Chimerical Motherland

Lebanon and Its Culture

Lebanon, the native land of Gibran Kahlil Gibran, is situated at the far eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. In Arabic it is known as Djibel Lubnan, an expression derived from Aramaic which means “the White Mountain.” Its official name is Al Yumhuriya Al-Lubnaniya, that is, the Lebanese Republic. Colloquially it is called simply Lubnan or Lebnan (in English, Lebanon), which means “white.” It is the land of the cedar, where in winter one can ski in the snowcapped mountains or swim in the beach-lined ocean. Its capital city is Beirut.

To the north and east it borders on Syria and to the south on Israel. Since the seventeenth century, the official language has been Arabic, though some eighty percent of the current population also speak French and a large percentage English as well. It is a democratic republic with a president and single legislative chamber. The voters elect deputies and the deputies elect the president, who in turn appoints the prime minister. According to the constitution, the chief of state must be a Maronite, the president of the legislative chamber a Shiite, and the prime minister a Sunni. The parliament is comprised of 128 seats divided equally among Muslims and Christians.

Although the surface area is small (only 10,452 square kilometers, a little less than the Mexican state of Querétaro), Gibran Kahlil Gibran’s native land is the cradle of a people with six thousand years of history. It is a living museum of cultures which conserves the vestiges of ancient civilizations, such as that of the Phoenicians. The population of the country is just over four million at the present day, but more than ten million people of Lebanese origin live outside its borders. At the beginning of the twenty century, when the population of Mexico was already more than thirteen million, there were less than half a million people in Lebanon.

Lebanon is a religious country, whose people belong to one of the confessions born in the region or to one of their various ramifications, which differ in terms of liturgies and rites. These creeds, which include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, share the characteristic of being monotheistic. The fact that some of their rites date back to biblical times attests to the historical and cultural richness of the land. Lebanon is a multi-confessional country, of which, until just a few decades ago, at least half of the population was Christian, principally Maronite. Today, owing to the massive emigration of Christians, the proportion has changed and Muslims are in the majority. But the minarets of the mosques and the steeples of Christian churches can still be seen in one and the same city.

The Lebanese

The Lebanese are descendants of cultures, such as the Hittites and the Phoenicians, that had settled in Canaan centuries before the Christian era, among many others that flourished in the Levant, a region that has always been seen as the “gateway to the East.” Owing to their geographical position, these peoples always showed great curiosity about the people of other cultures who had to pass through their land on the way from Occident to Orient. From the time when the Phoenicians were cutting down cedar trees to build their seagoing vessels and the columns of King Solomon’s temple, strong-willed and independent peoples of various faiths, travelling on mule-, horse-, or camel-back, sought refuge in the mountainous areas of Lebanon. Over the centuries, many different peoples have occupied the land: Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, European Crusaders, Turks, the French, and most recently the Syrians. In this way, the crucible of the Lebanese nation of today was forged.

A Bit of History: From the Phoenicians to the Ottomans

The history of the region goes back thousands of years. Human remains dating back forty-four thousands years have been discovered in caves. Archaeological remains indicate that the Lebanese coast of the Mediterranean Sea has been inhabited since the Paleolithic. Thousands of years before Christ, the Phoenicians had developed navigation and an important trade in timber, as well as in transparent glass and ceramic ware. As merchant navigators, the Phoenicians were intermediaries between East and West, but they also created the alphabet and a phonetic system of writing, instead of the signs and pictograms previously used to express concepts and things. They were the holders of a monopoly in the trade of textiles dyed with the Tyrian purple derived from the murex. The manufacture of weapons in copper, bronze, and later iron and their skill at working in gold, silver, ivory, and hides extended their fame the world over.

