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PART VII
CONTEMPORARY DILEMMAS

Chapter 17
PRESENT LEBANESE PROBLEMS

Political changes overseas tended to affect the carry over of the group concept to a marked degree in Cleveland.

When the Lebanon, that mountain state of Greater Syria declared its independence in 1943 to become the country of Lebanon, an identity crisis arose among many Arab-Americans. It brought them and their non-Arab fellow Americans into a dilemma ranging from mild confusion to an extreme degree of nationalistic fervor that rose and fell according to the political stresses overseas and the argumentative abilities of partisans on this side of the water.

Those who had been known for decades in America as Syrians now had new options. While many of the early immigrants had come to America from Damascus, Aleppo and those cities of Greater Syria which remained unchanged in the political divisions, most of the Arab-Americans in Cleveland and neighboring Ohio cities found their ancestral ties within the newly declared country of Lebanon. To these people, the home cities and villages of which they had often spoken with warm remembrance and longing, those towns of Aramoon, Kuba, Khirbet, Zahleh, Aiteneet, Saghbein, Mazraha and Ma'asghura, were no longer in Syria, but in the new country, Lebanon. Therefore, they would now be called Lebanese, thus confusing their less-informed fellow Americans even more than themselves.

 


 

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"What's the difference between Syrian and Lebanese?" their neighbor would ask.

"Well, you see, there's this new country now, and they have been fighting for independence for a long time."

"From the Syrians?"

"Well no, from the Turks, and then from the French -- from the Mandate."

"Well, if you were Syrian before, and you spoke Arabic, what do you call your language now, Lebanese?"

"No, you see, there is no Lebanese language; we all have Arabic as a common language. All over the Middle East, and in North Africa, the language of the Arab countries is Arabic."

Then would come the questions about language, history, nationality, who is Arab and who is not, what is Phoenician and why -- questions which continue under discussion today, the answers based on personal preference, emotion or bias, and not always on fact.

It would be difficult to understand the basis for the attitudes and political sympathies of most Lebanese Americans if we did not first glance at the complexities of the long, tragic history of the Lebanese struggle for independence. Since most of their forebears came to America during the period of occupation of the mother country by the Turkish Empire, the first generations were raised in that deliberately divisive social environment established by the Turks, the previously mentioned millet.

 


 

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In this social structure in the motherland, politics, religion, government and group interaction were each dependent on the other, and this influence bore a heavy impression on the Lebanese in America.

In the latter centuries under occupation, nationalistic rebellions broke out throughout Syria, most often in the hilly and hard to control Lebanon. These uprisings, motivated by patriots like Youssef Bey Karam, became more frequent and volatile during the middle 19th century. The Turks, in order to circumvent unification of the rebellions, would resort to their millet system to pit village against village and group against group, until finally the rebellions were reduced to infighting between one political faction and another, one religious faction and another.

Since most of the inhabitants of the Lebanon were Christian, the struggles became pitched battles between the Christian villages of the Lebanon and neighboring Druze or Moslem groups. That these confrontations of one group against the other were incited by the occupying force, the Turkish Empire, their common enemy, was too often forgotten by the warring factions.

It was Youssef Bey Karam who led the most intense of these revolutions against the Turkish government in 1860 in an effort to gain independence for the mountainous Lebanon region. With little manpower and less ammuni­tion, he nevertheless managed to outmaneuver the Turkish Army in several battles. The uprising, however, deteriorated from revolution to a series of massacres, some perpetrated by the Turkish forces, some incited by them, pitting one group against another.

The massacres of the Year of '60, El Sinth el Sitheen, were never forgotten by the Lebanese, and atrocity stories in increasingly explicit

 


 

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detail were recounted by generation after generation, strong in dramatic content but weak in cause and effect. Since the Turks were Muslims, then, the followers of Islam, be they Syrians, Turks or Lebanese came to be perceived by the Christians as the persecutors of 1860.

The memory of 1860 was one of the major factors that led to the final independence of Lebanon. Politics was little separated from religion, and, sadly, it was often forgotten by both Christians and Muslims that the early intellectuals, poets, and philosophers, who wrote, fought, and died for that long-sought independence were Christians, Muslims, and Druze whose love of the land transcended the limitations of religious affiliation.

In the final years before the dream of independence became at best a doubtful reality, the Roman Catholic influence of the French Mandate on the Eastern Christian Church, and that of American Protestant missionaries in Lebanese villages added to the sense of separateness of the Lebanon, whose inhabitants were in the majority Christian, from the rest of Greater Syria.

The governmental structure of Lebanon, based on representation by religious groups according to majority, in itself perpetuated the Turkish millet. The Lebanese, however, seemed to be able to function well enough in this system until the late 1950's, when the social inequities became so unbearable that a revolution broke out in 1958. From that time until the present, the system with its encapsulated power structures has been under attack periodically, either in politics or by outbreaks of violence. The civil war which began in Lebanon in 1975 not only split that country asunder but heaped confusion, fear and frustration upon the Lebanese-American community in the United States. The old clan and group loyalties,

 


 

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which for a time had been overcome by a concentrated Arab-American effort to cut across the religious, social, nationality and political patterns, came into prominence once again.

Religious differences deepened, partisanship intensified, and the sense of separateness created by the closing in of the groups gave the Arab-American community in the United States its first major regression in more than a hundred years.

In analyzing the political complexities which confront the Lebanese of Lebanon, the Lebanese expatriates of the civil war, and those Lebanese Americans who have allowed themselves to become embroiled in the politics of that nation, David Nader, a graduate student at Cleveland State Univer­sity says in a paper presented in 1979:

Many of the expatriates, unable to put aside the struggle which consumes their nation, have transplanted rivalries which make Lebanese politics the most complicated in the Middle East into their new country, putting a strain on relations between the diverse ethnic and religious groups which make up Cleveland's large and heterogenous Arab-American community . . . there is evidence that the events in Lebanon, combined with the influx of the escapees of that conflict, may have aggravated long­standing religous and ethnic rivalries within the community which time and the balm of assimilation had begun to heal . . . it would be ridiculous to pretend that the bloody events in Lebanon, events in which almost everyone in that community has a personal stake, have not created a degree of factional division . . From "The Unwilling Immigrants."

 


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