Contrebandes d’Oignons: Cross-Border Smuggling and the Limits of the Lebanese Mandate

By Pascal Abidor
Submitted to Session P4982 (Border and Boundaries, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries; Colonialism; Identity/Representation; Middle East/Near East Studies; Nationalism;
LCD Projector without Audio;
In early 1943, two Lebanese customs agents working in the Khirbet post along the Lebanon-Palestine border were caught colluding with a local onion smuggler from Marjayoun. A military tribunal was convened to assess the extent of the border agents’ roles in the smuggling, and how they came to be involved. For the French, the incident was in itself relatively insignificant, involving a single truckload of onions destined for the Palestinian town of Metulla. Of more significant concern was the breach in the mandatory state’s edifice as its agents abandoned their duties in favor of corrupt dealings with a smuggler. This is reflected in the disparate punishments between the smuggler and the customs agents: the former received a fine, while the agents received lengthy prison sentences.

I examine this case of smuggling and the subsequent French investigation in order to highlight a conflict that runs throughout the Mandate period. On the one hand the French Mandate deployed institutional apparatuses to interpolate Lebanese citizens and provide a material presence for the burgeoning Lebanese state. On the other hand, local conceptions of space persisted while being excluded from or radically transformed by the formation of states in the region following World War I. With the establishment of the Mandates, regional trade networks spanning al-Sham became international trade routes. Mandatory authorities understood that the effective implementation of border controls was an integral component to reifying the state in the minds of colonial citizens. Thus, the onion smuggling investigation highlights the failure of a mandate institution to make the Lebanese state “real.” At the same time, this episode demonstrates enduring resistance to the state, its institutions, and practices on the part of Lebanese citizens.

Through the example of the onion smuggling investigation in 1943, I argue that a contradiction was carried within the successful establishment of Lebanon. Though the Mandate succeeded in reifying the Lebanese state at the expense of alternative possibilities for Arab self-rule, that success did not supplant the very practices that made alternatives to the Lebanese state viable, attractive and relevant to the people. While South Lebanon was fashioned out of the region historically known as Jabal ‘Amil, the material practices that defined Jabal ‘Amil remained, undermining the Lebanese state from the outset. This contradiction enabled a form of cynicism in which the state was “real” insofar as it was to be avoided and skirted, but not necessarily abided by and obeyed.