Troubled and troublesome

Identities in the Middle East continue to haunt and raise questions—two books reviewed

Every stroll in the Eastern Mediterranean lands means walking in the presence of some historic reference. Transformed into politics and national ideologies, history has long been a tool of identity building. When looking at identity politics, these days may we squirm over the rise of new, presumably white identity politics in the United States or how questions of national identity have in recent years been shaping politics in the European sphere, as epitomized in the Brexit vote. In discourses of academic belief systems around the developed world in the 21st century, one might moreover deride identities as constructs of colonial-nationalistic Europe in the 19th century, or oppose identity concepts on contemporary intellectual grounds. But to escape from identity-driven views will likely be harder in Middle Eastern societies than in any European or American ivory tower.  With that in mind, Executive looks at two books with implications for national identities in the Levant.    

In Search of the Phoenicians by Josephine Quinn Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2018 Hardcover, 360 pages

The book “In Search of the Phoenicians” by Josephine Quinn opens—not counting her introduction—with a 1946 quote by then freshly minted Member of the Lebanese Parliament, Kamal Jumblatt. The quote bubbles with fervor for the Lebanese “ancient young country” and, as Quinn points out, not only connects the nation of Lebanon with the Phoenicians through history and geography but passionately portrays the Phoenicians as being responsible for the idea of the nation itself. In Jumblatt’s phrasing, optimism for Lebanon is rooted via backward projection in the ancient history of the Phoenician coast which saw “the emergence of the first civic state.”

The idea of how a democratic Lebanon in the 21st century might or might not be validated by Phoenician roots—however timely such a discussion might appear in the context of the country’s current quest for a sustainable future and its “economic identity”—is not what drives Quinn, who teaches ancient history at Oxford University in the United Kingdom. Nor is the book really about a search for anything but evidence that the Phoenicians might have been people whose collective identities never rose above the level of their own towns or even families. “The Phoenicians, I will suggest in this book, constitute just such a case,” Quinn writes in her introduction.

The specifics of Quinn’s book thus is a tale of anti-Phoenicianism, as she dedicates her investigation to the deconstruction of any notion, if anyone harbors such, that the Phoenicians were actually a coherent people or nation in their golden era during the first millennium BC. This academic quest and anti-Phoenician stance is directed not against the Phoenician people per se or against the construction of national identities but mainly against the use of the Phoenicians as a paradigm in nation-building myths and nationalist ideologies in later antiquity and in modern ages in Europe and the Middle East. Quinn clarifies in a promotional interview for her book on the Princeton Press website that she does not at all deny the existence of the Phoenicians. She says, “The people we call Phoenician certainly existed as individuals, and they often have fascinating stories,” before reiterating the notion, also expressed in the book’s introduction of how the question of whether these Phoenicians saw themselves as “distinct people” and thus were “a self-conscious collective” intrigued her.

Ethnic ideologies

In this, Quinn draws on the modern academic concept that sees ethnicity “not as timeless fact about a region or group, but as an ideology that emerges at certain times.” In the book’s subsequent body text she explains, through about 100 pages of scholarly writing, that that there is no evidence for this self-conscious collective in the form of either artifacts, including coins, architecture, and various monuments, or written sources through known inscriptions on funerary steles or stone markers, or in early literary sources.

The learned explanations in these chapters of Quinn’s book are adorned with chapter or section titles—from Phantom Phoenicians to Melqart’s Mediterranean—that testify to the author’s craving for attractive story telling. At the same time, the book’s array of antique evidences for Quinn’s thesis of a non-self-conscious Phoenician ethnic group makes for a curiously anemic read, which is somewhat reinforced by a text-heavy layout. Chapter titles come with little graphic flourishes that constitute the book’s core design together with page layouts using a font, Libertine 0, which, albeit attractive for all-purpose use, might strain some eyes due to its very small size.

Modern afterlives

The book’s narration comes full cycle not between the notions of its first chapter and its concluding pages, not from and to Lebanon, nor from the Phoenician settlements in the Eastern Mediterranean to present-day stories of identity in this troubled region. It instead circles, from a reference to Irish plays in its introduction, to citing in its final pages poetry and plays written by authors whose names, being Seamus Heaney and Frank McGuiness, do not exactly signal self-identifications of th§e Phoenician kind.

However, it is this third part of Quinn’s book that the discourse in In Search of the Phoenicians is emotionally most engaging. This part is dedicated to what Quinn calls the “modern afterlives of ancient Phoenicia,” which means anything more recent than the fourth century BC, and specifically the deployment of Phoenicianism in Europe—mainly in England and Ireland, but with diametrically opposed ideological orientations—in post-Enlightenment times “in the service of autonomy, power, and honor.”

For an author whose cradle rocked to Irish or British tunes, it must indeed be captivating to chase the role of Phoenicianism in such contexts of nation-building in Europe. It is the real story in this book. If on the other hand anyone, enticed by the book’s initial quoting of Jumblatt, Charles Corm, and Michel Chiha, ventures to search its pages for Phoenician references that can be utilized in relation to Lebanese quests for political identity in our time, she or he will only be reminded of the, very useful, general insight that the Phoenician past cannot be an ideological panacea in any modern nation-building attempt.

