Herve Georgelin | Pelin Böke | Alex Baltazzi | Axel Corlu | Philip Mansel | Antony Wynn | Fortunato Maresia | Vjeran Kursar | Christine Lindner | Frank Castiglione | Clifford Endres | Zeynep Cebeci Suvari | Sadık Uşaklıgil | İlhan Pınar | Ümit Eser | Bugra Poyraz | Oğuz Aydemir
1- How did your interest in the Middle East history, Lebanon, Beirut, minorities etc. start? What are you working on right now?
I have always been interested in history—be it the history of New York, where I was raised, or the wider global history. But the events of September 11, 2001 spurred me to focus specifically on the Middle East: to look into the historic relationship between the United States, Europe and the Middle East in order to better understand “why this happened” and deconstruct the narratives that were being proposed to justify the ensuing War on Terror. While many of my colleagues went on to study points of conflict, I choose to study points of encounter and collaboration. I was particularly interested in women’s experiences of American-Middle East exchange. As such, my MA thesis focused on American women’s construction of the Arabesque in turn-of-the century New York and my doctoral studies looked at American female missionaries and the women of the early Protestant community in Ottoman Syria, specifically Beirut. For the past five years I lived and worked in Lebanon, first teaching history and cultural studies at the University of Balamand, then at the Near East School of Theology, where I was the director of the Preserving Protestant Heritage in the Middle East (PPHME) project. I recently returned to NY, to spend some time with my family, do a bit more research and prepare my doctoral thesis for publication.
2- Why is the Anglo-American cemetery of Beirut of particular interest to you? How is it being cared for and restored?
I was first drawn to the Anglo-American Cemetery of Beirut, as well as other historic cemeteries, as a way to find information about the women that I was studying. While mission archives are rich sources of information, I was frustrated by the gaps in basic biographical information for some women. Ironically, it was through looking at the women’s grave stones (the markers of their death), that I was able to find information about their lives: their dates of birth and death, information about where they were born, their legacy and influence on the community, and information about their children.
Since its establishment in 1914, the Anglo-American Cemetery has gone through periods of restoration and privation—often paralleling the political situation of Lebanon. In 1999, the UK Ambassador, Larry Banks initiated the restoration of the cemetery following the Lebanese Civil War. The cemetery waned a bit after Banks’s departure, but in 2012, the Anglo-American Cemetery Association was reconstituted. For two years I served as secretary for the committee as well as historical consultant. The primary concern for the committee today is to renovate the cemetery’s crumbling exterior walls, for which funding is being solicited. The committee also works with family members to restore individual graves. The cemetery continues to serve the Beirut community as an active burial ground for those holding British or American citizenship, regardless of religious affiliation.
3- Are there any other ‘foreign’ (Catholic / Protestant) cemeteries in the region and do you know their current state?
There are a number of “foreign” cemeteries in Lebanon and Syria, varying both in size and current state. The most famous and well-kept are the cemeteries commemorating WWI and WWII, such as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Beirut War Cemetery, the Sidon War Cemetery and the Tripoli (Victoria) Naval Cemetery.
On the Old Damascus Road in Beirut, there are four historic cemeteries. From north to south, they are the cemetery of the Jewish community, Cimetière Eglise Evangélique Française, the cemetery for the National Evangelical Church of Beirut, and a cemetery for the Syriac Catholic church. The cemetery for the National Evangelical Church of Beirut and the Cimetière Eglise Evangélique Française were both founded in 1867. The latter however was originally for the German, French and Swiss Protestant residents of Beirut and has a number of interesting graves for German residents of the city, including the Deaconesses of Kaiserwerth who ran an influential school in Beirut. Like many German institutions, this cemetery was nationalized under the French Mandate government, thus its French name.
There are also smaller Protestant cemeteries adjacent to former mission sites and schools, including Protestant cemeteries in Sidon, Ain Zahlta, Brummana as well as Damascus in Syria. While the Brummana cemetery is well maintained, the others are in need of repair, particularly the cemeteries in Syria.
It must be noted that the label “foreigner” is problematic for Lebanon as many Lebanese hold foreign citizenship and due to the high rate of immigration and intermarriage. As such, many of the more recent burials at the Anglo-American Cemetery are for Lebanese-American or Lebanese-British citizens.
4- How far back do you know of the various foreign (European) cemeteries in the region or were some Europeans buried in the existing native Christian cemeteries in the region?
