Adonis Diaries

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“Lebanon: safeguarded by its culture”? by Phares Zoghbi

August 19, 2007 “Liban: le salut par la culture” 

I am a frequent visitor to the Phares Zoghbi’s library in Cornet Shehwan and which was turned over to the University of Saint Joseph for management. This private library is to find domicile at Zoghbi’s house.

Phares Zoghbi’ is a renown lawyer and is 94 years old.  I asked the resident director of the library, Rita Zoghbi (not a relative), about books that Maitre Zoghbi has published and she gave me two for free, both written in French: “Liban: le salut par la culture” and “A livres ouverts, une vie de souvenirs(An open book: A life of remembrance), a biographical book.

Two months ago, I overheard Maitre Phares asking Rita about the final count on the books in his library and she replied: “I think we reached over 50,000 manuscripts and counting”.  Most of the manuscripts and magazines are in French and Arabic, and the library host rare books on legal matters and legal opinions.

The following critical summary merges the two books because the philosophical views of the author are shared in both books.  I didn’t translate the French quotations into English and thus, the style is hybrid.  It is funny that even the word processor is very confused trying to auto-correct the typos.

“Liban: le salut par la culture” discusses the meaning of culture, the Lebanese political and social realities and the viable remedies, the Lebanese national pact, the genesis of Maitre Phares’ philosophical views, the subject of the Francophone, a sarcastic description of the US dollars supremacy, and other topics.

The chapters on Lebanon are interesting and offer rich perspectives; even the many sections that deal with topics about the social and political problems of Lebanon, which I am familiar with, are worth reading carefully because I discovered a few gems and personal and historical facts.

The definition of culture and what culture is needed for the Lebanese as a people is worth diagnosing.  During the colloquium of Avignon in April 1982 that discussed establishing a Euro-Afro-Arab university in Alexandria (Egypt), since Lebanon was still involved in a civil war, Jacques Berque said: “La culture c’est le movement d’une societe qui s’ efforce de chercher ses explications et de se donner une expression”.

I quote “La culture n’est plus fin de partie, elle est appareillage; un projet de retrouvaille qui ramasse le passe, le présent et le future dans une perspective d’un grand dessein qui galvanise les désirs et les espoirs, un projet qui œuvre sur l’environnement, produit du médiat et de l’immédiat”.

In that perspective, Maitre Zoghbi delineates the following principles for a socio-historic research for our culture:

1. Islam admits the idea of a State-nation. There is nowhere mention in the Koran or in the hadith that when Moslems are part of a nation that Islam should dominate.

2. As the Christian religion should not be confounded with the periods of inquisition, Islam experienced long periods of tolerance and the sourate of the Table is an example.

3. That historically and sociologically, the culture of any community cannot dissociate from its surrounding.

4. If the West is presently our primary source of cultural nourishment, the East is our lot, our beginning and our destination.

5. That this enterprise of long-term cultural osmoses and synthesis should not entitle any constraints in religion, ethnic particularities, any refusal of differences as long as the communal effort is preserved.

In support of these principles, the author was encouraged by the views of many intellectuals that converged with his opinions like Antoine Messarra, Michel Hayek, Roger Arnaldez, Hisham Nachabi, Youssef Ibech,  Sobhi Saleh, Rene Habashi, and Jean Maroun.

What is disturbing is that the author failed to mention Antoun Saaadeh who wrote in 1940:

“Islam (peace) in his two messengers: Jesus and Mohammad” and proved that the fundamentals of these two religions do not differ and that, when thirteen years later Mohammad established firmly his message, he had to deal with the socio-economic and political divergences among the tribes and had to codify their behaviors and thus, interpretations were necessary and differences with evolving societies required fine tuning…”

My impression is that the author followed the auto-censorship in the Lebanese system to keep Sa3adeh a taboo name, otherwise credibility would be robbed from the author and his ideas utterly invalidated.

Frankly, I have realized that auto-censorship for a long while in this confessional, feudal, and isolationist system that exhibited fascistic pressures on cultural movements that might exhibit serious threat to its survival.

Maitre Zoghbi explained in great length the historical creation of the Republic of Lebanon.