People who seek mental support indicators in developing a forward-oriented Lebanese identity, however, may benefit from the insight that the scarce evidence preserved in artifacts and sources from Mediterranean antiquity testifies to then living people’s open-mindedness in dealing with foreigners, to cultural communication and economic appreciation of foreign cultural goods, and to an ability for building durable networks of trade and relations. People living in the Eastern Mediterranean thousands of years ago also displayed familial and communal qualities.

Viewing this from a local vantage point in Lebanon, no reason appears conceivable why the same cultural and social feats should not be achieved by people living today on the shores that were called Phoenician in various observations throughout history. Moreover, from this same vantage point of experiencing Lebanon at the threshold of a major historic junction in its economy, politics, and identity, it is impossible to deny that, with a quote by American thinker George Santayana, “the picture we frame of the past changes continually and grows every day less similar to the original experience which it purports to describe.” In this sense, Quinn’s In Search of the Phoenicians can serve as useful reminder that turning to the lure of a mythical past for finding a path to the future can be fraught with risk.

Anti-semitism: The Generic Hatred (Mo’adaat as samiyya: Jawhar al-karahiyya) By Shimon Samuels and Esther Webman (eds) translated into Arabic by Hani Abu Laila, translation review by Amro al-Barjisi Editions Le Manusrcit, Paris, 2017 / Paperback, 421 pages

Mo’adaat as samiyya: Jawhar al-karahiyya is the recent, Arabic translation of “Anti-Semitism: The Generic Hatred,” a collection of essays that was initially published in memory of Jewish-Austrian activist Simon Wiesenthal and translated into French, Spanish, and Russian over the past decade. Supported by UNESCO, the book clearly involved a lot of efforts, although from the perspective of this reviewer, some of it may have been misplaced.

By way of background, let me explain that as an Arab Christian who grew up in America, Europe, and the Middle East, I know what it means to be part of a minority. Yet, in those times, being part of the Christian minority in a Middle Eastern country was less dramatic than one might think. Except for episodes of the Lebanese Civil War in the late-20th century that I witnessed, my feelings of persecution, as well as those of many co-religionists around me, were mostly part of the recreational paranoia practiced by some Christians in the Arab World. In that context, musing on “Why they hate us” was not entirely serious. 

That was before the ISIS mayhem, which exploded in 2014 and changed the atmosphere for many Christians in the region. Previously mildly anxious, some of them are now deeply afraid, and taking practical steps to emigrate—just as many European and other Jews had done in the 20th century, including to Israel.

In such an atmosphere, one of the good points of the book is to serve as a reminder that anti-Semitism continues to blight regions around the world, impacting new generations of Jews and others. Indeed, this is more relevant than ever: Over 10 years after the book was first published, anti-Semitism in Europe is on the rise. Reported physical assaults against Jews there include beatings, stabbings, and other violence, which have increased over the past few years. Such attacks are associated with rising far-right political parties following the economic crisis of 2008. Parts of Europe have seen nationalist movements accusing Jews of causing economic crises, taking over local economies, and bribing government officials.

As for recent anti-Semitism in the Arab world, a 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center concluded that, in all Muslim-majority Middle Eastern countries polled, few participants had positive opinions of Jews. The survey found that only 2 percent of Egyptians, 3 percent of Lebanese Muslims, and 2 percent of Jordanians reported having a positive view of Jews. Yet, this may be due to general negative feelings in surveyed countries toward the state of Israel and its actions, and the misconflation of Israel with Jews worldwide.  The American writer Thomas Pynchon in his great novel “Gravity’s Rainbow” described the mechanism for such processes under the heading “Proverbs for Paranoids,” one of which explains that “paranoids are not paranoids because they’re paranoid,” but because they keep putting themselves “deliberately into paranoid situations.” Bands of Jewish settlers putting themselves in just such situations surrounded by indigenous Palestinian Arabs, or Israeli military forces threatening refugees in Gaza, therefore, really have no right to ask, “Why do they hate us?” By way of response, another proverb for paranoids by Pynchon states: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”

Away from Pynchon’s literary flights, the causes of Arab reactions to Israel were elucidated in a 2015 talk on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by Tony Klug, special advisor on the Middle East to the Oxford Research Group and an international board member of the Palestine-Israel Journal, who himself is a British Jew. Klug describes conflict over Palestine from various perspectives including that of the Palestinian Arabs who feel that the violence is “the product of centuries of virulent European anti-Semitism at home and rampant imperialism abroad, crowned by double or, in this case, treble British-French dealings,” to which I would add current American quadruple-dealing. The Arab reaction to Israel extending to Jews cannot be dismissed as anti-Semitism if Israel—paranoid-style, allied to a menopausal American Empire—loudly and incorrectly touts itself and the US as defenders of the Jewish people.

The book rightly asks us to consider the lessons it holds for non-Jews struggling against hatred and oppression. Fine, but a better point would be to have future generations of Jews and others relearn the importance of confronting virulence like settler Zionism and Israeli militarism—laughably seen as “defenders” of the Jewish people. The only sustainable defense of Israel will be for it to make a just peace with all her neighbors, especially Palestinians.  When that happens, anti-Semitism in the region will likely witness a drastic decline.

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years.

Riad Al-Khouri is Middle East director of GeoEconomica GmbH

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