Around 2500 B.C., almost a millennium before the blossoming of the Olmec culture in Mexico, the Mediterranean coast was colonized by the Phoenicians. Their city-states traded with Egypt and became flourishing cultural centers. The state of Tyre, which included the territory of present-day Lebanon, became the principal region of an independent Phoenicia. Exploration led to the establishment of colonies all across the Mediterranean, from Utica and Carthage in North Africa to Corsica and the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula (Gades, known today as Cadiz), and to the dissemination of the Semitic alphabet, which the Phoenicians had simplified to a system of twenty-six letters, subsequently adopted by the Greeks. The Phoenicians circumnavigated Africa and it is believed they may even have reached the British Isles. When Alexander the Great conquered the region three hundred years before the birth of Christ, Phoenician trading diminished, owing to the maritime expansion of Alexandria. Also, the Aramaic language began to replace Phoenician, gaining ground both in Phoenicia and neighboring territories. Little by little, the Phoenician identity was overwhelmed by Hellenistic influences. A century and a half later, it would be the Romans who were administrating the zone, which hundreds of years later was invaded by the Persians, liberated by the Byzantines, and then conquered by the Arabs. Thereafter, for more than one hundred years, it was ruled by Christian governors brought by the Crusaders, before being re-conquered by the Egyptians, who lost finally lost it to Turkish invaders. Gradually Aramaic (or Syriac) was replaced by Arabic, a language accepted by the Turks and spoken by Lebanese emigrants when they made their way to the Americas.

The Turkish Domination

It was not unusual for Lebanese Christians, who had formed the majority of the population until a hundred years ago, to suffer persecution and the denial of their rights under the Muslim rule of the Ottoman Empire (1516–1919). In his Memoria de Líbano (Memory of Lebanon), the historian Carlos Martínez Assad writes:

For more than four centuries Lebanon lived under the domination of the Ottoman Empire, often called the Sublime Porte or High Porte: an equivocal metaphor translated literally from the Arabic, designating entry but never exit. This long period explains Lebanon’s difficulties structuring itself as a nation and creating a modern state…. Tyranny and bad government were constants in the life of the Lebanese.

The Ottomans organized their empire not on territorial principles but according to population groups. Thus, the empire was divided among Muslims, Christians (both Maronite and Orthodox), Jews, and others. Martínez Assad writes:

By the nineteenth century, the nations of Western Europe had already begun to speak of the Ottoman Empire as the “sick man.” By 1842 Lebanon had been divided geographically into two territories to separate the two religious confessions: the Christians occupied the north and the Druzes the south, though there were also mixed communities in both areas…. Each territory was responsible within its limits for the administration of justice and for tax collection. But this apparent autonomy had a limitation, namely, that the two most important authorities were to be appointed by the Turks. The division did not improve the conditions of the peasants burdened by taxes, and uprisings continued.

The uprisings of the nationalist Christians in the mid-nineteenth century were crushed by the Ottoman government, which proceeded to concentrate the Christian population in Mount Lebanon, an area inhospitable to agriculture, reserving the port towns and the more fertile land for the Muslim population, while also enlisting young Lebanese into its army. In 1858 the political, religious, social, and economic tensions amongst Druzes, Christians, and Muslims, combined with the hostilities and invasions carried out by the Turks and the formation of armed Christian militias, led to a civil war lasting two years, at the end of which a new administration was established in Lebanon, which endured until the First World War. At the same time, foreign powers were showing a colonial interest the territories. The European governments had tolerated Ottoman repression and the forced recruitment of young Christians into the Turkish forces, without succeeding in abolishing this practice or having it replaced by an obligatory tax, but when Christians began to be massacred they were obliged to act as a police force in the Near East. The events have been described by the diplomat and Middle East scholar León Rodríguez Zahar in his book Líbano, espejo del Medio Oriente (Lebanon, Mirror of the Middle East):

In August of 1860 a fleet of thirty European vessels, including three Ottoman ones, arrived in Beirut. The British hoped to persuade the French that their intervention was unnecessary. Nevertheless, Napoleon III (who had sent a French expeditionary force to Mexico) was unwilling to yield. In a speech addressed to the French soldiers, the Emperor declared: “May you who are setting out for Syria know that France has a single purpose: to ensure that the principles of justice and humanity triumph. You do not go to make war but rather to assist the Sultan in making his subjects (Muslims and Druzes), blinded by fanaticism, obey him. You shall be worthy successors to the Crusaders who carried the banner of Christ to these lands.”

