Liberalism in the Levant?

One man’s dreams suggest some lessons.

These are dispiriting times for Arab liberals. The governments of Egypt and Syria have been rounding up their dissidents once again. Lebanon has barely recovered from mortar fire in the streets. In the Gulf, many Kuwaitis wonder whether they’ve fallen behind their neighbors due to their peculiar penchant for holding elections. And even as modernizing princes in the Emirates extend a welcome to cutting-edge Western academics and curators, they continue to squelch local dissent. If supporters and opponents of the war in Iraq agree on anything, it’s that the phrases “Jeffersonian democracy” and “banks of the Euphrates” are antonyms.

Could it have been otherwise? In his family memoir, Origins, Amin Maalouf, a Lebanese novelist who has lived in Paris since 1975, recalls a different time, a hundred years ago, when Arab liberalism was briefly at its zenith. Enlightenment ideals of rationality, liberty, and progress were zealously championed by schoolteachers and scientists, freemasons and poets, across the planet—and not least in the Arab world, where many of the leading reformers were, like Maalouf and his ancestors, Lebanese Christians. Writing as a detective-historian, Maalouf has ransacked old chests and the fading memories of relatives to tell the story of a forgotten man of the Enlightenment—his grandfather Boutros. Born in the late 1880s, Boutros was a libertine, a man of letters and a small-town philosophe, whose story Maalouf subtly shows to be all too timely. His efforts to improve his homeland illustrate the messianic hopes and bitter disappointments of a Levantine liberalism that is still half-born.

During the 19th century, the Maronite Catholics, Greek Catholics, and Greek Orthodox of Mount Lebanon emerged from their cloistered religious communities and began migrating to coastal cities or much farther away. They had come to see the walls of the village church as a barrier rather than a protection, as the historian Albert Hourani has observed. Often they studied with Protestant missionaries, but what they typically learned had more to do with liberalism than with Luther. They edited the leading newspapers in Cairo and presided over the reinvention of Arabic prose, imagined the transformation of the Ottoman Empire into a nonreligious state and struggled for permission to teach Darwinism at the Protestant College in Beirut. Most of all, they dreamed of fusing the wisdom of the East and the accomplishments of the West into a higher synthesis: The West grew out of the East, they believed, and must return to it.

A man of his times, Maalouf’s grandfather spoke from modest balconies in soaring tones about the future of mankind and waged ideological war with the village priest. Defying his father, Boutros left home in the late 1880s to attend a Protestant mission school, where he eagerly embraced a Western-style education. He taught mathematics and Arabic for a few years, and then traveled to Cuba, where he worked briefly for a brother who had become a successful merchant. In 1904 he also visited New York, where he met with émigré shop owners and printers and composed advertising copy for a cigarette company. Back in Lebanon, he returned to his home village, where he opened an innovative academy in 1913. The Universal School accepted students from all creeds; boys and girls learned together; and the best students were instructed to take responsibility for teaching their peers. The school flourished, attracting students and the support of Protestant missions.

But its success soon spelled trouble. A “war of the schools” broke out—the local Greek Catholic priest plotted against Boutros, warning against his heterodoxies and sabotaging his hopes to create an academic empire. Boutros feuded with his neighbors over land and loans. And he eventually fled his wife and family, spending much of his time in Beirut, where he gave private lessons in a room he called “The Office of Knowledge and Work.” He also saw his dreams of political liberation betrayed—first, by the Young Turks, whose aspirations to make the Ottoman Empire a nonsectarian liberal state curdled into aggressive nationalism; and then by the French, who took control of what is now Syria and Lebanon after World War I. To Boutros’ disbelief, French governors of both the secular left and the clericist right preferred to finance his priestly rival; the support he’d previously received from Protestants made them wary. In 1924, he died of a heart attack. His wife kept the school running for 11 difficult years before closing it down and moving to Beirut, where she devoted herself to supporting her children’s education.

Maalouf does not present his grandfather as a historical role model, fit for a marble bust. On the contrary, in his telling, Boutros was vain, touchy, mercurial—an individual who imprinted his idiosyncrasies on everything he touched. He wore a black cape, which he fastened with a gold buckle. He refused to put on the traditional turban or the Western hat, preferring to go bareheaded. To the disbelief of village neighbors, he insisted on naming his first child Kamal, after Kemal Attaturk, even though the child was a girl.

Yet Boutros was also very much a man of his era. The conflicts he faced were emblematic of an age of ideological and physical migration, when the competing claims of religion and freethinking, village and diaspora, had to be worked out by trail and error, as if for the first time. Boutros refused to baptize his children, determined to let them decide the matter for themselves when they reached maturity. His brother, a Greek Catholic priest, stole into his house and nearly succeeded in baptizing the children anyway. Meanwhile, he rejected his émigré brother’s repeated entreaties to join the family business in Cuba. Boutros did not wish to leave: He wanted to bring the ideals of the West to the East. “Hold your head high, wear the clothes of your century, and proclaim: The time for turbans is past!” he exclaimed even as he also warned: “It is not enough to want to imitate the West; it is also important to know what is worth copying and what is not!” In Maalouf’s words, Boutros sought to create a new America, where “diverse communities could co-exist, where everyone would read the newspapers, and where corruption and arbitrary rule would no longer prevail.”

Village crank or man of the world? Boutros was a little of both. And ultimately, Maalouf implies, he was defeated by the weaknesses of his personality as well as by the intractability of local traditions and the mischief of outside powers.  It’s a judgment that could apply to many of the liberals of his era, who became disillusioned by French and British rule in the 1920s. Several especially influential thinkers turned to Arab nationalism, and in so doing turned Enlightenment ideals upside down. The alternative to parochialism and superstition became membership in the Arab nation, not the human race. Lebanese Christians were, once again, at the forefront of this movement.

Maalouf does not explicitly explore these themes in his memoir. But in 1996, he published a book-length essay, “In the Name of Identity,” that eloquently castigates tribalism in all its forms. Our identities are “complex, unique and irreplaceable.” Yet when one identity is threatened, it hardens and becomes homicidal. The command to “assert your identity” is, in his estimation, “a recipe for massacres.” Lebanon is both a model and a warning, he proposed. With its many jostling creeds, “you are constantly having to question yourself about your affiliations, your origins, your relationships with others, and your possible place in the sun or in the shade.”

In today’s Lebanon, the prospects of escaping sectarianism are few. Every citizen must belong to one of 17 sects, and can run for office (or marry) only within the sect. The civic peace is purchased, when it is purchased, at the price of a system that entrenches feudal leaders and enforces religious boundaries. Boutros dreamed of a Levant where it didn’t matter whether you were a Presbyterian or Greek Catholic or Freemason, never mind Christian or Muslim or Jew. Maalouf warmly pays tribute to those ideals even as his memoir acknowledges his grandfather’s frailties—and even as Lebanon’s recent strife testifies to the gap between the promise of a liberal cosmopolitan state and the reality. In preserving the memory of one man’s Enlightenment project, as quixotic in his own time as it would be in ours, Maalouf suggests a sobering message: If Boutros’ ideals, and the words that expressed them, strike us as embarrassing or out of place, perhaps the fault is in us.