|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
18 - 24 October 2001
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A Diwan of contemporary life (412)
While there had long been a constant influx of Lebanese into Egypt, the volume of Egyptian tourists to Lebanon in the summer of 1927 seemed extraordinarily high -- and Al-Ahram's chief editor was determined to find out why. In a series of articles, Daoud Barakat gave Egyptians a highly descriptive account of life in Lebanon. He described how warmly the Lebanese welcomed foreigners, especially Egyptians; how cosmopolitan and European in nature they had become since his last visit; their population explosion, emigration concerns and the problem of denominational affiliations which dogs them until today. On the Lebanese trail, Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* retraces the editor's journey into the land and the lives of its people
In 1927, a small news item caught the attention of Al-Ahram's editor-in-chief which encouraged him to visit "Lebanon and its capital," as he called the series of articles that followed his journey. The story in question reported that in the summer of 1927, some 8,200 Egyptian tourists had visited that country, not an insignificant number considering the numbers of Egyptians who could afford a summer holiday abroad at that time.
From the to: Daoud Barakat; Emir Bashir Al-Shahabi; Mohamed Ali; Salim Taqla and Butros Al-Bustani
To be sure, vacationing in Lebanon was not new. For the middle classes to whom the more fashionable resort and spa destinations of Europe were still out of reach, Lebanon's cooler climes promised a pleasant summer retreat that simultaneously offered luxury once available only to the rich. Catering to this class of vacationers were some well-established tourist companies, the most prominent being the Lebanese Resort Company, which organised relatively inexpensive overland tours to Lebanon. The route took tourists by train from Qantara to Jerusalem and Haifa, where they boarded buses or coaches for the four-hour ride to Beirut. Bookings for the direct sea journey from Alexandria to Beirut, the two largest Mediterranean ports, were also available through this company.
Still, the volume of tourism to Lebanon that summer seemed extraordinarily high, and Daoud Barakat was determined to find out why. Barakat himself was of Lebanese origin. Born in Kasrawan, he had moved to Cairo fairly early in his life and had largely lost contact with his country of origin, returning there on only two occasions, once in 1914 shortly before the outbreak of World War I and once again just after the war ended in 1918. Nine years later, in the autumn of 1927, he set off again. The result was six articles treating Egyptian-Lebanese relations and the many developments that drew Egyptian tourists to Lebanon in numbers far exceeding pre-World War I levels when Lebanon was still a province of the Ottoman Empire.
Two books -- Abdullah Mohamed Ezbawi's The Levantines in Egypt in the 18th and 19th Centuries and Ahmed Taher Hassanein's The Role of Levantine Immigrants in the Modern Literary Revival in Egypt -- provide some useful background information on Egyptian-Lebanese relations.
It is apparent from these works that there had long been a constant influx of Lebanese, particularly Maronite Christians, into Egypt, although the flow picked up dramatically following the Napoleonic expedition of 1798 and the subsequent emergence of the modern state under Mohamed Ali, who was appointed the Ottoman governor of Egypt in 1805. The Maronites quickly became the cultural bridge between Egypt and Europe. Napoleon welcomed them because of the services they offered as translators for the French, during their brief occupation, and Egyptians. Mohamed Ali needed them for the skills and industries they brought with them, which included the very lucrative silk industry as well a high ratio of literacy. Maronite scholars featured prominently in the newly instituted Qasr Al-Aini medical faculty as well as in the first Egyptian mission sent to Italy to learn the technique of the modern printing press. Among the latter, Nicolai Masabki returned to become the established master of the art in Egypt.
Lebanon had long been acquainted with the printing press as a result of the relationship between the Maronite and Roman Catholic churches. The first printing press was introduced into Lebanon in 1610 in the Qazhiya monastery and a second was set up in the monastery of John the Baptist in Showeir in 1733. The printing press founded by the American Protestant mission in Beirut in 1834 was also instrumental in disseminating information of this craft in Lebanon, and there soon followed the establishment of family-owned publishing houses, the most prominent of which were those of Al-Bustani, Sarkis and Al-Muqtatif.
