Across the Bay

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Tarek Mitri, Phoenicianist?

In his excellent book, Reviving Phoenicia, Asher Kaufman notes how pervasive the Phoenicianist narrative is in Lebanon today, even among people who are not traditionally associated with it, and even among people hostile to it.

Kaufman writes:

One of the official websites of Prime Minsiter Rafiq al-Hariri well reflects this conviction: "We are heirs to a history which spans thousands of years and whose beginnings are lost in the mists of time itself," Hariri writes in his address to his fellow Lebanese, "The alphabet was born in our land. It was from the shores of Sidon and Tyre that sailors ventured to establish the first Mediterranean empire." The assertion that Lebanon's history, even as an Arab country, begins with the ancient Phoenicians has almost become conventional wisdom. Even historians who oppose this narrative fall into its description. As'ad AbuKhalil, for example, in his Historical Dictionary of Lebanon, writes in the introduction: "Lebanese ultra-nationalists, who have dominated the official historiography of the country, claim that Lebanon has been in continued existence for over 5000 years and that the present-day country is no more than an extension of the ancient Phoenician kingdom(s). In reality Lebanon is a modern phenomenon;[...]." The book, however, unfolds with a chronological list, beginning with the Canaanite occupation of Sidon and Tyre in 2800 BC and continuing to the Egyptian occupation of the Phoenician coast, the Phoenician expansion towards the sea, the founding of Carthage, the most famous Phoenician colony, and so forth, demonstrating the power of the Phoenician narrative that infiltrated even studies that defy it as a figment of Lebanese ultra-nationalist imagination. (p. 1)

One can debate why Hariri chose to adopt the narrative. One could argue, as Fouad Ajami almost did, that Hariri's mercantilism and pragmatism, made him sympathetic to the Lebanonist narrative (esp. Michel Chiha's version), Mediterraneanism, and thus also open to the inherent mercantile nature of the Phoenicianist narrative. In fact, if one were to indulge analyzing Hariri's quote above, one could see Hariri's own personal experience and ambitions injected into the Phoenicianist narrative. The reference to Sidon, Hariri's birthplace, and the "Mediterranean empire," might be such indicators.

Why do I bring this up? I just spotted this statement by Lebanon's Minister of Culture, Tarek Mitri, a Greek Orthodox (thus, like Hariri, not traditionally associated with Phoenicianism), remarking on UNESCO's inclusion of Phoenician and other ancient artifacts in its collection of worldwide rare documents. Mitri said: "Now Lebanon will have a unified memory of its past ... Instead of always reflecting over a fragmented past based on the Civil War, Lebanese can now look further back and realize a far deeper and common history that unities them all."

How interesting. Although, I should perhaps note that my interest in and view on Phoenicianism isn't quite Mitri's.


PS: Although that twit AbuKhalil haughtily (and dishonestly) pooh-poohed scholars writing on Lebanon for their supposed "political and ideological bias" (although it was all his own fabrication), his own pathetic introduction to his Historical Dictionary is not just a poor and confused piece of writing, but also reflects how those who criticize Lebanon's Phoenicianist narrative themselves read the past with the bias of their ideological and political premises. In As'ad's case, one needs to add deep psychological issues to ideological and political bias. Witness the following statements from p. 6 of that useless intro. The section is "Ancient and Medieval Times":

While Lebanese ancient roots are subject to imaginary national speculation, it is certain that the area that is Lebanon has been settled since ancient times. The Phoenicians, however, did not create a glorious civilization and did not form one nation. They were, instead, divided, into several city-kingdoms, and their divisions allowed external powers, primarily Egypt, to control them.
It is probable that the Phoenicians learned from neighboring peoples.
The exploitation of Lebanon's forests, almost totally extinct today, was a common feature of ancient foreign rule of the country. Lebanon was subject to foreign occupation and external influences. (Emphasis added.)

It doesn't take a genius to see how all As'ad's writing and ranting amounts to is polemics. Now you understand his "Hummus" references to anything having to do with Lebanon. More than that, his harping about the lack of unity in the past is nothing more than a modern frustration with sectarianism, and his belief that Lebanon is not viable as a state. Ironically, he becomes a bad clone of the cliché "if only the Lebanese would unite, no foreigner would be able to exploit them..." Incidentally, the Italian city-states, or even the ancient Greek city-states, were also competitive and divided, and constantly at war. One would hardly apply the same judgment to them as As'ad does to the Phoenician cities.

Then the contemporary (boring) anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-globalization As'ad peaks through in his point about "foreign empires exploiting resources." Then the bizarre, completely out of place, reference to Lebanon always being subject to foreign occupation and influences, is really not a note about the past. One only needs to read As'ad's current rants about how Lebanon "never was and is still not independent," etc. (yawn...)

The line about the Phoenicians only learning from their neighbors is hilarious! As'ad is dying to strip the Phoenicians (read: the Lebanese) of any originality that he just goes hysterical! Who does not learn or get influenced by neighboring civilizations!? Such a silly statement. I repeat: yawn.

Plus ça change. But As'ad is so unoriginal it's almost sad. This is why he needs that contrarian wanna-be act (with a healthy dash of dishonesty when necessary). Otherwise, he's got nothin'.