The 'Lebanese origins' of the world

The 'Lebanese origins' of the world
Comment: Successful people of supposed Lebanese descent can be found all around the world, but, Bassel Salloukh asks, what about those who toil away to build a better Lebanon?
5 min read
27 Apr, 2016
Juliana Awada (above), from Lebanese origins, is the first lady in Argentina [AFP]

So what is the connection between the current political crisis in Brazil and the challenges of life in postwar Lebanon?

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is facing an impeachment - some even say a coup - which, if carried through, may bring her vice-president, Michel Temer, to the helm.

And what's so special about Temer, aside from his unpopularity, shady background, and connection to the Brazilian oligarchs? Well, he happens to hail from Lebanese origins.

Ditto for Columbia's Shakira and Julio César Turbay, president from 1978 to 1982, Mexico's Salma Hayek and Carlos Slim Helú, Argentina's Yamila Diaz, the French-Lebanese-Brazilian Carlos Ghosn, a long list of Americans that includes Tony Shalhoub, Michael Ellis DeBakey, Georges Harik, Helen Thomas, Charles Elachi, Danny Thomas, General John P Abizaid, George Mitchell, and the adroit diplomat Philip Habib - and, of course, Rula Saade Ghani and Juliana Awada, present first ladies respectively in Afghanistan and Argentina.

The list may be endless.

There is of course nothing wrong with digging up the ethno-national origins of successful peoples of immigrant backgrounds, no matter how far back the genealogy goes.

This is especially true in today's dark times, when wars and poverty in the global south are driving thousands away from their homes in search of new beginnings and the chance of a decent life. And such mass movements are invariably followed by xenophobia and racism in host countries - reflexive feelings exacerbated by IS terrorism and a complicated relationship with the failure of European multiculturalism, the continent's structural economic transformations, and the arrogant geopolitical calculations of many Western governments.

There is of course nothing wrong with digging up the ethno-national origins of successful peoples of immigrant backgrounds

But this exercise tends to reach obsessive levels in Lebanon, where the media doubles as a PR agency searching for Lebanese immigrants who succeed away from the lands of their parents, grandparents, or great grandparents.

The problem with this very Lebanese pastime is that it makes two false assumptions and another grave omission.

It assumes that all these successful peoples are descendants of "Lebanese", surely an imagined ahistorical anachronism given that most of their ancestors migrated from the region when Lebanon as a political entity had yet to be created. After all, the Lebanon we have today was created by the French mandatory authorities in 1920 on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

The obsession with "Lebanese origins" also assumes that the success of these people is somehow connected to their cultural roots, always a false premise based on exaggerated notions of the power of cultural explanations. In fact, their success in their adopted homelands points in the exact opposite direction.

These peoples "of Lebanese origin" succeeded in their new homes not because of an immutable cultural DNA, the so-called Phoenician entrepreneurial spirit, but because they find themselves immersed in new incentive structures, ones that value and reward merit and innovation over clientelism and nepotism.

There is of course something to be said about the hard work ethic of immigrant communities, especially first generations, but this is a global phenomenon linking peoples of widely diverse cultural backgrounds, from Chinese immigrants in Malaysia to their Lebanese counterparts in British Columbia.

Celebrating the successes of people of "Lebanese origin" also glosses over the myriad everyday success stories accomplished in Lebanon against all political economic odds.

After all, many Lebanese refuse to surrender to the sectarian system's clientelist and neopatrimonial networks. They resist the sectarian incentive structures through sheer hard work, resoluteness, and creativity.

One meets them among the palliative care pioneers bringing hope to hopeless cases, the private sector companies discovering imaginative ways to recycle expired medicines and wastes, the legions of working mothers without whose salaries many families fail to make ends meet, the start-ups operating on limited credit, the medical doctors inventing new operating techniques, the educators driven by sheer will and determination despite artificially depressed salaries, the archaeologists racing against time to save the country's cultural heritage, the novelists rewriting alternative histories of the present, the young artists trying to break into the international scene, and the army of citizens inventing everyday forms of resistance against the sectarian elite's political economy and ideological hegemony in a Herculean effort to insist on their rights as citizens rather than sectarianised subjects.

Who cheers for this invisible army of Lebanese uninhibited by claims of cultural origins and purity?

Who cheers for this invisible army of Lebanese uninhibited by claims of cultural origins and purity? Their lives tell us a very different story than that celebrated by the proponents of the "Lebanese origin" thesis - and by those living off the corruption of the sectarian system and the non-productive logic of a lopsided rentier economy.

So the next time the media discovers a celebrity "of Lebanese origin", think of the invisible heroes toiling under Lebanon's disciplinary sectarian rentierism, and their struggles to remake society in their own pristine image - a society based on the rule of law, a set of basic inalienable civil rights, and respect for the country's intercultural diversity.

Think of those who refuse to give up their claim over a place they call home and the site of their childhood memories; of their right to cross the street without the fear of sudden death or sexual harassment; of their demand for better services in return for the taxes they pay; and of their moral determination to abide by the law even if everyone else breaks it as a matter of fact and habit.

They also deserve to be celebrated. After all, they are making a society worth living in, rather than escaping from.

Dr Bassel F. Salloukh is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut. His recent publications include the co-authored The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (Pluto Press, 2015), "The Arab Uprisings and the Geopolitics of the Middle East" in The International Spectator (June 2012), the co-authored Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012).

His current research looks at post-conflict power-sharing arrangements, the challenge of re-assembling the political orders and societies of post-uprisings Arab states, and the geopolitics of the Middle East after the popular uprisings. Follow him on Twitter: @bassel67

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.