In Memoriam: Kamal Salibi, a scholar of Arab history

In Memoriam: Kamal Salibi, a scholar of Arab history
Feature: For Salibi, an Arab historian and nationalist, Arab nationalism was not a political ideology but rather a unifying cultural identity.
4 min read
02 May, 2015

This is the first part of a series on the life and works of the late Kamal Salibi.

Kamal Salibi was one of the great Arab historians of the last half century. His work on Lebanese and Arab history won him respect in academic circles and wide popular recognition.

Sadly, Salibi passed away on 1 September 2011. Today, Saturday 2 May, would have been his 86th birthday. On this occasion, I would like to pay tribute to his original contribution to our understanding of the ancient and modern history of the Arab region, its peoples, languages, cultures and religions.

At the American University of Beirut

My acquaintance with Kamal Salibi goes back to my student days at the AUB in the late 1950s. He joined AUB as a young and handsome professor of history with a great academic reputation.

To me, however, he was an adversary to keep at a distance. He was perceived in my circuit of Arab nationalists as the intellectual guide of Lebanese nationalists.

My acquaintance with Kamal Salibi goes back to my student days at the AUB in the late 1950s.

When I came back to live in Beirut nine years later in 1967, Kamal Salibi had published his book on the modern history of Lebanon, which I made a point of reading, only to conclude that it still reflected an outlook not consistent with my Arab nationalist sentiments.

More than two decades elapsed from that early and superficial encounter in the 1950s and 1960s before we met person to person in Amman in 1985, thanks to mutual friends of AUB alumni.

To me that was a greatly welcome opportunity, because in the meantime I had read his second book on Lebanon "The Modern History of Lebanon". This book was a major departure from the earlier book. It illuminated the Arab origin of the people of Lebanon and the Maronites in particular.

Of course, this fresh reading of history appealed to my political convictions. But this by itself was by no means the prime reason for welcoming the opportunity to seek his friendship.

More than anything else, it was the great impression he made on me with the intellectual integrity and moral courage that prompted him simply to change his views once historical data and their correct interpretation required it.

Salibi's classic text on Lebanese history

In subsequent years he continued examining the Lebanese predicament, developing his views further, articulating them in 1990 in his book "A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered".

In this gem of a book, he marshalled his prodigious scholarship as historian to confront the "rhetoric surrounding the Lebanese identity". The book shines with profound understanding of the culture of the region and its peoples, rulers, and geography.

Courageously, he set about providing the factual ingredients for the formation of a collective memory for the Lebanese to overcome their religious, tribal, and other sub-national loyalties, and converge on nation-building of Lebanon as a democratic state governed equitably by all its citizens for the collective interest of all its citizens.

In this book, he signals a new era in Lebanese history when this small country's past "ceases to be a question of political rights and wrongs... and acquires more meaning with respect to the present, and even more with respect to the future."

Tenure in Amman

He said he felt perfectly at home and identified with the people in a Yemeni village as much as he did in a Lebanese village.

In Amman, we met very frequently, week after week. Our conversations were shared by a small number of other friends, many of them friends from my student days at AUB.

The subjects of dialogue between us included discussion of his writings and research projects, but was mainly concerned with current events and issues. There were occasions of work assignments for the government or the Royal Court, or the Institute of Interfaith Studies.

A telling example of such occasions was when he once shared with me the task of drafting a reply letter from late King Hussein to President Castro of Cuba; the two heads of state were exchanging opinions, agonising over the dangers facing Iraq and the Arab region at the time, and discussing ways and means of persuading Saddam Hussein to reverse the disastrous policies that eventually led him and Iraq into total disaster.

On other occasions he asked me to review drafts of his books. In some cases, such as in the case of his "Short History of Jordan", I was glad to be of help; on other occasions, where the subject was outside my competence, I just enjoyed the privilege of being among the early readers.

It was obvious to me he enjoyed his time in Amman. He felt at home, and his house there was purchased, not rented.

It was also obvious to me that he believed in a Pan-Arab identity, not as a political ideology but as a unifying cultural identity. He once told me in all seriousness that on his visits to South Arabia (Hadramout, Yemen), he felt perfectly at home and identified with the people in a Yemeni village as much as he did in a Lebanese village."