The Searchers

The Searchers

Tribalism is in vogue among conservative Middle East scholars. But a better understanding comes from investigating regional ties rather than sectarian divisions.


Map circa 1860NYPL

While living in Europe in 1992, I came across an article in a French magazine about the man credited with founding Egyptian cinema. His name, to my surprise, was Mohamed Bayoumi–the same as my father’s–and he lived from 1894 to 1963, mostly in Cairo. That summer I traveled to Egypt to visit my family, and one afternoon in Alexandria, while sitting with my uncle, aunt and grandmother in my grandmother’s airy bedroom, I asked her if this Mohamed Bayoumi the cinéaste was related to me. Had he been part of our family?

“What’s he asking?” she said, turning to my uncle, her eyebrows in knots.

The question caught everyone off guard. Moments later my aunt broke the silence. “Oh!” she said, clarity illuminating her face. “He wants to know about roots!” She emphasized the last word by saying it in English. Suddenly everyone understood. They were smiling and laughing, finding the question quaintly endearing. My uncle turned to me. “Like the TV show, huh?” he interjected, in English. “You want to know your roots!” Apparently, the 1977 miniseries based on Alex Haley’s book had made a lasting impression in Egypt.

It was an odd exchange. With the Mediterranean breeze blowing through my grandmother’s apartment, the politics of the diaspora mingled with the global reach of American culture. On the one hand, there I was, wondering if I might unearth something about my Egyptian family. (Born to Egyptian parents, I’ve lived my entire life, except for regular visits, outside Egypt.) I ventured a question that, I assumed, illustrated my growing knowledge of my relatives’ homeland and its cultural patrimony. On the other hand, my relatives were mostly amused by my question. Rather than regarding it as evidence of my Egyptianness, they found it to be very, well, American–African-American, even. Had my interest in roots made me appear rootless in their eyes?

To a budding movement on anthropology’s right wing, such subtle intrafamily differences are trivial and best brushed aside in order to focus on the fact that all Arabs are tribal. Forget Islam. Tribalism is in, and it is being promoted as the key to explaining the distress of the Middle East. In “The Middle East’s Tribal DNA,” from a recent issue of Middle East Quarterly, Philip Carl Salzman writes that Arabs, universally and throughout history, organize their societies along a series of “nested” relationships–family, lineage, clan, tribe, confederacy, sect and religion–with each group larger than the preceding one. Indeed, Islam, in this account, postdates tribalism; with its ability to magnify the difference between believer and nonbeliever, it’s simply the largest tribe of all. Tribalism is inescapable because Arab culture demands loyalty to the group above every other human value. According to Salzman, tribal loyalty explains peace, where tribes of equal standing face off in “balanced opposition,” and war, because tribalism also “normalizes antipathy against outsiders,” thus promoting conquest as a means of expanding the tribe. Whether in times of peace or war, tribalism fosters an antagonistic social world that will always trump the rationality of the modern state and the abstract rule of law.

Tribes, of course, do exist in the Middle East but not in the way that tribal theorists think they do. For one thing, tribes don’t have fixed memberships. Instead, they are often created out of loose and contingent notions of relatedness. A kind of fictive ancestry is constantly made and remade to connect people to resources and power. The problem with the tribal theorists isn’t that they identify tribes where there are none; rather, it’s that they straitjacket and exaggerate the meaning of tribal dynamics; their version of tribalism explains virtually everything. But silver-bullet theories should always be taken with a grain of salt, or sand, in this case. They enchain more than they explain; history disappears as the behavior of an entire group is presumed to exhibit an ossified consistency across vast geographical regions and over centuries of time. Colonialism, warfare, occupation, imperialism, militarism, despotism and poverty are relegated to near insignificance, treated as consequences of tribalism rather than causes of social upheavals and a tribe’s metamorphoses. Instead of recognizing that tribal authority grows, or gets promoted, when a central state is weakened or destroyed, as in present-day Iraq, tribalist theory presumes that tribes always impede the growth of the state.