In 1919, Father Henri Lammens summed up the historical evolution of the Syrian nationality in well defined geographical borders and tradition, which the classical Antiquity and the Greek, Roman, and Arab empires recognized the fact that the people within these natural borders constitute one nation.

In fact, the colonial powers recognized that the people in the Near East constituted a cohesive entity within natural boundaries linking the east and Africa with rich and qualified human resources,  natural raw materials, and might eventually disrupt the colonial trade and expansion.

The current political States, established by the mandatory powers, should not erase the fact that we are one people in history, geography and culture, regardless of political consensus among the political states to live as independent States.

It is true that Israel would like to divide these States even further according to religious sects in order to provide political legitimacy to its existence and also to be able to subjugate these tiny and helpless States, one State at a time.  The Israeli archives prove that the Maronite Patriarchs and the Maronite parties of “Al Ketlate Al Watania” of the Edde family and “Al Kataeb” of the Gemayel family were in constant negotiations with Zionism, long before its foundation as the State of Israel.  Many Maronite clergy and political leaders were in cohort with Zionism so that it might acquire some political legitimacy in Lebanon in the face of the Moslem majority.

It is true that genuine representative democracy should offer minorities, whether religious sects, classes, or professions, proportional representation in parliament, government and jobs.  Thus, our genius should be directed at easing the apprehension of the minorities and establishing a unified civil code that group us as one people under the law.

First, we should start by diminishing the powers relegated to the 18 recognized religious sects,  the de facto ruler of our lives from birth to death. For the central government to recover its responsibilities over all the Lebanese citizens it can start by taxing heavily the financial resources of these religious hierarchies and gradually recuperating the duties that the central government is entitled to in modern democracies.

Since our independence in 1943, the motto of ruling class was that we need first to erase the confessional inclinations from our mind before putting in writing a civil code, as if it is possible to reach a civil society without first codifying our civil status as the law of the land.

The National Pact of 1943 for tiny Lebanon was not bad in itself if the intention was to represent the various communities constituting the Lebanese fabric, but it quickly degenerated into a confessional oligarchy of spoilage of the political privileges between the feudal and financial figures of the Maronite and Sunny sects, which dominated the urban centers and economic comprador infrastructure.

The flawed electoral systems since the independence meant the hegemony of the leaders of the two sects; it is so true that leaders in these two sects had to run in the districts of Bekaa, Akar, and the south in order to win a seat in the parliament when they failed in their own districts.  The various alternative electoral systems prevented a normal evolution toward a stable democracy because political secular parties and associations were unable to be represented and when they had the popular support then the governments managed to cheat them out of their due rights; this political system could not generate a stabilizing effect in our multi-religious society.  Lebanon suffered two “military coup d’etat” simply because the system refused to recognize the election of secular figures.

My opinion is that it seems that the Lebanese intelligence is not so far working toward a stable and secure State after over 65 years of independence from the French mandate.  What is needed is to create a bi-level parliament; one parliament would be constituted by political parties, professional associations and syndicates in a proportional quota and the other parliament represented by one deputy for one electoral district so that all religious minorities will be represented. The latter parliament would have a certain level of veto power over specific legislations by the former parliament and would also cater specifically to the individual districts.

It is hoped that the combined number of deputies in both parliaments should never exceed 128 deputies who are taxing heavily our resources and providing largess to their descendents in amenities and political privileges.

The issue of national resistance against the successive aggressions of Israel on Lebanon and the neighboring Arab States has been discussed.  The author mentioned the articles of Michel Chiha in the daily “Le Jour” where he warned in 1948, four days after the foundation of the State of Israel, that resistance is a question of life and death for the Near East and Egypt.

Again, either the author wanted to restrict his references to articles written in French and didn’t want to venture into translating from Arabic manuscripts or he just wanted to select articles that appeared in the daily “L’Orient Le Jour”, or most probably the auto-censor is working against the teaching of Antoun Saaadeh.  The leader Saaadeh has founded a party in 1937 for the purpose of uniting the people against the Zionism development; he warned that if an organized force is not formed to counter the ever expanding forces of Zionism then the State of Israel will be founded and we will have to suffer the consequences of precarious existence for centuries.