In Egypt, by contrast, although the Napoleonic expedition brought a printing press in tow, Egyptians, including scholars of Al-Azhar, had no contact with it and, at any rate, it disappeared with the departure of the French. The first Egyptian printing press, therefore, was that founded by Mohamed Ali in Boulaq in 1821. And if Egypt did produce an official Gazette as early as 1828, it was not until the second half of the 19th century, when the notorious sectarian massacres in Lebanon brought another huge wave of Levantine immigrants into Egypt, that the national press was born in Cairo and Alexandria. Thus, journalists of Lebanese origin founded Al-Ahram in 1876, Al-Muqattam in 1889 and Al-Hilal in 1892 in addition to many lesser-known newspapers.
What made it so easy for Lebanese to establish themselves in Egypt was the fact that they, like Egyptians, were Ottoman subjects and, therefore, had little difficulty moving from one Ottoman province to the other. Census statistics indicate that by the end of the 19th century, large Lebanese communities had sprouted in the major cities of the Delta, notably Alexandria, Port Said, Tanta, Al-Mansoura, Al-Zaqaziq and, of course, Cairo, as well as in some cities in Upper Egypt. Members of these communities maintained contacts with their country of origin and it is not surprising that they would have figured prominently among the Egyptian tourists visiting Lebanon. In fact, such was their attachment to Lebanon that some wealthy Egyptians who suffered from failing health and were on the brink of death set sail to ensure that Lebanon would be their final resting place. The founder of Al- Ahram, Salim Taqla, and his successor, Tanious Abduh, were prime examples of Egyptians who made Lebanon their final destination. It is little wonder, therefore, that Al-Ahram should seek to keep abreast of developments in Lebanon and that Daoud Barakat's articles should feature so prominently.
There is every reason to believe that Egyptian readers read these articles as avidly as the Lebanese expatriates in their midst. According to Barakat, Egyptians were the backbone of the Lebanese tourist industry. Following far behind the 8,000 Egyptian tourists that summer, the Iraqis, at 2,000, formed the second largest contingent; the Europeans came in yet fewer numbers.
Barakat combines his promotion of tourism to Lebanon with a certain insight into the Lebanese character. The Lebanese may differ on any number of issues except the importance of tourism to their country, he writes. "In all their business activities, they are guided by the laws of profit and loss. In this endeavour, they are all of one mind and forge unswervingly ahead. The entrepreneur who plans on building a resort or hotel will spend his last piastre on it, confident of the income it will bring, and citizens never question whether the money that is put into villages to pave new roads to serve holiday-makers is being put to good use. All agree that tourists are an excellent source of income and that all measures should be taken to ensure their comfort and well-being during their stay."
Egyptian tourists could be confident of a warm welcome in Lebanon and not only because of their importance to the tourist industry. "It is enough to be Egyptian or to hail from Egypt in order to be greeted with smiles and open arms and a fondness that leaves no doubt about its sincerity." Nor would Egyptians be daunted by how far Lebanon is or feel that they are travelling to a foreign country. "Those who have been there and experienced its relaxing climate realise that the political boundaries between Egypt, Syria and Lebanon are artificial demarcations."
Barakat said the bonds of friendship between Egyptians and Lebanese dated at least as far back as the age of Mohamed Ali and Emir Bashir Al-Shahabi, whose political stance generated "an intellectual and literary alliance between the two peoples. The bonds of literature and intellect are stronger than those of kinship and lineage.
"From the age of Mohamed Ali until the British occupation, 25 Lebanese students a year received their education in Egypt. And whereas Egyptians and other Arab peoples had once looked to Istanbul, all eyes turned to Egypt following its recent cultural revival, especially after the Turks washed their hands of the Orient and its people.
