Lebanon through writers’ eyes, edited by T.J. Gorton and A.
Féghali Gorton. London: Eland, 2009. 296pp.
This attractively produced book presents a selection of extracts from writings about Lebanon, by both insiders and outsiders, from ancient times to the twenty-first century. Embracing an astonishing range of texts, it is arranged in four sections, entitled respectively 1. Phoenix and Cedar: Ancient and Medieval Views; 2. Orient of the Mind: Travellers from the West; 3. Identities; and 4. Wars. Each section is further subdivided, either chronologically or thematically, and preceded by a short introduction by the compilers. In all, extracts from over seventy writers are presented, ranging chronologically from the Egyptian Sinuhe’s account of his flight to Lebanon to escape disgrace in c. 1875 BC, to three extracts from Lebanon, Lebanon, ed. Anna Wilson, an anthology inspired by the Israel-Hizbullah conflict of summer 2006.
Of the four sections, the first two are arranged in chronological order, and present what may strike the reader as a well chosen but fairly conventional selection of extracts. The first (‘Phoenix and Cedar’) takes us from Sinuhe to Ibn Battuta (c.1325), and includes passages from well-known classical authors such as Homer, Herodotus and Strabo, as well as medieval Western and Middle Eastern travellers including Nasir-i Khusrau, William of Tyre and Ibn Jubair. The second section (‘Orient of the Mind’) presents extracts from works by Western travellers from Sir John Mandeville (c. 1360) to some of the twentieth-century ‘classic’ writers on the area such as Sir James Frazer, T.E.
Lawrence and Colin Thubron; this section also includes passages by a fair sprinkling of Western nineteenth-century writers (Kinglake, Flaubert, Renan, Pierre Loti, et al.) from the period when travel to the ‘Orient’ was gathering a momentum of its own, providing a fertile breeding ground for Edward Said’s theories on Orientalism and associated debates.
It is, however, with the third and fourth sections that this anthology really comes into its own. As the compilers note in their short introduction, one of the aims of the book is ‘to try to understand what it means to be Lebanese, or at least, what Lebanon variously means to its people’. The third section, divided into sections on ‘Religious Identity’, ‘Political Identity’ and ‘Literary Identity’, therefore attempts to explore some of the complex, overlapping facets of Lebanese identity, which is expressed, so the compilers note, ‘first through … religion, and then through a specific locality’; the resulting formulations (‘a Druze from Deir al-Qamar’, ‘a Maronite from Souq el-Gharb’ etc.) ‘[speak] volumes to someone who understands the codes’. Most of the extracts in this section are written by Lebanese themselves, who include leading academics such as Albert Hourani, as well as the mystic Lebanese-American Gibran Kahlil Gibran, almost certainly the Lebanese writer best known to the public at large.
The final section reminds us, if we needed any reminding, that for all its natural beauty, Lebanon has suffered wars ‘with almost predictable regularity’, and that ‘more than one book could be filled with the battles, sieges and massacres that have taken place on this small patch of ground’. Sensibly, however, the compilers have chosen to restrict the extracts in this section largely to the conflicts of the twentieth century, setting the scene with an extract from the enigmatic (and under-read) Colonel Charles Churchill’s The Druzes and the Maronites (1862), which gives a highly personal account of life on Mount Lebanon during the civil disturbances of 1860, and is essential reading for anyone wanting to get to grips with the more recent history of conflict in the country. Authors represented in this section include a variety of well-known names such as Thomas Friedman, Mahmoud Darwish, William Dalrymple, Robert Fisk and Brian Keenan, as well as leading Lebanese novelists such as Emily Nasrallah and Hoda Barakat.
Given the chronological span of this anthology across nearly four millennia, few readers are likely to be familiar with all the material included in this volume, and almost everyone is likely to find something new, challenging and unexpected. In short, highly recommended.