Makram Rabah is a lecturer in the Department of History and Archaeology at the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University. His research interests include the modern Middle East, the modern history of Lebanon, the Lebanese civil war, and the role of memory in the reconciliation process. He is the author of A Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut 1967-1975 (Nelson Publications, 2009). His most recent book is Conflict on Mount Lebanon: The Druze, the Maronites and Collective Memory (Edinburgh University Press), which covers collective identities and the civil war. Rabah is also a regular contributor to regional and international publications on Middle Eastern political affairs. Diwan interviewed him in late January to discuss his most recent book.
Michael Young: You’ve just published a book titled Conflict on Mount Lebanon: The Druze, the Maronites, and Collective Memory. What is the book about and what does it argue?
Makram Rabah: While I focus on the conflict, or conflicts, between the Druze and the Maronites, the two founding groups of the Lebanese entity, my book is a humble contribution to the overall history of Lebanon. More so, it is an attempt to understand the conflict but through what I claim to be a novel lens which is that of collective memory. In my view this is instrumental in the reconciliation process not only as it applies to these two supposedly primordial enemies, but also to other Lebanese communities.
MY: What did you find in your research on the collective memory and oral history of the Druze-Maronite conflict?
MR: Collective memory and oral history are two fascinating topics especially when explored in depth, as they provide us with a new road map to understanding the conflict which broke out in 1975 between Lebanon’s factions. My study showed that the protagonists not only used bullets in their battle, but also the most dangerous weapon of all: collective memory. While scholars of Lebanon have traditionally focused on sectarianism or foreign intervention as causes of conflict, they neglected how various centers of power in the different sects preserved collective memory and used it to mobilize their constituencies, regardless of sectarianism or foreign intervention.
On the other hand, oral history is an under-utilized source that helps us as historians and as Lebanese to understand why neighbors got the urge to fight one another. Traditional archives, meaning written primary and secondary sources, have been depleted and as I prove are easily manipulated, whereas oral history, despite all its challenges, can open our eyes to many new realms of memory.
MY: It’s interesting that you focus on the Druze and the Maronites when both communities today are regarded as minorities whose impact on political life is not what it was during the war years and before that. To what extent, then, are both still central to Lebanese political life, and has their parallel status as communities on the decline demographically led to any change in their relations?
MR: Lebanon is not about numbers or minorities as people might brand them, but rather about looking for the optimal power-sharing formula. Both communities ruled over this small mountain state, yet could not remain at its helm simply because they failed to build a modern nation state. In the long run the power trip in which they both engaged proved disadvantageous to them and to the country. In the context of Lebanese politics today, this lesson in the dangers of hubris is something the current oligarchs will realize sooner or later.
MY: You are from the Druze community, so did anything surprise you in your research on the Maronite-dominated militia, the Lebanese Forces?
MR: As a historian on Lebanon, I was interested in understanding the rise of the young wartime Maronite leader Bashir Gemayel and the transformation that he led within his own party. His decision to go all the way and become president of Lebanon in 1982 was something that proved to be fatal in the long run, and in a way it helped weaken the martial community he created. By unifying the Christian militias by force and merging them into the Lebanese Forces, and by ending the diversity of the Christian political landscape, Bashir created an entity that was not able to survive after his assassination and in a way paved the way for the emergence of Michel Aoun, at the time the commander of the army. This trajectory is the antithesis of what Bashir stood and died for.
What applies to the Maronites applies equally to the Druze and to other Lebanese factions that tried to unite their own communities under the pretext of a supposed existential threat, thus neutralizing their internal rivals. My book makes it a point to tell the story of those who were effectively written out of Lebanon’s wartime history—be it the faction of former Lebanese president Camille Chamoun or the Yazbaki Druze under Emir Majid Arslan.
MY: How would you situate Bashir Gemayel in the course of the Maronites’ wartime history? Was he a hero, as many Maronites believed? Was he a villain? Or was he something else?
MR: To use Bashir’s own words, he was both a saint and devil. However, he was an ambitious leader who played his hand and who wished to impose his own version of Lebanon on both his own people and his foes. Bashir died at the tender age of 34 and thus it is unfair to pass far-reaching judgment on him, yet he was unequivocally part of the Greek tragedy in which the Lebanese are still caught up.
MY: You describe at length Kamal and Walid Joumblatt and their wartime calculations. How would you compare the two when it came to their role as prime leaders of the Druze community?
MR: Both men had different upbringings, Kamal Joumblatt was a philosopher and a dreamer who aspired for a modern Lebanon before he was reminded of his feudal roots by the Maronite political establishment, which was not open to change. Walid was and still is a more pragmatic operator according to his own admission. Walid inherited a weakened clan on the blood of his slain father, but he was able to win the military confrontation. Yet this came at the price of displacing the Christian population from the areas of Aley and the Shouf for a decade after 1983, and to his relinquishing part of his political will to then-Syrian president Hafez al-Assad who was instrumental in backing him.