Enthusiasm for the tribal thesis is not limited to academic journals or conservative magazines like National Review, which in February 2007 published two inaccurate online articles by Stanley Kurtz about Arab marriage patterns. The thesis was the subject of a fawning New York Times column by David Brooks in April 2008. In 2003 the Brookings Institution commissioned a study on the tribal structure of Iraqi society. Meanwhile, the US military is pouring significant resources into a tribal strategy in Iraq. By doling out influence, weapons and money to tribes, the Americans, like their British imperial counterparts of the past, are promoting tribal loyalty and authority to anchor their own ability to divide and rule. A sober 2008 article by Austin Long, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, however, finds the strategy dangerous and confounding. The article quotes an exasperated American intelligence officer comparing Iraqi society to Latin American telenovelas “in drama and complexity.” Yet undeterred by its own ignorance, the American military marches on, essentially ceding territory to tribal leaders it doesn’t understand. Such a strategy, warns the RAND article, possibly “sows the seeds of future state failure.”

Sandra Mackey has climbed aboard the tribal bandwagon. In Mirror of the Arab World, the Atlanta-based journalist and author of several books on the Middle East argues that the most expeditious way to understand the Arab world as a whole is to examine the tortured past and tenuous present of Lebanon. Mackey correctly points out that virtually every major conflict in the region has involved or had an impact on Lebanon, and that a close examination of the country will reveal much about the fissures of the larger region. Her investigation delves briefly into European colonial history, postcolonial corruption, the Palestinian catastrophe, refugees, civil wars, sectarian strife and the rise of political Islam. Despite the book’s political focus, Mackey seems less interested in explaining the intrigues of geopolitics and more in judging a culture. According to her, the Lebanese are reluctant to find solutions to their intractable problems primarily because they are prisoners of tribalism.

This reluctance is not peculiar to Lebanon, Mackey argues. “All Arab societies,” she sweepingly proclaims, “are in some degree tribal.” “Wedded to group,” she writes, “the individual Arab is reluctant to invest his or her identity or security in the state,” making tribalism “the great deterrent to political stability and economic development in Arab countries.” This is clearly ridiculous. Egyptian society, which accounts for one-quarter of the Arab world’s population, could never legitimately be described as tribal. Class is the salient factor there. Mackey also repeatedly hammers away at the idea that confusion about “identity” is the root cause and not the consequence of the various conflicts in the region. In today’s globalizing world, she writes, Arabs lead “tangled lives,” beset by a “crisis of identity” so profound that “their inner selves retreat into the primordial ties of ethnicity, language, and religion.”

Mirror of the Arab World is a jumble of generalizations in search of a theory. Mackey is lukewarm about Samuel Huntington’s notion of a “clash of civilizations,” calling it “neither entirely right nor totally wrong,” and opts instead for a “contest of cultures,” which is just a gentler kind of clash. Still, in Mackey’s account this contest has the function of establishing the enduring dissimilarity of tribal Arabs from us Westerners. In the end, Mackey explains that bridging these essential differences is an aim of her book. “If East and West are to survive and prosper in a world in which they can no longer remain separated geographically, economically, or even culturally, then understanding must come from both sides,” she writes. “This book has been an attempt to begin that process in the West.”

Yet her attempt is hampered by her odd detachment from the region she describes. Mackey begins her book by limiting the Arab world to just eleven countries, bizarrely excluding Yemen and all of North Africa except Egypt from her map. Moreover, she doesn’t tell any stories of individuals living through the troubled history she recounts. Stories, after all, can have a way of complicating ideology, questioning stereotypes and fleshing out human agency and motive. Instead, Mackey begins each chapter with a geography lesson: “The Nejd is a waterless ocean”; “Fingers of the Nile slowly wander through the wide delta.” Mackey depicts the Arab world as landscapes devoid of people. Absent any sense of concrete reality and human life, the region is a caldron of primordial actions, extreme passions and vengeful humiliations, a recipe that reduces Arabs to objects worthy of pity instead of portraying them as people to encounter and understand.

In Mackey’s view, Arabs and Americans are ontologically separate people who are now suddenly careening toward each other, “two trains…racing toward each other on the same track.” But is this really true? Such a view assumes, for one thing, that US involvement in the region is recent and categorically imperialist. But Americans have been present in the Middle East for more than a century, and the modern Middle East has never been separate from Europe or its other neighbors, either culturally, economically or politically. Understanding the relatedness rather than separateness of our conditions may portend greater rewards. Two recent books on the Middle East, Ussama Makdisi’s wonderfully interesting Artillery of Heaven and Amin Maalouf’s tender family memoir Origins, move precisely in this direction.

