Why the Lebanese Find it Difficult to Claim Their Identity

Visual contradiction of Beirut
Visual contradiction of Beirut | © Francisco Antunes/ Flickr

Lebanon is the smallest acknowledged country on the Asian continent. What it lacks in size, however, it compensates for in its history of unrest. To understand the Lebanese people, one must look far back into the history of the land before it was the mass of contradictions it is today. Life on this plot of the Mediterranean coast predates recorded history. But is there a modern identity to claim? The answer is as complex as the people.

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Archaeologists theorize that humans have been occupying the area now known as Lebanon for as long as 7000 years. From 1550 to 539 B.C.E., the country was home to the Canaanite and Phoenician kingdoms. Both were trade and agriculture-based cultures, with the Phoenicians using the cedar trees of Lebanon to build maritime fleets.

Phoenician statuette

Fast forward to 64 B.C.E. and the land had become part of the Roman Empire, and one of its leading religious centers. From Pantheon to Church, Maronites constituted the majority of the population of what then became Mount Lebanon. As Arab Muslims conquered the region, Maronites struggled to hold onto their identity, and eventually gained access to the Roman Catholic Church. The settlement of Muslims in the same land, however, caused a divide which arguably persists today.

From 1516 to 1918 C.E., Lebanon was under Ottoman rule. This added further complexity to an already complex and divided identity. With the Ottomans came the concept of class division between land owner and worker, the upper class and working class. Lebanon had become home to different religions and sects, and identity was multi-faceted and layered.

Remnants of Ottoman Empire in Lebanon

With the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 as a result of World War I came the French colonization of Lebanon. Another culture, education system and way of life was imposed on the Lebanese people. The country had now expanded and included southern and northern Lebanon. The country had now started looking much as it does today.

Lebanon gained independence from France in 1943. The problem of identity came prominently into focus for the first time. Should the Lebanese embrace what it meant to be French or should they hold onto what was now an Arab identity colored by Ottoman Islamic heritage? The question caused a further rift between people struggling to hold onto the past and those who were embracing the modernity of the time.

It is perhaps no surprise that a country now divided by culture, religion, history and massive emigration from Palestine fell into a civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990. Before the war, Beirut experienced a boom in culture and tourism. The civil war, however, was an ugly wake-up call to people living in a country that had been perceived as almost perfect in many ways, a haven for tourists of the region and dubbed the “Switzerland of the east”.

Holiday Inn Beirut, destroyed by the Civil War and one of the remnants of Beirut’s 1960s boom

Religious bias and tension was greatly exacerbated by the Civil War, as it was a pure show of religious based discrimination and brutality. Many Lebanese leaders became warlords, the unrest encouraged corruption and identity became about religious loyalty. The war also resulted in massive numbers of Lebanese youth emigrating in search of a better life. This migration also added further cultural diversity to the Lebanese people.

Fast forward to the 21st century: in 2005, Prime Minister Rafic Al Hariri was assassinated; he was leading Lebanon to recovery through investment and the promotion of tolerance between sects and regions. His efforts resulted in the resurrection of Downtown Beirut, the creation of Rafic Hariri International Airport and the education of hundreds via scholarships. His untimely death left the Lebanese people in further frustration and doubt. The following year, 2006, the Israeli government attacked Lebanon.

Now, in 2017, the Lebanese people face the identity crises that come with globalization. Many Lebanese youth are stuck between contemporary and traditional religious ideals, and also struggle with the generation gap between themselves and the ruling elders. The youth are hyper-aware of what life is like outside of Lebanon, and what is lacking in their country.

Gemmayzeh, Beirut shows the difference between old architecture and contemporary life

This results in another division of identity: those who struggle to reconcile their ideals with a war-torn Lebanon, and those who leave the country. Many have fought against a government they perceive to be old-fashioned. The country is at a turning point, with the rapid movement of youth towards a secularized Lebanon after the horror of living in a country divided by religious extremism.

To many, religious bias is at the core of contemporary Lebanon’s lack of identity. The clear divisions hinder the development of a purely Lebanese identity. Many Lebanese, however, still believe that the country that can be united by tolerance, and that the real problem is corrupt politics.

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