Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 August 2004
Issue No. 704
Books Supplement
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The not so sick man of Europe

At last a historical account of Beirut that gives the city what it has always longed for -- a demystified, inclusive and vibrant sense of self

Click to view caption
The city centre before the Civil War, a part of Beirut that no longer exists

Histoire de Beyrouth, Samir Kassir, Paris: Fayard, 2003. pp732

It is unfortunate how film critics have flattened expressions like "tour de force", identifying them with insipid if not mediocre Hollywood output. For it is "tour de force" that comes to mind on putting down Samir Kassir's Histoire de Beyrouth, a captivating account of the last 150 years of the city's life. Kassir being a professor of history at Saint-Joseph University, Histoire de Beyrouth is steeped in the tradition of the Annales, in which a historical moment is resurrected on its own terms, inscribed in its own landscape of forces, figures and meanings. This is his first, long overdue foray into urban history, and in reclaiming the historicity of Beirut, it breaks away from mythological and ideological approaches to the city. Writing history is an eminently political act in which the dichotomy of narration and interpretation forms the central point of contention, and Kassir's book proves rewarding in that it is written in opposition to the kind of hegemonic, ideological framework in which much Arab discourse operates; it is neither exclusionary nor chauvinistic. Sadly, having been commissioned by a French publishing house, the book is available only to a French or francophone Arab readership -- something that has given rise to a hushed questioning of Kassir's cultural affiliations, despite his commitment to producing an Arabic edition. In reality the fact that the book appeared in French reflects the failure of Arab publishers to endorse serious research in the humanities -- a regrettable tendency that is seldom brought up.

Histoire de Beyrouth was written with a wide audience in mind, and Kassir's masterful narration is free from the opacity and sophistry with which scholarly writing tends to be burdened. Fuelled by the combined passions of the historian- historiographer and the native Beiruti, the book is a vivid, enticing, strikingly visual, almost cinematic experience, with the seamless flow of Kassir's prose giving the impression of a chronicle. This despite his account being, in truth, analytical and synthetic, the fruit of intimate engagement with a broad array of primary and secondary sources. Such sources constitute the foundations of postulates and conclusions that make this an impressive account: novel enough to engage with the work of Ottoman historians, such as Hasan Kayali's Arabs and Young Turks: Ottomanism, Arabism and Islamism in the Ottoman Empire, 1908-1918 ; generous enough to borrow from anthropology, sociology and consumption studies in reconstituting social practices, their articulations and meanings at successive intervals; and bold enough to pay thorough attention to material that is only peripherally pertinent on the surface, such as works on Mohamed Ali's rule in Egypt, which illuminate the deployment of power in the Levant under his heir, Ibrahim Pasha. Six long sections, with an elaborate introduction and a condensed post-script, represent historical periods, with each marking a cogent bracket in the play of internal and external forces shaping the life of Beirut. The chapters within are structured so as to provide detailed accounts of the political, economic, urban and social practices and value-systems informing each period. One of the virtues of Kassir's historiography is that it unravels social practices within schemes of economic production, demarcating not only the flow and exchange of goods, but, more importantly, the extraction of surplus, and its dissemination as capital, wealth and power.

Kassir's narrative of the last 150 years in Beirut is augmented by a thorough account of the growth of the city under the aegis of Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine, early Islamic, and, significantly, Crusader rulers. (Beirut's 71 years under the Franks, a trial uninterrupted except for a brief hiatus in the wake of Saladdin's liberation of the city, and one to which neither Damascus nor Aleppo were subject, are treated with rare thoroughness.) The first section ends at a turning point in the Ottoman period, when designs for expanding European dominion in Ottoman territories were actively formulated as the "Oriental question". In this expansive prelude, copious citations provide a sobering summary of informed debate about the city's distant past, an aspect of the book that acquires even more significance in the post-script as the questions raised by archaeological finds made during the post-war rehabilitation of the city are discussed. Unlike the vast majority of comments, Kassir's assertions about the relevance of particular digs and the manner in which to interpret their significance are in no way ideologically motivated. The work of revisionist Ottoman historians is among many secondary sources that inform the masterful analysis with which he concludes this section, providing a condensed account of the emergence of the Ottoman Empire and its expansion into the Levant, which serves as a prelude to the next two sections on the late Ottoman period in Beirut -- these being the book's central achievement.

