a page turned in the American educational and moral enterprise in the Middle East, which began during the mid-19th century. However, I disagreed with such an assessment. To me, the page was turned when Malcolm Kerr, another AUB president, was assassinated in January 1984. That dark moment more truly marked the end of a dialogue between Western humanism and the culture of the Arab world, mediated by optimistic Yankee Protestants.

But I hadn’t yet met Kamal Salibi. His death last week at the age of 82 represented a new closing chapter in Beirut’s declining relationship with the objective rationalism and confidence that AUB’s founders sought to instill, which found its highest expression in that complex, contradictory Anglican of Greek Orthodox origin from the mountain town of Bhamdoun. For those fortunate enough to have met Salibi, what shone through was a Protestant ideal: modesty, invariably more pronounced for contrasting with Lebanese grandiloquence.

I met Salibi late in his life, through a mutual friend, a protege and student of his named Makram Rabah. Salibi’s Ras Beirut apartment was functional, a nice painting here and there, but otherwise without superfluities, a time machine of sorts back to the 1960s. At the appropriate moment, it was the end of the day, he served scotch, enjoying his momentary release to vice. His latest discovery was Facebook, affirming that Salibi, though he did not go out at night, was the most sociable of men. Yet he could readily turn a decapitating phrase against those he disliked, or an insightful compliment, when required.

I hadn’t read all of Salibi’s books when meeting him, but somehow he didn’t make you feel that this mattered. However, his “The Modern History of Lebanon” had long been a valuable companion in my research, as had his “Crossroads to Civil War: Lebanon 1958-1976,” even though the work was soon overwhelmed by the monumental conflict whose origins it aspired to chronicle. However, it was “A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered” that has proven to be Salibi’s most influential book, and rightly so.

The essence of the book is modesty, and I would add Protestant modesty. That’s because Salibi approaches his subject from the standpoint of an individual belonging to a minority maneuvering among more forceful, numerically larger minorities. A friend once noted, citing the sociologist Ahmad Beydoun, that the better historians of Lebanon were those from marginal religious sects, including Salibi, but also Edmond Rabbath and Zein Zein, who could take their distance from a narrative shaped principally by Maronites and Sunnis during the years when modern Lebanon was finding its feet.

“A House of Many Mansions” is a product of modesty because it is constructed around the most modest of urges: to doubt. Salibi’s mission is to examine critically the contending views of Lebanese history – essentially the historical myths that Lebanon’s communities have adopted to assert their own prevailing ideologies against the other Lebanese communities. It is a subtle, devastating book, fundamentally out of joint with what so many Lebanese take as truth.

The German political scientist Theodor Hanf astutely remarked near the end of Lebanon’s war that “A House of Many Mansions” could potentially serve as a core post-war reference for Lebanese students, a unifying text in a country deeply divided by historical interpretation. Yet that quality is why Salibi’s book was never made, and never will be made, to serve such a worthy objective. Lebanon is not a country where communities are partial to the truth when it clashes with their self-image, let alone with tradition perpetuating a stalemate in power.

That could be one explanation for Salibi’s intriguing love-hate relationship with the Maronites. In one sense, he was doubly predisposed and indisposed toward the Maronites. Predisposed as a historian, for he could not avoid being fascinated by a community whose rise in the 19th and 20th centuries was, in many respects, that of Lebanon itself – a community that became the life-force of the modern Lebanese state; and predisposed as a Protestant, and through his ancestors as a Greek Orthodox, for Salibi could not help but be enthralled by Maronite affirmation as a stand-in for wider Christian affirmation, therefore partly Protestant affirmation, which his own minority within a minority could never replicate.

And yet fascination can also carry with it revulsion. Salibi was conceivably doubly indisposed to the Maronites from his vantage point as a Protestant and a Greek Orthodox, for what is the story of the weaker Christian sects than a yearning to strike back against what they deem to be Maronite hegemony? So that even as Salibi wrote about the Maronites, and published a monograph on their historians, his most potent weapon against the weight of Maronite historiography (and not only Maronite historiography) was skepticism, expressed through a reconsideration of Lebanese history.

Toward the end Salibi seemed torn between despair with what he identified as a Christian, and specifically a Maronite, impulse for self-destruction, and anxiety with how such communal suicide might adversely affect the Christian presence in the Arab world. In an interview with Now Lebanon in 2007, he lamented that Christians “are so bent on destroying themselves … [I]t seems that they enjoy the lack of charity more than they enjoy life for some reason.”

Now here was a forgotten word: charity. Charity, modesty, temperance, diligence, all virtues that this unique professor had learned from those sturdy American Protestants of yesteryear, in whose educational institution he had thrived, now erected by Salibi as barriers against a Lebanon, in particular a Christian Lebanon, that seemed to be going in a different direction than what he would have preferred. But this Christian Lebanon, concurrently attractive and repulsive, vital and reckless, was a profound part of Kamal Salibi, a man of myriad personalities, a house of many mansions.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster). He tweets @BeirutCalling.

Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Opinion/Columnist/2011/Sep-08/148236-kamal-salibi-crossroads-to-the-man.ashx#ixzz1XgL3sDDN
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News :: http://www.dailystar.com.lb)

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