Orient le Jour – By Bahjat RIZK
On the occasion of the multiple local and international, cultural and political events in which Lebanon is a participant or an organizer, in the hope of an educational and school reform that should precede all others reforms, including the political ones, it would be interesting to shed the light on some specific historical and cultural constancies related to the Lebanese identity; it is around these constancies that a coherent national cultural identity can be built.
First of all, the Arabic linguistic identity leaves no doubts. It is the base of the Lebanese identity. Linguistically, the Lebanese are Arabs (it is an absolute evidence) since the Arabic language is their official language and the Lebanese dialect (itself derived from Arabic) is their mother tongue. Lebanon’s Arabic linguistics reinforces, all communities mingled, their national identity.
However, other elements build also the Lebanese identity and do not contradict with the Arabic linguistic belongingness but enhance it and enrich it.
Let us first review the Lebanese Phoenician past. This past does not need to be proven historically since multiple traces are still there to testify it. Moreover, the Phoenician heritage is too prestigious to preserve and to claim and it concerns the majority of the Lebanese people, all communities included. In fact, the Phoenicians have invented the first phonetic alphabet, which is the basis of all modern alphabets for the East and the West and including the Arabic alphabet. It has been primordial for certain people to invent the first phonetic alphabet (1100 BC) in order for other people to establish their own respective languages through time.
There are no written languages before the Phoenician alphabet. There is of course the cuneiform in Mesopotamia (nails) and the hieroglyphic in Egypt (pictograms and ideograms), but they are not really accessible and easily conveyed. In other respects, the Phoenician language is no more used nowadays.
Therefore, there is no contradiction in being descendants of yesterday’s Phoenicians and in being today’s culturally (linguistically) Arabs. On the other hand, having lived in the same geographical area of current Lebanon (six important cities identified on the Phoenician coast out of which four in Lebanon: Tyr, Byblos, Sidon and Beryte and two in Syria: Ugarit and Arwad), the Phoenicians have bequeathed to the Lebanese their vocation of cultural and commercial mediators.
This interaction between proven history and constant geography is an integral part of the Lebanese identity (The proof is the multiple symposiums related to this subject in Lebanon, especially the one that should be held in Beirut).
A second major trait is the Lebanese mountain including all communities. In fact, if the Phoenician coast has engendered in ancient times a mediator and avant gardiste Phoenician experience, Mount Lebanon has given in modern times , through the example of the emirate of Lebanon, the experience of cultural and political autonomy within the ottoman empire. Isn’t the rebirth of the Arabic language part of this Lebanese mountain? (The printing of Saint Anthony Qouzhayya, in Qannubin valley, gave the first printed Arabic book to the near east.
It was the book of Psalms in 1610 in Arabic and Syriac according to the karsuni system. The Book and Lebanon, p.146: Lebanese and the book, Fouad E. Boustany who has been in his various headings the siege of the Arab cultural resistance). Therefore, the existence of this Lebanese mountain has been salutary to the Arabic language.
Modern Lebanon preciously keeps in its collective memory the Mediterranean and universal Phoenician open-mindedness as well as the Arab cultural resistance. On a world-wide level, it is indeed the invention of writing that made humanity go through from prehistory to history (3000 BC) and from the printing of the Middle Ages to the Renaissance (1450 Gutenberg Bible). In his public address in Rome, President Sleiman has explicitly referred to Fakhreddine the Great (1590-1635) / (L’Orient-Le Jour, 30 October).
Another structural bond concerns Lebanon and the Francophonie through the cultural ties Lebanon has established first with France and since then with the whole world of Francophonie covering today the five continents (55 Member States and 13 observers). President Sleiman has just returned from Quebec’s Summit (twelfth Francophonie summit). This link is once again a common cultural heritage to all Lebanese communities since it has not only allowed them to open up to the West and to Europe (derived from the Phoenician urb: where the sun sets, from which Gharb meaning West in Arabic), but also to the universalism of human rights and democracy, an experiment initiated by the French Revolution.
The last common trait to all Lebanese resulting in a way from the four previous features (Arabic language, Phoenician history, political autonomy and francophonie), is in fact the experience of the various religious cultures’ dialogue through which the Lebanese entity finds today its raison d’être as a privileged place in the globalization era, a place where East and West meet, where different cultures coexist (eighteen religious communities) within a single unit, for whom cultural pluralism as a whole is a common heritage.
The Lebanese experience starts at the Phoenician cities (3000 years BC) and with the first phonetic alphabet (1100 years BC) and leads to the dialogue of cultures five thousand years later.
It is a historical path to be followed on a continuous basis in each of its stages and whose elements must combine together in a harmonious complementarity in order to ensure Lebanon’s’ dual function: that of being a space of communication, autonomy, openness, cultural resistance, radiance and solidarity.
Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to reconcile a logic of coastal cities sprinkled on the Mediterranean seaside and another for the villages highly perched on peaks, but the Lebanese identity quest should express itself based on its continuous rich history, and its atypical geography, and integrate these heterogeneous elements into a single coherent and inseparable group, a dynamic not a suicidal and pathetic one, but healthy and transcendent, that adopts a common history book, honest and thoughtful that assumes, renews and chooses itself.
Article published on Friday, 7 november 2008 – translated from french by Rana Gabi