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Hidden identities: writing Lebanon's history

While Lebanon confounds historians, Beirut is revealed as both den of inequity and laboratory for political thought in Samir Kassir’s fascinating book about the capital.

In the 50-minute documentary A History Lesson, the director Hady Zaccak follows the curriculum of five private high schools in Beirut as their teenage students learn the history of Lebanon for the first time. Most already have a firm grasp of some world history's key events. What they know of Lebanon's past is, however, limited to what knowledge they've picked up outside the classroom.

The national curriculum for history and civic education is supposedly standardised across all secondary schools in Lebanon, but what the students in Zaccak's film actually end up learning, at the average age of 14, turns out to be incredibly inconsistent. Moreover, their history lesson ends in 1943, when Lebanon ceased to be a French protectorate and declared itself an independent republic with an Arab face (to borrow the famous formulation of the National Pact, which came into being that year, recalibrated the country's position between east and west and solidified the sectarian structure of the state, a temporary measure doomed to perpetuity).

Originally made for Al Jazeera's documentary channel, A History Lesson got its theatrical release in Beirut last month. The film shows the students to be totally scrambled by the past. When asked to name the heroes of Lebanon's independence, a few name Beshara al Khoury and Riad al Solh, the president and prime minister, respectively, of the new republic. But the rest run through a disturbing litany of historical figures, from Khomeini to Napoleon and even Hitler. The film paints a damning portrait of an education system in freefall and illustrates the long struggle to unify Lebanon's modern history in a single, serviceable textbook.

In 1989, the signing of the Taif Agreement brought an end to Lebanon's 15-years civil war. In addition to restructuring the National Pact and naming the abolition of political sectarianism as a national goal, Taif expressly called for the development of a new curriculum in history and civic education that would serve to strengthen national belonging and promote a culture of understanding. For the next three years, a committee of historians met to hammer out a common textbook that would be acceptable to all of Lebanon's different factions.

They did eventually agree on a text and they did publish a book. But the country's political class rejected it, so the new curriculum was never implemented. Students today learn a version of history that has not evolved in decades. "The history of Lebanon," says a parent in Zaccak's film, "is stagnant".

Stagnant it may be, but as the writer Samir Kassir said in an interview in 1994 with The Beirut Review, the hard work of writing Lebanon's history is "something all Lebanese have to do if they want to build a political society which is not built on lies". Kassir was talking about his just-published history of Lebanon's civil war, characterised by his interviewer, Michael Young, as "the most authoritative historical account of a war that has produced a plethora of journalistic book and memoirs, but virtually no comprehensive historical overviews.".

Kassir's book, La guerre du Liban: De la dissension nationale au conflit régional, covered the civil war from the initial explosion of violence in 1975 through the Israeli invasion of 1982. Although it was released four years after the war's end, Kassir wrote most of it while the conflict was still raging. He said he planned to write another book, covering the later stages of the war, in a few years' time. He never got the chance. In 2005, Kassir was killed in a car-bomb blast on the street below his apartment in Beirut, the second in a series of assassinations that continued for nearly three years.

Most of the other victims were political figures. Kassir's death was different, because he was a thinker, a well-respected journalist, an inspiring professor at the Université Saint Joseph and a theorist who, as one of the founding members of the Democratic Left Movement in Lebanon, was capable of putting radical secular politics into practice.

Despite multiple investigations, Kassir's killers have never been called to account. That he never wrote the second volume of his civil war study is a great loss. That he was distracted from that task by the writing of several other books offers only small comfort.

Most magisterial of all these works is Kassir's 600-page history of Beirut, which was published in English for the first time last month. The book proves Beirut to be a far more coherent object of historical study than Lebanon itself. For one thing, the city predates the state by a good 5,000 years. For another, while Lebanon was effectively an invention pieced together from a few remnants of the Ottoman Empire, "Beirut was, and is, a very real place," writes Kassir, a smattering of urban settlements inhabited since the stone age, despite rounds of destruction by fire, earthquake and war. What came together as a Roman colony passed through Byzantium, the expansion of Islam, the Crusades, the Muslim restoration under the Mamluks, four centuries of Ottoman rule, a brief but consequential interlude of Egyptian occupation, the French Mandate, the emergence of the modern state, its utter self-destruction and ensuing postwar reconstruction.

Kassir tackles the city in stages, and pays special attention to its spectacular transformation in the 19th century, when it shifted from minor backwater to major hub, thanks to the prescient expansion of its port on the eve of the steamship's invention. More than just a chronological account, however, Kassir's Beirut plots the history of the city along four axes: social history, urban history, the history of mentalities and the history of ideas. This gives rise to a fascinating argument: "Beirut stands out among the cities of its age," he writes, "not only for having helped to formulate the concept of Arab modernity, but also for having helped make it a living thing - even if, in doing so, Beirut lured itself into a dead end."

Kassir's articulates that argument through a kind of conceptual ruse. He sustains his reader's interest by holding the city's historic core in hand throughout the book, even as he explores Beirut's unruly growth. But when the historic core empties - wrecked in the early days of the civil war and then largely abandoned until the advent of Solidere in the mid 1990s - Kassir sets his subject aside. He does not reach the outbreak of the war, on April 13, 1975, until page 511. Then, when he picks up Beirut's story again about 10 pages and five pictures later, the print equivalent of a pregnant pause, we are well into the postwar period, and seriously disoriented by the slick appearance of the new downtown. Here, Kassir writes a spoof of the typical "phoenix rising from the ashes" travel story that has characterised the city's press coverage for a decade, before segueing into a devastating analysis of what Beirut has become, set against what it was and what it could have been.

"The temptation was great to speak of the city under siege," he writes. "But to have given in to that temptation would have distorted my fundamental purpose in writing this book, which as the history of a city must be a tale of civility ... and not a tale of its death."

Beirut gives full expression to the complicated love-hate relationship that so many people have with the city. But Kassir never resorts to romance, mythology or nostalgia. His depiction of Beirut's golden age, for example, is particularly clear-sighted, detailing how the area around Martyrs' Square, firmly lodged in the popular imagination as the city's most riveting cosmopolitan space, was, by the end of the 1960s, a seedy spread of downmarket hotels.

He also keeps a close eye on crime and culture. Throughout the book, Kassir studies the shape-shifting figures of the qabadayat, gang leaders who profited handsomely from exacerbating sectarian differences, and establishing geographies of fear through the peddling of services such as protection and extortion.

At the same time, though, he reads Beirut through the work of its artists, poets, playwrights and filmmakers, as well as through the subterranean existence of its spies, playboys, jetsetters, beauty queens and madams. These interests converge in Kassir's account of Beirut - not Lebanon - as the true embodiment of both the merchant republic and the republic of Arab letters.

The coexistence of those two layers made Beirut what it was - a rambunctious playground, a laboratory for political thought, a den of inequity - just as they opened up the city to its eventual ruin. For his final image of Beirut on the edge of civil war, Kassir alludes to a musical by Ziad Rahbani, Nazl al-Surur, "about the sudden appearance of a tramp bitten by the bug of revolution at a boardinghouse filled with the most dissimilar people imaginable".

"Beirut," Kassir concludes, "this miscellaneous city where people … were thrown together, had long attracted contraries, but it was no longer capable of making a synthesis from them."

It would probably be too much for teachers to ask their teenage pupils to slog through Kassir's Beirut. But like the idea of a national curriculum, they would be enriched by the effort. Their reading would also cultivate a critical sense of belonging in Beirut, by choice, experimentation and lived experience, rather than by birth, wealth or family pedigree. At least Kassir's book will be around for the more curious students to find.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie is a staff writer for The Review based in Beirut