Sa3adeh also was the first to warn that oil is an international weapon that was not used to counter the schemes of the Western nations in Palestine.  Actually, Sa3adeh was summarily executed because the British and American were anxious to have the oil pipeline “Tapeline” contract ratified and Habib Abu Chahla, the appointed Lebanese lawyer for Tapeline, was the force behind convincing the President of the Republic Bechara Khoury to get rid of that Saadeh nuisance to the comprador economy.

Since every single one of our problems is current from the time of our Independence, and getting worse, it is worthwhile to discuss the immediate quagmire about the election of a new president to the Republic.  And since the President is elected by the members of the parliament it would be fair to suggest that the timing of the election to the Chamber of deputies be done four months before the end of the term of the President in order to correspond to the wishes of the people.

Obviously, the terms of the deputies must be modified from four to three years or one third of the chamber should be renewed every two years.  The President should be given the right to dismiss the parliament once in his term and also to dismiss the government once in his term so that the system can avoid these gridlocks so very frequent in our history and go back to the people for referendums.

If we have any intelligence left to organize our society, it is about time to re-think a Constitution that has learned from our constant and frequent political troubles and insert any revised national pact into the one an unique Constitution as the foundation for our survival and progress.

A section in “Lebanon: safeguarded by its culture” was reserved to analyze the Sepharade Jews, over 65% of the Jews in Israel, who came from the Arab States and carried with them the customs and traditions of the Orient and were forced not to learn Arabic and dissociate from their oriental culture as a heavy baggage for the development of a modern Israel.

“A livre ouverts: une vie de souvenirs” by Phares Zoghbi is a biography of an individual trying to discover his entity, his culture, and his philosophy to life.  The author lost his father when he was ten and his mother had to let go of her son when his married uncle without child volunteered to adopt him in Lebanon.

From a care free life style in Brazil the author had to experience a controlled and restricted atmosphere where communication was limited since the new family could not speak Portuguese and he could not speak Arabic or Spanish.  I was pained that the author had to forget and forgo the Portuguese language when he moved to Lebanon and had to learn Arabic and French.  It is my contention that a language that you can master its reading is an additional soul that enriches your perspectives and enlarges your horizon and increases your moral character and diversifies your philosophy on life.

Maitre Phares is one of thousands of Lebanese children like me who had to learn or relearn their mother tongue when born overseas, simply because we have no strong national spirit to unite us and stick to a national language which is Arabic.

The schools overseas that teach Arabic are so scarce and so poorly taken seriously that we feel plagued by an inferiority complex that drives us to master other languages to an extreme.  The problem of how a language can balance between the scientific exigencies and the cultural demands is even more acute in Arabic, notwithstanding that updates on the new development and social changes that require new terminologies and different structure in expression are not followed up.

Maitre Fares mentioned several people and books that affected his system of beliefs such as Emmanuel Mounier “Le Personnalisme”, Denis de Rougemont “L’Aventure occidental de l’homme”, Jean Guiton “Portrait de M. Pouget”, Pierre Boisdeffre ” Metharmorphose de la litterature de Barres a Malraux”, A.M. Alberes “L’Aventure intellectuelle du XX siecle”, Jorge Amado “Bahia de tous les saints”, Rene Habachi “De l’homme et de la connaissance”, Malraux, Bergson “L’Energie spirituelle”, Teilhard de Chardin “Le phenomene human”, Camus, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and Michel Foucault in “Les mots et les Choses” who is the representative of the Structuralism movement that announced the “death of man” and the irrelevance of the subject matter since human kind is basically doomed even before Earth vanishes to smithereens.  I quote: “Man is an invention that the archeology of our thinking easily proves that man is a recent creature and that his end is coming soon”.

Claude Levi-Strauss has become a major source to Maitre Zoghbi to comprehend structuralisme or the new science mouvement; Levi-Strauss’ published  books are: “Tristes Tropiques”, “Mythologiques: le cru et le cuit”, “Du miel aux cendre”, “L’Origine des manières de table”, and “L’Homme nue”.  Maitre Zoghbi is on the lookout for any philosophy that would restore his belief in man and personal evolution.  The favorite magazines (revues) of Phares Zoghbi were Esprit and Les Temps Modernes.

I am proud and happy that our neighborhood has a library founded by the sweat and dedication of an internationally cultured man.  I am still baffled why Maitre Phares decided on the Ph in his name instead of the simple F.




June 2023

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