Until a little over two decades ago, Ottoman history was scripted by either Western or nationalist scholars, neither of which had the imagination to cast the Ottoman Empire in any role other than that of the Sick Man of Europe. They sought few primary sources besides the archives of European diplomatic missions, and irrespective of their orientation ended up endorsing an anti-historical, racist, Eurocentric vision of the Empire, which implied that its Arab organs must have been likewise diseased -- a conclusion the nationalists performed intellectual acrobatics to avoid. Only with the opening of the Empire's archives by the Turkish state did historians revisit Ottoman historiography and, inspired by Edward Said's Orientalism, social scientists have since unearthed and engaged with a non-European modernity. A few works -- Usama Makdessi's The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History and Violence in Nineteenth Century Ottoman Lebanon and Akram Fouad Khater's Inventing Home: Emigration, Gender and the Middle Class in Lebanon, 1879-1920 among them -- focussed on those Arab-Ottoman locales that would later become Lebanon, and it is in this context that Kassir's corrective and restorative reconstitution of Ottoman Beirut is groundbreaking, dispelling misconceptions and viewing the city in the larger context of the world of which it was part. Once seen as no more than Mount Lebanon's gateway into the sea, Beirut is here brought back to the Levantine shores of the Mediterranean, in a continuum with Jafa, Haifa, Acre, Sidon and Tripoli, and figures in the geography of Damascus and other interior Ottoman cities like Aleppo and Jerusalem. Though modern borders have become an undeniable reality, Kassir explained in a conversation conducted in preparation for this piece, it is impossible to study the history of any locale in the Levant without framing it within a historical investigation of bilad Al-Sham as a whole.

The complex story of how a small, seemingly insignificant town matured into a thriving port city begins with the 10-year- long reign of Mohamed Ali and his walis, whose dominion over the Levant brought with it the momentous overhaul they had achieved in modernising and expanding state and government apparatuses. Historians are undecided as to whether the Tanzimat in question were an imitation by the Sublime Porte of the Albanian general's reforms in Egypt or simply a reflection of the modern spirit prevailing among the Ottoman elite, though archival evidence seems to attest to the latter postulate, outlining a context in which the Tanzimat can be seen in continuity with reforms instituted by Ibrahim Pasha, Mohamed Ali's son, ruling over the Arab Levant. Both historical brackets have yet to receive full consideration and analysis. To proponents of the Sick Man paradigm, the Ottoman state was a fledgling power, disconnected from the far reaches of its provinces, corroded inside out, bedraggled by court intrigues and harems, maintaining its expanse only by terrorising its subjects. The Sick Man, they argued, was kept on life support only because the Concert of Nations agreed it was in their -- global, imperial -- interest to postpone disputing how its territories would be carved among them. In vain they tried to protect it against its own backwardness, pushing the Sublime Porte to enact political and administrative reforms like the Tanzimat. Ottoman compliance, it is concluded, was merely cosmetic.

As this book shows, in fact, historical records attest to the exact opposite. Not only were the Tanzimat a genuine, organic expression of the ruling elite's resolve to reform and modernise its apparatus, they were also at the heart of the Sublime Porte's vision for saving and restoring the Empire's glory. In this context "re-organisation" is a more accurate translation of Tanzimat than "reform", and for the purpose of defining the moment at which the Empire entered modernity -- an obsession of some historians -- the Tanzimat can be safely identified as such. For Kassir's purposes, on the other hand, they remain crucial to studying the history of Beirut, which remains impossible without an understanding of the intentions of those behind the Tanzimat and how they set out to implement re-organisation and modernisation. This is partly why the two sections chronicling late Ottoman Beirut are riveting. For the first time the transformation of Beirut together with the men who oversaw it are cast back into the world to which they belonged, their discourse, and the social and political world view to which they subscribed, laid out without prejudiced extrapolation or projection, almost completely clear of the author's own -- inevitably contemporary -- political, social or identity affiliations. The Empire and its agents, the city, its notables and its people are all given a voice, drawn from primary archival sources as well as informed analyses to be found in secondary sources; this is Kassir's greatest achievement as a historian -- scripting the history of Beirut in prose free from subservience to exclusionary and essentialist ideologies.

