Educating Race and Nation in Ottoman Lebanon

By Edward Falk
Submitted to Session P5428 (Alternative Histories of Knowing in Modern Lebanon, 2019 Annual Meeting
Lebanon; Ottoman Empire; Syria;
At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the Beiruti playwright and political activist Chekri Ganem pleaded to the leaders of the Great Powers that the inhabitants of Bilad ash-Sham were “Syrians not Arabs,” noting that their “race is as distinct as it could possibly be in this theatre of invasions.” A nationalist graduate of the French Lazarist Collège Saint-Joseph of Antoura, Ganem shared the challenge of both his mostly Syro-Lebanese Christian classmates and their French missionary teachers of attempting to unite the Phoenician coast, Lebanese mountain, and Syrian interior, while living under Ottoman rule. Reconciling their European racial and national education with the Arab-Muslim majority of their homeland would prove an enduring challenge.

The Jesuit and Lazarist missionary curriculum in Ottoman Lebanon drew upon both classic theology and early Orientalists like Ernest Renan, who the Lazarists hosted on his Mission de Phénicie. French, Belgian, and occasionally Italian missionary teachers and their students collaboratively created an archaeological and philological record to support national identity and ideology, elevating pre-Islamic Phoenician, Biblical, and Greco-Roman elements. With a pedagogical focus on classical history and the establishment of the Bibliothèque Orientale at l’Université Saint-Joseph, the French missionary institutions in Ottoman Beirut and its hinterlands academically legitimized Syro-Lebanese national aspirations throughout their curriculum. The European national ideal was accompanied by its contemporary racial science and hierarchy, fostering non-Arab racial origins for the non-Muslim population of the region.

In spite of their sometimes divergent political allegiances after the during the First World War and after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, I argue the students and graduates of the Jesuit Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut and Lazarist Collège Saint-Joseph in Antoura shared a hybridized understanding of nation and race in their analysis and imagining of their homeland. Lebanese, Syrian, and Arab nationalist graduates including Ganem, Michel Chiha, Charles Corm, and Khaïrallah Khaïrallah followed similar curricula of theology, the classics, and racial science. In school and after graduation, they composed both history, poetry, and policy in service of their nations, inscribing their causes onto Biblical, classical and crusader themes.