The majority of the cemeteries date to the 19th and early 20th centuries, as Lebanon only became a focus for modern European migration during the mid-19th century. For example, when Pliny Fisk died in 1825, he was first buried in the garden of the missionaries associate, Antun Thabit. His grave was reinterred in the garden next to one of the missionary’s rented houses, when the mission was able to secure land adjacent to the mission house. Over time, this garden became the Mission Cemetery on the Mission Compound, which also included the American School for Girls, the American Mission Press, the original NEST building and the National Evangelical Church. In 1960 an urban planning project constructed a road through the Mission Compound, thereby requiring the graves of the Mission Cemetery to be exhumed and reinterred at the Anglo-American Cemetery.
It is important to note that many older cemeteries, including those dating to Mamluk, Crusader, Roman and even Phoenician periods, were often located just outside of the old city walls. As cities like Beirut, Tripoli, Sidon and Jbeil, expanded during the 19th century, buildings were often erected on top of historic cemeteries. Many of the recent excavations for building projects in these areas have come across these cemeteries, with varying results in conservation.
5- Are there other ‘physical relicts’ of the mostly now departed foreign communities, such as their houses, churches, clubs etc. still standing / restored today?
On the one hand, Beirut and the other cities in Lebanon, are full of physical relics illuminating the historical connections to Europe and the United States. Two of Beirut’s most famous neighborhoods are defined by these “relics”: Ras Beirut, with the American University of Beirut, Lebanese American University and Haigazian University, and Ashrafiyya, with the Université de Saint Joseph.
On the other hand, many buildings were seriously damaged during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). Although some, like the National Evangelical Church of Beirut were rebuilt, many historic buildings have been torn down by urban developers. For example, the neighborhood of Zuqaq el-Blat was an important location for foreign and local institutions, including schools of the British Syrian Mission, the American Mission Press, Butrus al-Bustani’s Madrassah al-Wataniyya (which originally housed the Syrian Protestant College), and the homes of many missionaries and foreign merchants. Some of these buildings survived the civil war, often by being repurposed by new organizations, only to be recently torn down to make way for tall apartment buildings. Activists, such as the Save Beirut Heritage group, are currently fighting against this process, demanding that historical spaces and traditional neighborhoods be preserved. Thus, while there is a growing interest in preserving historical spaces and institutions, there are many hurdles preventing this work.
6- Is Beirut still a special place for you, a place of multi-faith tolerance in a region racked with divisions and violence?
Yes, Beirut remains a special, although trying space. In my mind, the primary challenge facing Beirut and Lebanon, as a whole, is not sectarian violence, but rather economic inequality. Income disparity is increasing, with a small group of the elite controlling the majority of the country’s wealth and thereby dictating how resources are used, the landscape preserved and/or developed, and jobs distributed. Public spaces, including historic buildings and parks, where Beirutis from all backgrounds come together, are being privatized for high-end property development. However, protests against such acts are increasing, such as the campaign to save Dalieh (Beirut’s last public beach) and against the Fouad Butrus highway. Such campaigns provide opportunities for Beirutis to unite regardless of sect just as these campaigns function as important mediums through which information about the history of Beirut and Lebanon is conveyed.
7- Historically there are some families in Lebanon whose ancestors came from Europe in different waves. Can you name some who still live and work in Beirut?
There are a number of historical families who still live and work in Beirut and Lebanon. This includes the Joly family (who now run the Henry Heald & Co. Shipping Company), the Bliss-Dale-Dorman family, the Somervilles–Carslawss, the Nachmanns, as well as the descendants of Theodore Waldmere. Although residing outside of Lebanon, many families remain connected to Lebanon and Syria, such as members of the Glockler, Jessup, Hanna and Segal-Seale families.
8- In Turkey the word ‘Levantine’ is used for people of Western European ancestry still maintaining their hybrid culture. Is the same term used in the same way in Lebanon?
The term “Levantine” is less frequently used in Lebanon today. One reason for this is that the division between Euro-Americans and Lebanese is much more blurred than in other areas of the region, due to the large number of Lebanese who lived and worked in the “mahjar”, where they developed their own hybrid identity that they brought back to Lebanon. Another reason is the division between “Levantines”, i.e. Liban-Français and American Lebanese. Although often sharing a focus on education and trade, the foreigners of these groups often operated in distinct linguistic and cultural circles.
9- Do you have an interest in the Ottoman history of Lebanon and is this a field the general native population embraces or would rather forget?
