Rushing through history


Since the civil war, many revisionist historians have debunked popular theories of Lebanon as the historical bedrock of ‘Phoenicianism’ or a haven for persecuted minorities. The works of these authors challenge the rhetoric of those attempting to abuse history for political ends, and act as a rational voice amid the cacophony that is our political and socioeconomic narrative. “Lebanon: A History 600-2011,” written by the Levantine historian William Harris, however, is no such work.

Instead, the author attempts to portray himself as an outside observer chronicling the history of how our deeply torn nation, devoid of any real reform, still exists today. This outsider status does have its uses in assessing how the fragmented pieces that make up Lebanon have not yet crumbled, in that Harris lacks the sectarian proclivity that many modern Lebanese historians naturally possess.

The book proceeds in chronological order through two parts: 600 to 1840 and 1840 to 2011. The accounts of what occurred in the area we call Lebanon today are exhaustively researched and sourced from, rather uniquely, a multitude of languages. Harris’ historical assessment up to 1840 goes to great lengths to detach itself from judgement and purely states the facts. At times he doubts the work of his colleagues, but never presents an outright challenge to their assessments of why certain events occurred.

When considering the Druze accession in the ninth century he doubts the work of the late Kamal Salibi but never offers an alternative reading. Harris only sticks his neck out when considering the role of Fakhr al-Din Maan, who he discounts as the historical founder of Lebanon but rather someone who got the ball rolling.

In this, Harris employs large, and at times exhausting, volumes of the historical records to prove his argument. Indeed, up until the end of the first section of the book it reads like machinegun fire of historical bullet points: one bit of information after another with little analysis or deeper observation to keep readers interested, bar the most academic.

Yet, given that it is a work of history and sources are necessarily sparser the further back one goes, this is perhaps understandable. What is not so forgivable is why this factual barrage continues into the second half, but peppered with Harris’s contentious political pretentions that he worked so hard to conceal in the first half.

To his credit, Harris does a good job of pointing out particular historical elements that still plague our society today. He nicely weaves in socioeconomic facts and figures showing how historical cronyism in business and politics maintains the economic wealth in the upper classes; makes a point to expose the failures of the modern Lebanese state toward women (something most scholars overlook); chronicles the destruction of heritage for commercial interests; picks apart Syrian hegemony; rightfully derides the Amnesty Law for forever marring our sense of justice and accountability; and he is critical of leaders for instilling, rather than opposing, sectarianism. Yet, these positives are few and far between and none are fleshed out in a way that, for instance, changes in Ottoman tax farms are. 

What’s more, Harris manages to recount the Lebanese Civil War with mere allusions to Israel’s role in the destruction, avoiding any outright criticism of this invading army and not even mentioning the 20-odd thousand civilians killed by Israel’s bombardment of West Beirut. He lays a disproportionate amount of blame for the war on the Palestinians and leftists, who come off as a thorn in the side of Western interests and Christian militias that “predictably vented their rage” in the Sabra and Shatila massacre. By the time he gets to the post-war period, Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri is “frustrated” with corruption, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating his assassination signifies “hope for renewed judicial authority in Lebanon” and Hezbollah is to blame for the country’s ills.

In all, despite some merits, what starts out as a well-researched history book one could put on a shelf as a reference tool, later turns into a rather hurried and wanting attempt to boil down all the massive complexities of modern Lebanon to zero-sum politics; in doing so, Harris offers little new to the contemporary understanding of this country or its people.

First published in the January 2013 print edition of Executive