When the European forces intervened, France occupied the north of the country, granting, in accord with the Ottomans, “autonomy” to the zone, though it was to be overseen by the Turks. While Benito Juárez in Mexico had reestablished the republic and the War of the Reform had come to an end, in Lebanon the most important administrative reform in its history was carried out, following twenty years of struggles between Druzes and Maronites, in addition to pressures from the European powers. Thus, on 1 June 1861, Great Britain, France, Russia, Prussia, and Austria (joined later by Italy) signed the protocol of the “organic regulation” proposed by the French for the new administration of Lebanon, to be overseen from Istanbul.

The regulation stipulated that the administrative head of the country, advised by local notables, was to be directly responsible to Istanbul. The agreement would transform Mount Lebanon, for the first time and officially, into an Ottoman province under a specific autonomous regime known as the Mutasarrifate (“autonomous entity” in Arabic) or Supervisory Government of Mount Lebanon, under international –principally French– protection. In this way, Lebanon became a European protectorate under Ottoman sovereignty. The Administrative Council, on which the different religious communities were represented, was to govern the territory, thereby laying the foundation for the regime which would characterize Lebanon for many years. In spite of the establishment of the Mutasarrifate, the situation of the Maronite Christians remained relatively precarious, confined as they were to a small territory, whereas the Ottoman Turks, Druzes, and Muslims continued to occupy the finest land along the coast, in the Beqaa Valley, and in the south of the country.

Until that time, the territory of Lebanon had always been part of one or another expanding continental empire. Although the Maronites had rarely formed an independent political entity, they had made Mount Lebanon a country with its own history and character. In the early years of the nineteenth century, while Mexico was going through what we know as the Tragic Ten Days, Orthodox and Maronite Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Druzes in Lebanon joined together against the Ottoman Empire, and the Arab Congress in Paris (1913) demanded independence for the Lebanese nation. In spite of this, at the beginning of the First World War, the Turks invaded the country, with the support of their German allies, and put an end to the autonomy of the Mutasarrifate. When the war ended, with the defeat of the Turkish army, Lebanon was occupied by the French (along the coast) and the British (in the interior), while the mountainous regions remained under the control of Christian militias. Following two years of European military occupation, France and Britain signed the Treaty of Sèvres whereby the Turks definitively surrendered their claims to Syria and Lebanon, which became a French mandate. Lebanon would not finally achieve its independence until 22 November 1943.

In October 1918, an editorial in the French weekly La Guerra Europea, then published in Mexico, spoke of the collapse of the “odious Mohammedan yoke.” A later issue, celebrating the arrival of Allied troops in Beirut, printed the speech delivered in Veracruz by Domingo Kuri, a Lebanese businessman who had emigrated to the port city in 1903 and helped hundreds of his compatriots who, like him, had left their native land in search of freedom, to settle in Mexico. In his words:

For five centuries, the Turkish oppressor ruled over the Syrian-Lebanese region. Five centuries of sufferings, of humiliations, of cruel bitterness for our ancestors, the inhabitants of that corner of the earth, whose history goes back to the dawn of civilization. The tears wept because of the Ottoman hordes and the blood shed by the savages who make them up have left forever a stain of infamy imprinted in the annals of the empire they founded.

The journalist José Manual Gutiérrez Zamora also wrote about the Turks in the same weekly, describing them as “birds of prey who rivaled the ancient barbarians” and linking them to their German allies: “sanguinary Teutonic emperors seconded by half-savage Turks who sowed terror in the martyred countries they invaded.”

The Emigration and Exile of the Lebanese

Thousands of Lebanese have emigrated to the Americas over the last hundred years or more. They were fleeing the repression of the Ottoman Turks who had conquered Syria and Lebanon in 1516 and were finally defeated by the European allies in 1918, at the end of the First World War, when Lebanon became a French protectorate until its independence.