I personally find it very important to study the history of Lebanon within its Ottoman context: its shifting relationship with the imperial center, as well as its diverse relations with other communities on the “peripheries”. Part of my own research focuses on the role that the Tanzimat reforms played in the development of the Protestant church in Lebanon, as a new religious community that petitioned for its rights under the Sultan.
The general population of Lebanon has a mixed relationship with their Ottoman past. Many of the historical spaces that are preserved and celebrated as central within Lebanese heritage date to the Ottoman period, such as Beit al-Dine and the “triple-arched house”. However, the Ottoman authorities are vilified within the historical memory, which often center upon the events of World War One, including the execution of the martyrs in May 1916, the Great Famine and the Armenian Genocide, which are taken as reflective of the entire period of Ottoman rule over the Arab provinces.
10- Have you been to any other ports in the region such as Alexandria, Mersin etc. and been able to compare and contrast the extent to which their ‘Levantine hybridity’ still lives today.
Unfortunately I have not travelled to many of the port cities where Levantine culture thrives today.
11- Are there records of foreigner, merchants, missionaries etc. of the Levant coast that still await discovery, analysis and publication you know of?
Beirut is currently experiencing a revival in archival sources on foreigners, merchants and missionaries. As director of the Preserving Protestant Heritage in the Middle East project, my responsibilities included re-organizing the Special Collections of the Near East School of Theology. This collection includes journals of early missionaries like Pliny Fisk, the manuscript of the Bible translated by Eli Smith, Butrus al-Bustani and Cornelius Van Dyck, books and periodicals printed at the American Mission Press (including al-Nushra), artefacts from mission schools, and church records and reports. An index of the items can be obtained from the NEST Head Librarian.
Other important archival projects are currently being pursued by the Special Collections of the American University of Beirut, the ARPOA project of the Institute of History, Archaeology & Near Eastern Heritage at the University of Balamand, the Atelier de Conservation du Patrimoine Écrit at Université Saint-Esprit de Kaslik, as well as the much anticipated re-opening of the National Library of Lebanon.
There are a number of interesting recent studies that draw upon these archives, including:
Maria B. Abunnasr, “The Making of Ras Beirut: A Landscape of Memory for Narratives of Exceptionalism, 1870-1975,” Ph.D. Thesis, (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts-Amherst, 2013).
Julia Hauser, German Religious Women in Late Ottoman Beirut: Competing Missions, (Leiden: Brill, 2015).
Julia Hauser, Christine B. Lindner, Esther Möller, (eds.), Entangled Education: Foreign, National and Local schools in Ottoman Syria and Mandate Lebanon (Beirut: Ergon Verlag Würzburg in Kommission, forthcoming).
Deanna Ferree Womack, “Conversion, Controversy, & Cultural Production: Syrian Protestants, American Missionaries, and the Arabic Press, ca. 1870-1915,” Ph.D. Thesis, (Princeton: Princeton Theological Seminary, 2015).
Uta Zeuge, “Die Mission des American Board in Syrien im 19. Jahrhundert: Implikationen eines transkulturellen Dialogs,” Th.D. Thesis, (Wien: Universität Wien, 2014).
12- Who would you rate as the most fascinating historical person to emerge from the region and why?
Over the past ten year, I have “met” many fascinating individuals, but if I had to choose one to highlight, it would be Rahil Ata al-Bustani. Born in 1826 to a Greek Orthodox family in Beirut, Rahil was an early student of the American Protestant missionaries and was eventually chosen to be a boarding student under Sarah Smith, the first wife of Eli Smith. She became an important teacher at mission schools as well as the most eligible female member of the Protestant church. As such, she caught the eye of many suitors, and after rejecting many offers, she decided upon one persistent young suitor, a recent convert to Protestantism named Butrus al-Bustani. While historians often focus on the impressive career of Butrus, it has become evident that Rahil was just as inspiring and influential. Their marriage was defined by love and mutual respect—and served as a model for others, including her children who wrote about the central role of love in modern marriages and the important role of women in the development of a modern education. Her household included her nine children, visiting family members and friends, as well as the boarding students of the Madrassa al-Watiniyya. Although only a few letters and artefacts of Rahils have survived, a memorial service was held after her death in 1894, where eulogies on Rahil’s influence were given by the missionary Henry Harris Jessup, the educator Salim Kessab and Rahil’s daughter, the writer, Alice al-Bustani to an audience of 400 congregants. After the service a memorial column was dedicated, honouring the history of female education in the region. This base was one of the few items that survived the Lebanese Civil War on the compound of the National Evangelical Church, where it currently stands.