"Egypt today is the mother, the well-spring of hope, the source of marvel and inspiration. Suffice it to say you are Egyptian to win affection and generous hospitality. Wherever you go in the Lebanese capital you find portraits of Egyptian leaders, princes, scholars and writers. Indeed, nothing could more eloquently express the affection and admiration for Egypt and the Egyptian people than the fact that there is hardly a wall in the city of Beirut that does not have written on it, 'Long live Saad (Zaghlul)!'"
Many of the features of Lebanon Daoud Barakat describes in 1927 could be seen by tourists today. Since Lebanon had long been a major bridge in European-Arab relations, there emerged a strong European presence in Lebanon and cosmopolitan attitudes and behaviour among the Lebanese. He observes, "When you walk down a street in Beirut your ears will be assaulted by Greek, Italian, English, French and German." This phenomenon, however, should not alarm Egyptians as to the fate of the Lebanese identity, for "the Lebanese are perfectly capable of standing their ground." This, Barakat adds, could not be said of Egyptians after the Khedive Ismail opened the floodgates to Europeans in the late 19th century and even less of the Palestinians "who sold their land to the Jews and built houses with the profits!"
The adaptability of the Lebanese could be seen in their changing codes of dress and conduct. Barakat recalls that "you could once have toured Beirut and all of Lebanon, from north to south, east to west, and see men in their traditional billowing trousers and their tarboush or large turban, and women in their traditional dima. Everywhere, children would greet you with the customary Arabic greetings." During this visit, however, "you can hardly find a man wearing the sirwal (pants) or tarboush (fez) or a woman in a dima, for now the men wear European-style trousers and hats while dresses are modelled after the fashion in Lyon, Berlin, London or Turin. And, as you pass by children playing in the streets, they will doff their caps and greet you with 'bonjour' or 'bonsoir' instead of 'sabah al-khir' or 'sabah al-nur.'" Nor were these the only French words to have gained daily currency, causing him to ponder whether Arabic would survive the foreign language onslaught.
(Although the Arabic language seems to have passed the test, the Lebanese, particularly the Maronites, remain the most Europeanised of all Arabs, a fact found in modern, Western music and satellite television channels, not to mention the press, which is perhaps why the Lebanese media are Egypt's biggest competition in the Arab world).
The swelling population of Beirut due to rural to urban migration would not necessarily have appeared odd to a man who had lived most of his life in Egypt. If the centripetal force of Cairo was relatively easy to comprehend -- it being the oldest centralised city in the region -- the burgeoning of Beirut, more than that of other commercial areas in a country as commercially diverse as Lebanon, was another matter.
Having paid his last visit to Beirut 14 years earlier, Barakat could not help but be struck by its population explosion. From an acquaintance in the Lebanese capital he learned that its population had risen from 70,000 by the end of World War I to 220,000 at the time of his current visit. The increase, in his opinion, did not bode well for the country. "If the government and intelligentsia focus all their energies on Beirut and if, because of this, people throughout the country gradually flock to the capital, I fear that Beirut will eventually become as big as Lebanon and that Lebanon will become no more than one large resort. If the country's leaders believe it is easier to cater to their needs by residing in Beirut, should the rest of the country be expected to sacrifice for their comfort and convenience?"
Barakat commented on another Lebanese demographic phenomenon: emigration. Emigration, particularly to the Americas, had begun modestly in the 1850s, escalated dramatically following the sectarian strife of the 1860s and reached its peak at the turn of the century. According to a New York Sun article of 1913, "Any ship leaving the coast of Beirut bound for North or South America is packed with hundreds of Christians hoping to evade military service."
The writer, however, was in favour of migration. Quoting a French historian, Hanotaux, Barakat wrote, "Lebanon is a small mountain in size but large in history," by which he was undoubtedly alluding to the legacy bequeathed by the Phoenicians, the ancestors of the Lebanese, of establishing colonies throughout the Mediterranean, thereby contributing to the rise of Mediterranean civilisation. The Lebanese were also a very robust people with one of the highest birth rates in the world, "until they were passed in this by the people of Ceylon." But Barakat, unlike many who wrote about the Lebanese, believed that emigration from Lebanon was less a product of political than economic circumstances. Not only were there many people, but they had "milked even the rocks dry" and, therefore, were forced to search for a livelihood outside the country.