Both works focus on nineteenth-century Lebanon, but their utmost concern is the sectarian divisions that stifle the country today. Where they differ from Mackey’s book is in demonstrating how such divisions are historical rather than spawned ex nihilo. Both books are eager to resuscitate overlooked Lebanese figures who tried to forge their own worldly ethics as a bulwark against the narrow sectarian reality imposed by various forces: local authorities, a crumbling Ottoman Empire and meddling European powers. The last would include the French, who long supported the Maronite population in Mount Lebanon, and the British, who favored the Druses (identifying them as the Scottish Highlanders of the East). But what is perhaps most striking is how in Makdisi’s and Maalouf’s telling, the work of American missionaries and their local converts in Lebanon takes prominence over the presence of Europeans there, an emphasis that reflects each author’s commitment to treating the relationship between the United States and Lebanon as more than the sum of recent dark times.

Artillery of Heaven is essentially the story of two men, As’ad Shidyaq and Butrus al-Bustani, both Maronites who converted to Protestantism under the guidance of nineteenth-century American missionaries. Their stories, decades apart, also span the two phases of missionary activity described by Makdisi. More profoundly, both stories speak to the failed promise of fashioning new identities and forging new futures in an age of competing interests and entrenched orthodoxies.

Born in 1798, Shidyaq–his last name means subdeacon–became, in 1825, the first Arabic-speaking Protestant convert of an American missionary. Before he converted, he had been a Maronite seminary student in ‘Ayn Waraqa, whose curriculum emphasized loyalty and obedience to the Maronite patriarch. But Shidyaq had come under the influence of the Americans, who after their failures to convert Native Americans had decided as early as 1818 to launch a proselytizing mission to Palestine and then Syria. (Makdisi sets the Native American mission in counterpoint to the missionary movements to the Middle East.) Due to Ottoman restrictions on proselytizing to Muslims, the Americans focused their efforts primarily on the native Christians of the region; it was a missionary named Jonas King, in particular, who was most affecting to the young Shidyaq. Unlike many of his ilk, King was keen on learning the culture and ways of the local population. In the summer of 1825, he contracted with Shidyaq, who would be taken by King’s uncommon sincerity and extreme simplicity, to teach him Syriac.

Maronite authorities objected to Shidyaq’s conversion. They found it heretical and the handiwork of dangerous outsiders waiting to stir up trouble in an established Christian social order within the Muslim Ottoman Empire. In 1826 Shidyaq was summoned to the monastery of Mar Jirjis ‘Alma, where he was pressured to recant his beliefs publicly and affirm that his faith “was in accordance with the Roman Church.” He refused. He claimed not to be in complete harmony with the Americans and their ways but remained unwilling to submit to the Maronite authorities. “There is nobody like me, and I please nobody,” he is reported to have said. Eventually detained in the Qannubin Monastery, Shidyaq was starved and repeatedly tortured. Meanwhile, the Greek rebellion was sending shock waves through the Ottoman Empire, and the Americans, concerned for their safety, departed the region in 1828. They returned in 1830, but it was too late to save their convert. Shidyaq died soon thereafter.

Shidyaq was “the first to try to disassociate American ideas from American culture,” Makdisi writes, and his conversion troubled the status quo profoundly. The Maronite religious establishment would not allow its authority to be challenged by a “heretic.” The Shihab Emirs, the leaders of Mount Lebanon, likewise found no reason to aid someone who was upsetting the order of things. The British consul was standoffish. And although Shidyaq’s case was never presented to Ottoman authorities, it would have been treated as an internal Christian affair anyway, making Shidyaq “a casualty of Ottoman tolerance.” (Makdisi is strong in describing the complexities of coexistence between Christian and Muslim communities in Ottoman times.) The Americans, having come to “renovate the world,” but with no clue as to how the rest of the world functioned, had made a mess of things.

If As’ad Shidyaq is the martyr of Artillery of Heaven, Butrus al-Bustani is its hero. He had also converted to Protestantism and founded a Protestant church in Beirut in 1848, two years before Protestants were granted legal recognition by Ottoman rulers. Missionary schools at this time taught a great many things, including the English language, and this curriculum attracted many converts looking to expand their horizons in a new era. Such aspirations made the missionary elite nervous. Warning of “mercenary motives among the native Christians,” Rufus Anderson, the secretary to the American Board, demanded an end to English-language instruction. Only Arabic was to be taught at missionary schools. The aim of the missionary movement, after all, was to produce natives capable of running their own churches. “There were hierarchies to be maintained,” explains Makdisi. “Christian universalism did not imply, let alone mean, equality.”

