Elise Salem. Constructing Lebanon: A Century of Literary Narratives. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003. xii + 292 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-2596-4.
Reviewed by Marilyn Booth (Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies/Program in Comparative and World Literature, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)
Published on H-Levant (October, 2007)
The Cultures of Lebanese Community
"I want to say that true war begins when your enemy becomes your mirror, and you kill him to kill yourself," declares a character in Elias Khoury's 1998 novel Bab al-shams, quoted by Elise Salem, from one of many narratives that she touches upon in this literary tour through Lebanon's twentieth-century history. From Kahlil Gibran's self-fashioning as national prophet early in the century to the critical, forward-looking narratives of Khoury and other internationally known Lebanese novelists, and from the Rahbani brothers' musical theater to the ironic narratives of Hasan Daoud, Lebanese culture has debated the identity and the very existence of the nation, questioning the possibility of collective survival and interrogating the boundaries that your enemy/your mirror, in Khoury's formulation, constructs for you, whether as an individual or as a member of a nation or other collective.
In line with much recent theorizing on nation formation as crucially dependent on narratives that map collective identities and the psychic as well as physical boundaries of nations, Salem argues that Lebanon's difficult national story--and the possibilities for its future--are best understood through the cultural production of its citizens, whether located within its territory or in the diaspora. One strength of this study is Salem's refusal to separate novels produced by a tiny elite (and often not widely read) from other modes of cultural production: although she does not address film, she weaves into her narrative theater, song, and national television productions. Constructing Lebanon takes note of audience reception as an important and often neglected marker of how culture shapes polities, implicitly making the important point that academic analysis must attend to other readings of texts, not only the academic critics', if our readings of culture and politics are to be more than academic exercises. Salem also analyzes school curricula, indicating how history textbooks and literature anthologies perpetuate certain understandings of Lebanon's identity--a Phoenician heritage, a romanticized landscape, a village society--and occlude others. As Salem says, "nation" as a construction is always concrete in its effects: the pedagogic is political.
Salem's methodology is to move back and forth from political narrative--construed as public acts of parties and individuals that result in a range of consequences from formal negotiation and elections to warfare--to cultural analysis of specific texts that arise from and comment on the political scene. She begins in the Mandate period, focusing on the writings of Khalil (Kahlil) Gibran as formative of a specifically Lebanese identity and a national language. Successive chapters cover the period of the national pact and early independent nation, of "disintegration" as war occupied Lebanon (dividing the discussion into pre-1982 and 1982-90 periods), and finally, the postwar period from the 1990 Taif Agreement through 1998.
To call literary narratives "formative reflectors of the nation" (p. 5) suggests both agency and a less agential representational status. Salem argues that "increasingly cultural production seems to challenge national discourse" (p. 7), and she reads recent novels as positing prescriptive models for a reformulated Lebanon.
If contemporary culture in Lebanon strongly supports a unitary national entity, i.e., one free of partition and in which most of the population seeks to remain a single nation, on what terms is that entity to survive? This raises the broader question of "representation for whom?" I wanted to hear more of Salem's thoughts on this issue. For example, if Gibran is indeed "one of the most formative figures in Lebanon" (p. 13), have a majority of Lebanese seen him as such? If he was ejected from the Maronite Church for criticizing its power, did his "rebellious spirit" (to echo one of his book titles) find welcome in other communities? Surely it is not only the reception of his literary experiments by a mostly Christian elite at the time, but a possibly broader subsequent range of attitudes toward the literary phenomenon of "Gibran" that is determinative of these texts' importance to constructions of a national ethos. Salem's discussion astutely incorporates the issue of how a "Lebanese" identity could be ambiguously forged from the broader Levantine "Shami" appellation, and also differentiates carefully between Gibran's writings and the reception of them by contemporaries on the one hand, and subsequent Gibran scholarship that claimed him for subnational identity on the other. Salem also notes that Gibran's fame derived, ironically but tellingly, partly from his growing fame in the West, which reflected "Lebanon" to its own, ambivalent, subjects; and his champions in the United States consolidated this image of his rebellious heroism, thus contributing to (narrow) readings of his persona in his native land, readings that would be echoed in popular commemorations of this heroic figure much later in the twentieth century. By addressing questions that Gibran's persona and writings raise, Salem raises abiding questions of shifting communal identities.
Indeed, at the very end of this chapter, the author notes that Gibran's "attempts to speak to the Muslims of the region did not result in him becoming a strong national symbol for many non-Christians" (p. 42). Gibran's "formative" stature resides, therefore, in its equivocal and ambiguous meanings for the nation. This is interesting, but it also points to an implicit emphasis in the book on the (popular and elite) cultural production of the Maronite elite over that of other groups, at least before the civil war period. This might be justifiable in terms of that (not always unified) community's possibly greater resources for imposing a cultural identity on Lebanon in the past, and it also bears out Salem's emphasis on multiplicities of view within each subnational "community." Salem notes forthrightly that she is not attempting an inclusive survey; it would be useful to hear the author's thoughts on why certain texts were more relevant to her argument than possible alternatives.