I recently published a short biography of entitled, “Rahil Ata al-Bustani: Wife and Mother of the Nahda”, in: Adel Beshara, (ed.), Butrus al-Bustani: Spirit of the Age (Melbourne: IPHOENIX Publishing, 2014), 49-67.
13- Lebanon went through a painful civil war and while it has no doubt recovered some of its former cohesion, do you think there are new storm clouds ahead with an increasingly divided Middle East on sectarian and ‘proxy wars’ lines? Do you think lessons can be learnt from the historical past in terms of living and working together, like most Levantine ports did for centuries?
While proxy wars and sectarian divisions are always present, economic inequality is the most pressing problem facing the country. The high rates of unemployment create opportunity not just for radicalization, but for politically motivated individuals to stir troubles. Communities of historic neighbourhoods, which often bring together individuals from different sectarian backgrounds, are often disenfranchised and limited in their abilities to challenge powerful urban developers to tear down historic buildings and erect high-rise private apartments that disrupt the culture of the neighbourhood. However, there have been a number of important initiatives by activities to highlight the history of Beirut, through movies, Facebook groups, public lectures, thereby encouraging its preservation as well as alternative models for Beirut’s future that goes against the trend towards sectarianism and violence.
14- How healthy and well-funded are the various universities, libraries and historical research institutes of Lebanon are in your opinion? What do you think are the deficiencies?
The funding for universities, libraries and other archives is uneven. Some institutions, like AUB and the University of Balamand, have been fortunate to receive financial support from both foreign and local donors. However, other institutions continue to struggle to secure financing for the preservation of their archives.
One of the biggest problems I observed as the director of the PPHME project was the nature of foreign organizations, both European and American, in projects to “save” archives in the region. In many cases, these organizations would approach archives and offer to digitize manuscripts and archives free of cost and, in return, would obtain a digital copy of the archive. While their objectives would be to preserve endangered archives and to make these records available to the wider global audience through open source outlets, the result is that the local institution is often left without a voice in how their archives are being circulated, no recourse to develop their archives as sustainable sources of income and with little or no training of their own staff to preserve their collections and develop digital archives of their own. To address this, I am currently serving as a consultant to small institutions, including the Anglo-American Cemetery, to develop ways for them to preserve their own archives and legacies in a manner that honors their community or institution’s heritage. This includes making the institution aware of their rights, presenting them with options to develop their own digitization and preservation plans, and to establish their own criteria for public access. I am happy to work with other organizations in developing their archival plans, or to answer questions about collaborations with large funding institutions.
15- How big is the current foreign academic, research body in Beirut? Has there been some who have moved away in the recent years due to fear of nearby wars?
Beirut is always a hub of activity for foreign researchers. This is true now more than ever as Syria is essentially closed off and Lebanon is experiencing relative stability. Researchers are also drawn to the expanding archival opportunities I mentioned above.
However, I always encourage researchers to venture outside of Beirut: to Tripoli, Sidon, Mount Lebanon and the Bekaa. While one must always be aware of the possibilities of unrest, areas outside of Beirut are often understudied but possess a vast wealth of opportunities for researchers, particularly those of foreign encounters to the region. From sunken shipwrecks off Tripoli’s port, abandoned train stations built by Australian workmen, former centers of international oil pipelines, ruined silk factories, dilapidated palaces of travellers like Lady Hester Stanhope, hospitals like the Hamlin Sanatorium for Tuberculosis and the now abandoned Asfouriyeh Mental Hospital, to mission schools still serving the rural communities…all provide insight onto the legacies of those who came before, both foreign and local, and shaped the development of the country.
16- Do you have future projects you would like to divulge to us?
In addition to my work as a historical consultant for the Anglo-American Cemetery and other institutions in Lebanon, I am continuing my own research. I am preparing a monograph based upon my doctoral dissertation and will be presenting a conference paper on the role of the American Mission Press of Beirut during WWI. I am also developing a project focusing on Protestant spaces in Syria and Eastern Anatolia, for which I will conduct a series of case studies on Protestantism at different cities and villages such as Damascus, Kessab, and Aleppo. With this I hope to illuminate the entangled history of this small but diverse religious community, and work with these churches to preserve their fragile history.
Interview conducted by Craig Encer, May 2015.