Bustani’s patron at the time was the American maverick Cornelius Van Dyck. Unlike many other missionaries, Van Dyck mastered Arabic, believed in Christian fellowship across cultures and emphasized the importance of secular, scientific knowledge for all. Bustani and Van Dyck worked together in a relocated seminary in Abey. They also joined the Syrian Society of Arts and Sciences, a secular, progressive organization that delved into all questions except those concerning “religious rites and doctrines.”

Through these associations, Bustani eventually transformed a proselytizing American Christianity into an ecumenical proto-Arab nationalism. He had been part of a missionary system that endorsed the backward nature of the “Arab race” and that limited native education to the Arabic language, but by way of appropriation and adaptation, Bustani would champion the “Arab race,” extol the beauties of the Arabic language and become known as the father of the Arab renaissance. He would also compose a narrative about As’ad Shidyaq, drawing the lesson that for coexistence to succeed, church and state must be separated. By 1863 he had founded his National School, open to students from multiple religious backgrounds. (Within a few years, a new Arabic translation of the Bible was available, and the Syrian Protestant College–which would later become the American University of Beirut–was founded.) Ecumenicalism was its ethos, though students were still given religious instruction in their own faiths. The curriculum included literary and scientific subjects (taught in Arabic) and English, French, Greek, Latin and Turkish; in this way, Bustani’s vision was radically different from the Syrian Protestant College’s. The latter’s was paternalistic and narrow. Bustani’s was ecumenical and national. Naturally the American leadership found him to be “selfish, proud, and excessively vain.”

Makdisi is certainly not the first to locate the origins of Arab nationalism within the missionary movement, but that’s not really his aim. Rather, he wants to demonstrate that progressive, secular, ecumenical ideas have prospered in Lebanon, only to be repeatedly eradicated by insiders and outsiders, each according to their own agenda. “In Lebanon,” he writes, “coexistence has become a mantra rather than part of a credible historical narrative.”

Amin Maalouf’s Origins picks up where Artillery of Heaven leaves off, and while both books are intriguing, they benefit from being read together. Maalouf’s setting is the Greek Catholic villages of Mount Lebanon, and his story runs roughly from the latter part of the nineteenth century to the early years of the twentieth. Like Makdisi, he also focuses on two stories and describes a heady period of fluctuating authority, frustrated opportunities and new notions of citizenship and belonging. The first story concerns his paternal grandfather, Botros; the second, his great-uncle Gebrayel, who left Lebanon for the Americas at 18.

First published in France in 2004, Origins keeps the American missionaries largely offstage, their labors supplanted by local converts (the memory of Cornelius Van Dyck is acknowledged, and he is fondly remembered as a strict ascetic). A man named Khalil is one such convert. In 1882 he takes Botros under his wing, educating him until Botros leaves his village for Abey, where he eventually begins teaching in the American mission school. Despite his missionary education, Botros never converted to Protestantism. He did, however, excel in the study of English and Arabic, moving eventually to Beirut in 1894, where he studied law, Turkish and French before returning to teach Arabic rhetoric and mathematics, this time at the Greek Catholic Patriarch’s school in Zahle.

Unhappy with the teaching life, he opted to join his younger brother Gebrayel in the Americas in 1902, but emigration left Botros cold. He returned to Lebanon four years later, eventually marrying and establishing, to the horror of the Greek Catholic establishment, his own Universal School. Similar to Bustani’s, it would be an ecumenical institution that would enroll students from all denominations represented in the immediate vicinity: Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Maronite and Protestant. Rumors spread about Botros being an atheist. He wandered around the village without wearing anything on his head, and when he refused to have his children baptized he was considered a near lunatic. Still, the school opened in 1913, supported in part by American funds (which later raised the suspicions of the French Mandate authorities), and remained in operation for twenty-two years.