Building on her analysis of Gibran, Salem shows the "Phoenician" thrust of certain personalities and texts, and how this was linked to the romanticist imagery of Lebanon popularized by Gibran and reproduced or elaborated in poetry by Sa'id 'Aql and Michel Trad, in the stories of Marun 'Abbud and Anis Frayha that anthologized the nation in schoolbooks, and in the songs of Fairuz. The nostalgic image of northern rural (Maronite) Lebanon formed the basis for "unproblematic idealized narratives" that this new nation required (p. 24), constructed on the natural imagery of Mount Lebanon. Of course, this partial image--what I would see as a politically interested synechdoche for the nation--excluded the historical experience of much of the territorial Lebanon's populace. Thus, Gibran, if he is a formative national figure, is indicative to Salem of "fault lines": "the very points that would link Gibran (and others) to the new Lebanon often revealed the fault lines upon which that Lebanon was built. The Phoenician and Christian emphases, the almost exclusive focus on mountain village life, the conflation of national designations, and the idealized émigré perspective all remain problematic features of the Lebanese nation" (p. 34).
On the other hand, the group around Yusuf al-Khal and the journal Shi'r tried to offer more complicated and critical notions of national identity, as Salem suggests through an analysis of the group's critical writing rather than addressing, beyond a very brief and general discussion, its poetry. This is one of the points in the book where Salem's ambitious brief, to look longitudinally at cultural production, an enormous subject even when restrained within the boundaries of a single nation (punctured and extended though they are by emigration and war), means that she cannot always cover this vast ground in detail. Similarly, her emphasis throughout on innovative deployments of language, and on the crystallization of a "Lebanese language" through some writers' uses of the vernacular, while sensible, often remains on a level of generality that makes evaluation of her arguments difficult. This is unfortunate, as she has many intriguing insights into intersections of linguistic cultures and audience response, and, as noted above, takes seriously the issue of whether and how texts are consumed by their primary target audiences.
While Salem sees her study as aimed partly at those who are unfamiliar with Lebanon, it seems to me that elements in her narrative assume a certain degree of specialist knowledge; her discussion of Syrian versus Lebanese identity in the early period, for example, would benefit from a wider discussion of the many complexities of "Shami ethnicity" to be meaningful to those outside Middle East Studies. Similarly, she makes repeated references to "traditional Arabic rhetoric" or the like without spelling out what this entails or implies. These are somewhat incidental issues, but those who might want to use this book in an undergraduate course should take note.
More generally, it is not always clear that the detailed expositions of political history in Constructing Lebanon are integral to the literary analyses offered here. Prefacing cultural history with sharply delineated political narratives tends not to emphasize how the nation is constructed through cultural production or how the politics of the state rely on cultural narratives to sustain legitimacy. Instead it tends to place the focus on how the content and reception of certain works mirror the state of politics at given moments. Salem's most successful interweaving of the political narrative and cultural production is her discussion of the 1982 Israeli invasion and the concomitant emergence of "the South" as a trope of dispossession and resistance, newly embraced by intellectuals and treated with "a cynical spin" by the playwright Ziad Rahbani, whose important productions Salem traces throughout this book, juxtaposing them against the cultural politics of Ziad's parents (Asi Rahbani and the ubiquitous Fairuz).
Salem's discussion of the post-1982 emergence of Lebanon's South as a cultural as well as political force, and on postwar representations of Beirut's controversial "reconstruction," wherein writers turned to pre-twentieth-century history as well as setting their works during the war, also nuances the representation of war as a presence brought to the text by the reader's necessary historical formation. That is, the war is not always explicitly represented in the text but is assumed in the cultural knowledge that a reader involved in Lebanon would have, and in the public culture of contestation over Beirut's reworked downtown. And this commendable emphasis on reception--on the reader as instrumental in and to the text--leads Salem to stress her own political agenda, that of urging the formation of politically responsible, and responsive, readers in and for Lebanon now. She laments what she sees--and what she finds contemporary texts also critically represent--as an escapist tendency, a desire both understandable and dangerous to efface memories of the war, to retreat into commercially fueled escapism, to "rebuild" by razing rather than critically preserving the past, or by attempts to reinstitute national "myths." She lauds works that have confronted and criticized this tendency, works--like Khoury's Bab al-shams or Hanan al-Shaykh's Barid Bayrut (1992)--demanding that Lebanese work on their rich plurality, part of which, rather controversially, entails recognizing Palestinian experience and presence as a positive part of a Lebanese future. She counterposes these critical works to the renewed energies put into the "folklorization" of Lebanon. In this sense, Salem regards culture as an agent in political processes; clearly she wants Lebanese today to attend seriously to certain cultural artifacts as hopeful forces for shaping the future.
As a postscript (Summer of 2007), Salem wrote this book (and I wrote the above review) before the latest round of challenges to Lebanon's postwar reconstruction. The kinds of solidarity and care for historical memory that she calls for so eloquently are more threatened and more needed than ever, and her book remains a salient reminder of the dangers and the powers of cultural activisms to strengthen and to reify national being--for better or for worse.
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Marilyn Booth. Review of Salem, Elise, Constructing Lebanon: A Century of Literary Narratives.
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