During the four centuries that the Ottoman Empire lasted, two important currents coexisted in Lebanon: since the fourth century, a Western Christian one, and since the seventh century, an Arab Muslim one. The Christians that emigrated were fleeing the Turkish yoke that favored the Muslim community, even though at the time –if now no longer– it was in the minority. The Christian population suffered successive famines which forced its emigration. Leaving the country was facilitated by the fact that, since 1840, the port of Beirut was connected to international shipping routes by means of European steamships. Another factor was the high educational level of the Christian population, achieved thanks to the constant efforts of the Maronite Church and of Catholic and Protestant missionaries from France, Great Britain, and the United States. A professional class had formed that was welcomed in European countries and in the Americas, where the Lebanese settled, bringing their extended families in their wake. In the massive Maronite emigration to the Americas, caused by demographic saturation and sectarian conflict, the emigrants brought with them to the places where they settled their moral values and communitarian solidarity.


Immigration is migration considered from the vantage point of the destination of the displaced individuals. The process of adaptation to the cultures of the Americas was difficult for Lebanese immigrants, though determined and enthusiastic. Embarking in the Mediterranean, crossing the Atlantic on voyages that took two months to complete, in most cases without the economic means to travel first-class; sickness, hunger, and the countless discomforts suffered in pursuing something that remained, after all, no more than a hope; all these factors must be taken into account in making a fair judgment of the efforts made by the Lebanese to arrive in America and assimilate a new culture. Although there were some professionals among the first immigrants, most of them were adolescents, of peasant origin or at least without any work experience. It is not surprising that, on arriving at their destination, they were not only disheartened but also deeply confused.

The new food and new customs that the immigrants immediately faced were doubtless less of a challenge than the language. Linguistic difficulties began with an alphabet radically different from their own. How to adapt to the social and economic life of the new nation without the essential tool of language? Almost none of the immigrants spoke or understood English, but they learned it, though they always conserved their peculiar accent, the object, naturally, of innocent mockery. It speaks well of the Lebanese that they insisted more on their children speaking English well than on their learning and not forgetting Arabic. As for religious differences, it was a relief for the Maronites and other Christians to be able to attend Catholic services, to which their own rite was basically identical.

Tanius Bechelani was the first Lebanese immigrant to arrive in the United States, around 1854. In Lebanon he had been a schoolteacher and a brilliant career in teaching awaited him in the United States. He is buried in Brooklyn Cemetery in New York City. The early immigrants who followed him, such as Kamileh Rahme and her children –Boutros, Gibran, Marianna, and Sultana–, who arrived in 1895, were intrepid adventurers, however much their nostalgia for the land and people they had left behind, whom they might never see again, made inroads on their enterprising spirit.

The Maronite Religion

Lebanon has been for centuries and remains a multi-confessional country in which the Parliament recognizes sixteen different creeds. The Maronite Church, to which the president of Lebanon must belong by law, is one of 72 autonomous Catholic churches. Its origin goes back to the fourth century, when a monastic group trained in the ascetic school of St. Maro defended the Catholic dogma of the two natures of Christ. In the seventh century, owing to Muslim persecution, the Maronites took refuge in the mountains of Lebanon. The church professes the faith of St. Peter and recognizes the supreme authority of the Pope, though it has its own liturgy, which is celebrated in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ.

Throughout the history of Christian Lebanon, the Maronite Church played a political leadership role as guardian of the identity, safety, and survival of the community. The Maronites skillfully negotiated their alliance with the Crusaders in the thirteenth century, as well as with the Mamluk sultans, from whom they obtained the relative autonomy of Mount Lebanon. The Druze emirs also depended on their alliance with the Maronite Church to ensure the economic prosperity of Mount Lebanon and to make a common front against the Ottomans, guaranteeing the support of the European powers, especially the Duchy of Tuscany and kingdom of France. Following the sectarian Druze-Maronite wars of 1840 and 1860, the church played a fundamental role in guaranteeing the European intervention which established the autonomous “Catholic” regime for Mount Lebanon, the so-called Mutasarrifate or “lesser Lebanon,” the direct antecedent of the modern state of Lebanon. Finally, the Maronite Church ended up guiding the negotiations with France and with the League of Nations to obtain the creation of Greater Lebanon in 1920.