If Makdisi sees in Bustani’s story the example of a successful nationalism based on coexistence, Maalouf sees his grandfather as an embodiment of turn-of-the-century cosmopolitanism. From his early novel Leo Africanus (1986) to his later monograph In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong (1996), Maalouf has made cosmopolitanism one of his central concerns. It has its obvious seductions, especially in light of the era discussed in Origins, when the question of belonging–of what it means to be Lebanese or Christian or Ottoman–was at once dynamic and oppressive, open and restrictive. That Maalouf wants readers to grasp that the treacheries of this time anticipate Lebanon’s many contemporary divisions is not surprising, but perhaps his impatience with tolerance is. He disdains the concept, calling it “protection bestowed condescendingly by the conquerors on the conquered.” Cosmopolitanism is more what he is after, a pluralism that is generous and elastic and recognizes that people harbor multiple identities. Consider how he describes his grandparents’ world:

Their state was Turkey, their language Arabic, their province Syria, and their homeland the Lebanon Mountains. Of course, in addition, they had their diverse religious denominations, which probably weighed on their lives more than the rest. These allegiances did not exist in harmony, proof being the many massacres mentioned earlier; but there was a degree of fluidity about both names and frontiers, which vanished after the rise of the nationalist movements.

Maalouf labels this type of plural belonging patriotism, in contrast to the narrow cast of nationalism. He explains that Botros was electrified by the rebellion of the Young Turks in 1908, until their Turkocentric tail went way up (tragically for the Armenians). Botros had little patience for the Greek Catholic establishment and even less for the French. But he was not a Lebanese nationalist, according to Maalouf. He was an Ottoman “patriot.” Nationalists are exclusionary, whereas “patriots dreamed of an empire where diverse groups could coexist–groups speaking different languages and professing different beliefs, but united by a common desire to build a large modern homeland.”

True patriots are cosmopolitans who stay at home. But what about those who leave? Enter Maalouf’s great-uncle Gebrayel. Departing Lebanon in 1895 at 18, he landed in New York City, where he immediately fell in with a community of Cuban exiles, eventually adopting their struggle. By 1898 he had relocated with them to the newly liberated island, quickly achieving the archetypal success story of the Lebanese emigrant: leaving the village with no bags and just some olives and two loaves of bread, and ending up a decade later as one of the richest men in Cuba (or Mexico, Australia, Venezuela or Liberia).

Gebrayel struck out for Cuba during an era when Lebanese were leaving their homes in droves. Between 1890 and 1920, more than a third of Mount Lebanon’s peasants sailed to the Americas. For a long time the sectarian massacres of the 1860 war between Christians and Druses were thought to be the cause of such large-scale emigration, but recent scholarship has focused on contractions in the local and global economy. Maalouf simply suggests that disillusionment was common at the time: “All those who emigrated, all those who rebelled, and even all those who dreamed of a more equitable world, were chiefly motivated by the fact that they couldn’t fit into the social and political system that governed their mother country.” Maalouf left his mother country in 1976, after the outbreak of civil war, and relocated to Paris, where he still lives. Botros, like Gebrayel and the author, also left. But he returned and gave up on leaving, a decision that appears to have impressed Maalouf and even made him jealous of his grandfather. “The reason the country has fallen so low,” Botros wrote in a play he composed before leaving for the Americas, “is precisely because so many of its children choose to leave rather than reform it.”

The despair of such counsel is acute, and after finishing Origins, I was touched by its understated sadness about emigration’s dislocations. Call it another form of “transcendental homelessness.” Its melancholy doesn’t spring from the tragedy of dispossession, as with the Palestinian saga. Maalouf’s sorrow is smaller, his pathos expressed in a lower register. It’s as if he’s saying that emigration, with its promises of cosmopolitan worldliness, is a lonely trip where you collect your luggage alone at anonymous carousels and drive through bland, unfamiliar landscapes to nowhere, a bilingual dictionary in your pocket and the acrid taste of Nescafé on your tongue. Hope burns your bloodshot eyes as you wait to be embraced by new friends, or yearn for home. By abandoning the country of your origins, Maalouf seems to be asking, do you also leave your responsibilities, and something of yourself, behind? The cosmopolitanism of the emigrant may be easy to embrace, but the cosmopolitan who stays home is the real hero. “You’ve been living abroad for too long,” Maalouf is told by two elderly village men when he searches for his grandfather’s tombstone one day. “You’ve forgotten that around here we don’t visit the dead.”

In Egypt they do. My grandmother had never heard of the cinéaste Mohamed Bayoumi. Neither had my aunt or uncle. But that hasn’t stopped me from searching for a connection.

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