Life in Lebanon had honed those characteristics that equipped them for success. "It instilled in them diligence and perseverance and gave them a strong physique, and through their industry and perseverance they have acquired a spirit of integrity and dedication that is untainted by the materialism and corruption of the city."
Although the Lebanese could not be blamed for seeking more promising sources of income elsewhere, emigration took a toll on the country. Above all, Barakat believed, Lebanon was losing the potential energies of its youth. On the other hand, he estimated that the average remittances from Lebanese living abroad was approximately LE1 million, "sent to half a million people," and which constituted "large earnings that compensate for the absence of its people." Barakat did not believe "emigrant" was an appropriate word to describe Lebanese who left their country, "because they had no intention of leaving it forever and have remained assiduous in maintaining their contacts with their homeland." For example, he writes, "A father may travel, leaving his children in the care of his wife and mother, or a wife may travel leaving her loved ones in the care of her husband and mother. How, then, can we call them emigrants?"
As the preceding passage suggests, Lebanese women were also noted for their industry and carried a certain economic weight in society. Or, at least this was once the case, for Barakat quotes a recent adage: "Give Lebanon back its wife and you will restore its wealth and prosperity," He continues, "The Lebanese housewife was an energetic and resolute housekeeper. Another Lebanese saying goes: 'The man brings home the bread and the wife in the cupboard.'" He adds that at one time it was rare to enter a Lebanese home without finding near the door a loom and weaving paraphernalia and Lebanese mothers teaching their daughters this craft as well as cooking, tailoring and sewing. Thus, it also used to be popular wisdom, when looking for a wife, to consider first the mother, "for she teaches her daughter everything, including songs and the chants for mourning."
Now, Barakat found, Lebanese women were changing, becoming far less active "in imitation of the cities, believing they were adopting the civilisation of the West, or the European way of life. Rather, they were adopting the flaws of city life, the flaws that had turned the hands which had once brought the milk and honey from which Lebanon had derived its wealth into hands that indulge in pomp and ostentation."
Al-Ahram's editor-in-chief turns last to the bane of Lebanese society down to the present: the prevalence of denominational affiliations. He writes that in the councils, the press and everywhere else, all talk is sectarian in nature, an issue that all feign to condemn but, in fact, is supported and encouraged in their daily interaction. He blames this on Lord Devron who, in a conference of ambassadors in Beirut in 1864, "divided Lebanon into denominations after it had once been a single nation and a single people." Government appointments were then allocated on the basis of these denominations. It was thus the British, he charged, who brought down the government of the Emir Bashir, the ally of Mohamed Ali, and established a system that "set the Lebanese people against one another."
Barakat, a progeny of Al-Ahram, whose founders had imbibed the teachings of Butros Al-Bustani, a pioneering proponent of pan-Arabism, was vehemently opposed to the sectarian divisions in Lebanon and his aversion had undoubtedly increased after having lived in Egypt for so long. He believed that such sectarianism had prevented Lebanon and Syria from uniting into a single country. This had further been fostered by the Ottoman Turks who had used a policy of divide and rule to keep the Levant more firmly under their thumb. However, he also found Lebanese intellectuals at fault for failing to practise what they preached. Instead of merely paying lip service to condemning sectarianism, he said it would be wiser for them "to maintain complete silence on the subject so that people forget about it and stop thinking in those terms."
Before concluding his tour of "Lebanon and its capital," the author expressed his hope that "this poisonous arrow will be wrested from its heart." His greatest fear, however, was that the poison had already spread too far, because the denominational system was now sanctioned by the constitution, had become entrenched in all governing institutions and was being reinforced with every passing day. Sadly, history has proven Barakat's fears well-placed for the spectre of civil war continues to loom over Lebanon, though a more appropriate term would be sectarian strife.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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