The Maronite diocese of Mexico is one of the seven Maronite dioceses erected by the Holy See following the Second Vatican Council. It was established in 1910 in the historic center of Mexico City and its first church was the Church of the La Candelaria, on the Calle de Manzanares in the Merced neighborhood. In the 1920s the diocese was granted the Church of Balvanera at Correo Mayor and Uruguay, originally constructed in 1573 as a hospice for women and later converted into the Convent of Our Lady of Balvanera. In 1922, at the urging of Father Boulos Landy, and with the financing of the Mexican Lebanese community, the church of the convent, which had suffered great deterioration over the years, was reconstructed and donated by then-president of Mexico General Álvaro Obregón to the community. This church became the Maronite parish church. Its patriarch, Cardinal Nasrallah Pedro Sfeir, visited Mexico in 1997. The devotion of St. Charbel, a Lebanese Maronite saint born in Beqaa Kafra, Lebanon, on 8 May 1828, has become very popular in Mexico. The saint’s birthplace is in northern Lebanon, just five kilometers from Bsharri, the cradle of Gibran Kahlil Gibran.

The Arabic Language

Arabic has two inseparable modes of expression: a colloquial form and the language of the sacred books, important documents, and literature. The colloquial form is primarily a spoken language, and though it is the same as the literary one, it is not subject to many of the same grammatical rules, whether spoken or written down. Arabic script is read from right to left, unlike that of the Indo-European languages, and the first page of a book printed in Arabic is found where a book printed in English ends. The Arabic alphabet, or abjad, is derived from the Phoenician alphabet and consists of twenty-eight consonants.

Lebanese Attire

The Lebanese who arrived in America toward the end of the nineteenth century dressed in European clothes. As in other cultures, the attire of the Semitic peoples represented an element of their identity that characterized the place of origin, religion, social category, and even the trade or profession of the person in question. At the time of Mohammed, attire for both men and women was simple, comfortable, loose-fitting, and practical. Many pieces of clothing were used interchangeably by men or women. The tradition of covering the head was scrupulously respected by all; the difference resided in the form of the headwear and the use of accessories. Silk and certain other expensive fabrics were eventually forbidden. It was under the Ummayad dynasty that gold and silver embroideries appeared, for the use of the nobility and the court, constituting a status symbol that was handed down from generation to generation. It was also around this time that non-Muslims began to be required to wear distinction elements, such as certain belts or sashes. Under the Abassid domination a sort of bourgeoisie appeared that was sensitive to fashion, as the wealthier and more cultivated classes began to take more care regarding their personal appearance.

During the Ottoman Empire decrees were issued to regulate the use of distinctive clothing for different social categories, though the regional styles of the different administrative districts did not entirely disappear until into the nineteenth century. By 1830s the regional markets offered merchandise imported from industrialized European nations at competitive prices. Since 1828, the Ottoman administrative reorganization had imposed changes on attire. European clothing was adopted by bureaucrats and administrators, and the Christian and Jewish subjects of the country soon followed suit. Sartorial traditions began to break down. The Muslim aristocracy and bureaucracy, in frequent contact with Westerners, began to adopt European garb as well. At the same time, trade with the Far East flooded the market with textiles, leading to the disappearance of traditional attire, which was relegated to the level of artisanal production. Nevertheless, some elements of traditional attire, such as the use of the tarboosh, or fez, by men, proved resistant to change for a long time. Thus, in countries created as a result of the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, clothing became largely a matter of regional folklore, though certain types of traditional attire survived this fate and can still be seen in the mountain villages and the markets of the cities.