I’ve been on the road for the past week, conducting dissertation research at the wonderful collection of Arabic manuscripts at Leiden University. A note: when in Holland, eat Indonesian food.
Nothing seems to be happening in Lebanon these days, so allow me to take this opportunity to wax ascerbic about one of my favorite subjects: political Maronitism. The foil? A humdinger of an interview with Eli Khoury (president of the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation and publisher of NOW Lebanon), conducted by Michael J. Totten.
The interview is interesting for all kinds of reasons, but see below for the bit that I’d like to discuss.
MJT: I want to ask you something about the Maronites. Before I visited Lebanon, I knew most Maronites didn’t self-identify as Arabs. I used to think that was ridiculous, that you guys were being reactionary. I apologize for that.
Eli Khoury: You get it now?
MJT: Yes. It wasn’t fair of me to impose the Arab label on you. But it didn’t occur to me how unfair it was until I went to Northern Iraq and talked to the Kurds. Those people also live in an Arab majority country and insist they aren’t Arabs. And when they say they aren’t Arabs, the world says “Okay, you aren’t Arabs.” So why is it the Kurds get to be recognized as non-Arabs, but Lebanese Maronites don’t?
Eli Khoury: There is a problem that lies in the hands of the Maronites themselves. A big portion of the Maronites would deny that Maronites are Arab. Maronites are originally Aramaic. St. Maron came here from Syria with a few monks, lived up in these mountains, and converted the people around him. The Maronites are originally from this land. In fact, National Geographic did a study on genes in Lebanon and found that the Sunnis are more Phoenician than the Maronites.
MJT: I imagine they would be since the Phoenicians lived on the coast like the Sunnis do.
Eli Khoury: Anyhow, historically there were the Aramaics. And they thought the only way to fight off the Ottoman Empire was by creating Arab nationalities. In fact if you ask a lot of Sunnis or Muslims they’ll tell you that those who created Arab Nationalism were the Maronites and those who created Syrian Nationalism were the Greek Orthodox here. At the end of the day, they fought off the Ottoman Empire by becoming Arabs.
They started translating the Bible and all the liturgy into Arabic and started teaching their kids Arabic. That was maybe 100 years ago. There are a few towns that still speak Aramaic on the borders of Syria and Lebanon. It was a Maronite decision, a clergy decision, an elite decision, to join the Arabs.
There were people who opposed that. There is a historic debate among the Maronites. One side says no, we are not Arabs, the other says yes, we are Arabs. I belong to the side that says we are not. That doesn’t mean I’m an enemy of the Arabs. But I’m not an Arab. In my opinion, it was a historic mistake. And I think the Maronites are paying the price.
MJT: How so?
Eli Khoury: We were not able to maintain neutrality during the Arab-Israeli wars because we were labeled Arabs. The Taef Agreement [that ended Lebanon's civil war] was the first time the constitution of Lebanon actually said that we’re Arabs. We didn’t have that before.
MJT: I’ve met Shias who say they aren’t Arabs, and that surprised me.
Eli Khoury: That’s easy. That’s normal. Shias and Maronites agree on this.
MJT: How many Shias agree?
Eli Khoury: I think a good portion of the elite. It’s the same way in Iraq. You have to understand that the Levant was originally not Arab.
MJT: Of course. Of course.
Eli Khoury: Okay, so Syria and Iraq decided to become Arab, and Jordan. But Lebanon up until thirty years ago was not an Arab country.
Where does one begin? How about with the facts? Seems as good a place as any.
First of all — and I feel slightly ridiculous even making this argument — Maronites actually are Arabs. And not just today’s Tonys and Charbels and Pierres. Ok? The medieval Tonys and Charbels and Pierres were Arabs too. If we’re really going to make a big deal out of ethno-linguistic ancestry, then let’s at least get the facts straight.
Here’s what Kamal Salibi, one of the greatest living scholars of Maronite (and Lebanese) history, has to say on the subject:
“While the Maronites have traditionally used Syriac for their liturgy, they appear to have been Arab rather than Aramaeo-Arab in ethnic origin; their ecclesiastical and secular literature, as known directly or from reference from as early as the 10th century A.D., is entirely in Arabic. Their ethnic difference from other Syrian Christians, who were mainly Aramaean or Aramaeo-Arab, might explain in part why they came to be organised as a separate church. The claim of the community to be descended from the Mardaites, first advanced by the Patriarch Istifan al-Duwayhi (1668-1704), is historically incredible.”
Does this resolve the issue to everyone’s satisfaction? No? Ok, let’s say that Kamal Salibi is wrong and that Eli Khoury is right. Let’s say that St. Maron himself was absolutely, positively 100% non-Arab. And let’s say that everyone that he converted was also non-Arab. Are we to believe that over the centuries, this little non-Arab community managed to remain pristine and self-propagating in its mountain enclaves, and that those medieval Tonys and Charbels and Pierres only ever made little Tonys and Charbels and Pierres with the girls next door (i.e. the medieval Georgettes and Cristals and Yvonnes)?
Give me a break, people. The claim that the Maronites only began teaching their children Arabic 100 years ago is mindboggling. When one reads non-liturgical Maronite manuscripts from the pre-modern period, they are virtually always in Arabic. The idea that a bunch of Maronite priests got together and hatched a plan to pretend to be Arabs so that they could “fight off the Ottoman Empire” is puzzling on so many levels. When did they do this fighting, exactly? I thought it was the British and the French that defeated the Sick Man of Europe. Oh wait a second… who got the Sick Man of Europe sick in the first place? The Maronites, of course…
The reason I feel ridiculous even making these arguments is because it strikes me as entirely wrong-headed to approach the question of Maronite (or Sunni or Shiite or Druze) identity from an ethnic perspective.
After all, given the historical span that is operative here (thousands of years), we are talking about so many different languages, dynasties, religions, cultures, sub-cultures, invaders, empires, importations, exportations… how can one imagine that anything essentially “Arab” or “Aramaic” could be preserved?
What matters, surely, is not whether “the Maronites” (assuming we can even talk about such an entity today, given the circumstances) are Arabs or Phoenicians or Aramaeans or Klingons; what matters is what they think they are.
Tomorrow, back to Boston!