Beirut was not predestined for greatness, as many have argued, nor was it outfitted for sudden growth. It grew into a pole of the Ottoman Levant rather as a result of a particular confluence of forces, circumstances and events. That said, the Tanzimat reformers' choice of Beirut was not accidental, but an informed, astute decision. Their investments centred on the harbour, which was expanded and modernised to accommodate steamships, its storage facilities improved and quarantine instituted in it. In such modern garb Beirut assumed its place alongside Izmir and Alexandria as an Ottoman port. In a line that runs parallel to the development of the city, and the upheavals brought forth by the Tanzimat, Kassir traces the formation of an urban nobility whose dominion over the local economic and political spheres would eventually result in the consolidation of a ruling class capable of wrestling independence from the French Mandate. One notable aspect of the two sections on late Ottoman Beirut is that they chart the emergence of religious or confessional sectarianism as a disruptive, often violent force in the social and political life of the city and its environs. In his commitment to historicise urban society and the life of discourse and ideology, Kassir proceeds to relocate religious and confessional sectarianism in the overall economic, political and social tapestry into which it was woven. Writing history, he exposes these political discourses for the artificial constructs that they are, delivering yet another blow to exclusionary ideologies and their anti-historical, essentialist representations. The process also sheds light on the role of various parties in the entrenchment of sectarian discourses, illuminating those moments of crisis conjugated with mounting sectarian tension, which was to erupt into civil conflict. Kassir's rendition of this theme is significant in that it is cast rigorously within the class articulations of sectarianism, and the reliance of sectarian discourses on populist rhetoric to mobilise support bases.

Much ink has been spilled over the coupling of sectarian violence and the birth of modern Lebanon. The novelty of Kassir's version lies in its being conceived of within the larger context of the Ottoman Empire, and set against the delicate contrasts of changing notions of millet as well as aggressive European penetration and moments of economic instability. In the rest of the book Kassir charts the evolution and transformation of sectarianism through history and the varying significance of its discursive articulations. The last three sections of the book cover historical brackets spanning the fall of the Empire, the establishment of the French Mandate and the eruption of the civil war in 1975. In lieu of a conclusion, the post-script brings the narrative up to the present. In lively, colourful prose invested with a dizzying gamut of illustrations, the three sections recount the transformation of the city birthed by the Tanzimat into the modern capital we know today, unfurling the poignant chronicle of a capital -- and, to all intents and purposes, a whole country -- that repeatedly failed to establish a central, democratically elected authority responsible for safeguarding justice and the dignity of its people. Specifically in Beirut, central authority has manifested itself almost exclusively through national government, with a caucus of parliamentarian representatives replacing a nonexistent city council. Since the class holding the means to economic production has always been the class with political power, governing Beirut has been unrelentingly biased towards safeguarding the interests of owners of land and property and holders of capital. Even under the aegis of the only two instances of central power being self-consciously vested in planning growth -- respectively, the French Mandate and the tenure of General Shehab -- capital and private interests remained the ruling creed. The short history of the modern urban environment we now know is largely due to selling public wealth, evicting residents, exploiting the poor as cheap labour and turning a blind eye to the most vulnerable city dwellers.

So rich is Histoire de Beyrouth 's stock of citations, references, notes and testimonials, so diverse is the gamut of its sources, that it is hard to extract questions from it; it seems to present only novel and bold answers to old questions asked repeatedly before its appearance. The book does nonetheless raise questions about other cities and the draft of their histories. Outside the interpretive framework Kassir constructs, it would be impossible to explain the interconnectedness of the Lebanese nahda (renaissance) with intellectual movements that swept Ottoman society, the tight friendship and intellectual kinship that bound Midhat Pasha with Ahmad Fares Shidiyaq, and the contributions of the latter to the text of the Ottoman Constitution of 1876. As a revision of historical narratives of Beirut, Lebanon and bilad Al-Sham that are blinded and deafened by the pettiness of nationalism, it is long overdue. Critical evaluations of nationalism should not be regarded as questioning and undermining a people's roots or their legitimate entitlement to a land. Rather they ought to be seen as demythologised affirmations of such principles. Samir Kassir's Beirut is what the city has always longed to be -- a demystified, historically complex, socially vibrant urban space in which I, my parents, my grandparents, and their descendent families in Palestine, Syria, Turkey and Bosnia, are allowed a historical place -- together with the families of domestic servants, service drivers, bank clerks, big capital and small labour, the Intra Bank crisis and the Ghandour Factory strike, the Old Damascus Road, the Résidence des Pins, Café Hajj Daoud, Hayy Al-Sulum and Hamra Street.

By Rasha Salti

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