In Defense of Lebanese Exceptionalism
Many Lebanese are raised on the idea that Lebanon is special; Lebanon is different. This belief is often comically expressed as an obsession with Lebanese success abroad. Enthusiastic sharers of Lebanese guinness record breakers do so not only because they are proud, but also because it reaffirms this commonly held belief in their hearts of hearts that Lebanon is special.
But the road from feeling special to feeling superior is a slippery one. There is a fuzzy line between “Lebanon is unique” and “Syrians/dark-skinned-people/ are inferior”, and it is this fuzziness that often results in articles like this that carry a blunt -if often unconscious- racist subtext. The article was rightly criticized and widely mocked, causing the newspaper’s editor to wash its hand of it.
Racism is wrong. Kicking out the hungry and the weak who are fleeing their country is wrong, but that should not lead to conclusions about the insignificance of Lebanon or its lack of cultural character and uniqueness. There is a strain of criticism, especially from Syrian nationalists (and the pan-Syrian variety), that barely disguises its contempt of Lebanon as a polity or a cultural unity.
My last name is Hamoui,ie my ancestors came from Hama in Syria, but my mind resists whenever someone suggests that the Lebanese are effectively Syrians in denial (the one-people-two-countries theory). That is not because –heaven-forbid– the Lebanese are “better” than Syrians, but because our different recent histories, our different educational systems and political systems have lead us to grow in different directions and value different things.
Some of us may be so embarrassed by the racism that we retreat into self loathing, into mentally convincing ourselves that there is really nothing special about Lebanon. But that would be going too far in the other direction.
Here’s how an Egyptian friend living in Lebanon described the country to me:
There is nothing quite like [Lebanon] in the region. there isn’t really the variety of people you have here in any other country, nor the fact that it’s normal to have such diversity, and it’s rich culturally because of it. it’s a big deal to me to see a mosque right next to a church on the way to work
Just because it’s a cliche doesn’t make it wrong. We are the only Arab country with an effective Christian cultural presence and (until recently) a Christian president. Lebanon is indeed a message of coexistence as Pope John Paul put it, and it is very understandable when people are afraid of losing something precious because of unnatural and exceptional (in scale and circumstances) demographic shifts.
The purpose of this post is not self-congratulation. Heaven knows how many problems we have in this country. But in the racism debate I’ve noticed two extremes: One side is saying that there is nothing special about Lebanon and we should stop complaining about the swelling ranks of refugees. The other side believes so much in the specialness of Lebanon that they wrongly feel that any foreign presence will “dilute” whatever je-ne-sais-quoi makes Lebanon unique.
I feel that both side have it wrong. I go back to what my Egyptian friend said makes lebanon special: The diversity of cultures and common existence, enriched by outside arrivals (whether from the diaspora, refugees or traders). Only Lebanon has a chance of making that model work, and despite all the chaos in the process, it is a thing of beauty to behold…