Radio interview with Jawad Boulos on Radio Liban
This site is dedicated to the memory of a Lebanese statesman who could probably best be defined as the theoretician of the Lebanese Nation. Jawad Boulos was born at the turn of the twentieth century or the dying years of the Ottoman Empire. This was an era when nationalistic aspirations in the Arab Orient were starting to find articulation in the writings and pronouncements of an educated elite which mostly looked towards the West for inspiration, but wished to moor the lofty principles of “self-evident“ rights and the aspiration to self -determination in the latticework of the fertile crescent’s historical experience.
Jawad Boulos believed as he later wrote that Lebanon had, throughout history, exhibited the features of a geographical, social and economic unit bounded by borders that were among the few natural frontiers possessed by any of the countries of what is now known as the Middle East. He held that the reality of the existence of the Lebanese nation withstood both the scrutiny of rational analysis and the test of historical experience. Lebanon, he declared, was indeed one of the oldest nations on earth. The fact that its borders had been definitely set by the colonial powers of the early twentieth century did not contradict this view. France herself, as he pointed out by way of example, had seen her borders vary throughout history and her current frontiers were not entirely historical in the basic sense of the word. Nor did give credit to those who held out the map as proof that Lebanon had been carved out of Syria and that geography commanded that both countries should constitute an evident political unit. Lebanon’s situation vis a vis Syria was not exceptional he held; could anyone seriously argue, for example, that Portugal was an inherent part of Spain? Or that Chile was carved out of Argentina?
Our politician turned historian outlined the essence of his thinking on the roots of Lebanese nationalism in his seminal essay, the “Real Foundations of contemporary Lebanon” which is perhaps his most revealing and challenging work. In it, he developed the fundamental idea that the Lebanese nation was a not rooted in the ties of language, ethnicity or religion but was rather forged by Lebanon’s geography which set it apart from its continental hinterland while orienting it towards the sea and its wide horizons rather than the sterile deserts of the interior. He held that Lebanon’s geography had practically compelled it to become a country of refuge for persecuted communities who wished to preserve their religious and cultural identities. These communities were cemented together by the fundamental concept of “vivre ensemble”; that voluntary social and political compact of the Lebanese people to live together and, collectively, to defend their freedoms. It is precisely this compact that was, and remains, the bedrock of the Lebanese nation.
It is this same vivre-ensemble that has been put under severe stress by the emergence of supranational organizations informed by unyielding and radical ideologies rooted in the idea of exclusivism and religious supremacy. And it is the rise of such organizations that has led informed observers to wonder whether the erasure of borders would lead to the end of consociationalism and whether the dismantling of both, concomitantly with the systematic targeting of religious minorities, forbears the definitive failure of the very “idea” of Lebanon.
Presciently, it was Jawad Boulos’ view that the very nature of the Lebanese individual imprinted by the country’s geography and climate could promote nothing other than a participative system of government precisely because its geography and historical experience made it a refuge for minorities who wished to preserve both their collective identity and their personal freedoms across historical times.
A firm proponent of Lebanese independence, Jawad Boulos firmly opposed those who wished to hurry its declaration. He was wary of British vision for the Post War Middle East in view of the British government’s commitments to the Zionist movement which would inevitably culminate in the establishment of Israel and consequentially, to the dispossession of non-Jews in Palestine and their displacement to neighboring countries and Lebanon in particular. He understood France could not maintain the mandate in the Levant long after the end of the War. If France was going to leave anyway he reasoned, why force her out while she was defeated and weak and submit perforce to British designs and Zionist ambitions? Why humiliate France and risk her centuries old friendship? Why not negotiate France’s departure and obtain from her a treaty commitment to protect and defend Lebanon’s independence in the turbulent times to come? Independence was not about words and posturing. It was about actions and the marshaling of resources which would be needed to maintain it. When the French were indeed compelled to leave, he quipped that the Maronites had abandoned her centuries old protection while securing little in the way of countervailing guarantees. This, he predicted, would prove catastrophic.
Jawad Boulos was a fixture of the political scene of his day. An admirer and political ally of President Emile Edde in who’s law firm he trained, he was an active member of the National Bloc (Ketleh watanyeh) coalition though never a member of Edde’s party. He became the standard bearer of the pro-French coalition in North Lebanon and faced off repeatedly against the Constitutional Bloc which was led by Hamid Frangieh and Abdel Hamid Karame and openly supported by the British. General Spears, the chief British representative in Lebanon actively engineered the defeat of the more popular National Bloc in the 1943 elections. The British were particularly active in undermining the electoral list in North Lebanon which was co-headed by Jawad Boulos and Rashed Mokaddem who was arrested on trumped up charges and later sent into exile. That defeat would have a devastating effect on the career of our promising statesman just as it would mark the turning point for the National Bloc which would never fully recover.
By 1958 however, Jawad Boulos had become a sort of “eminence grise” in Lebanon . He was a politician of deep erudition and broad culture with a significant political base and a wide network of personal friendships spanning communities, regions and countries. A rarity among Lebanese politicians, he had a reputation for honesty, integrity and was recognized as an ascetic. As such, he was considered a credible and necessary candidate for the Presidency by many. In the run up for the Presidential elections of 1958, he had the favors of the Western camp who were actively seeking a credible candidate of nationalistic and republican convictions to succeed President Camille Chamoun. His chances were so real that he received the early congratulations of General Fouad Chehab when the two men met at his home in Beirut to discuss opportunities for cooperation under an expected Boulos presidency. But fate intervened. On July 14th 1958, just two weeks shy of the election, the Hachemite Monarchy in Irak was overthrown in a coup which brought General Abdel Karim Kassem to power. The United States, concerned with what it perceived as a Communist challenge to the Pax Americana, determined that a military man was needed at the helm in Lebanon resulting in the election of Fouad Chehab.
The relationship with the now President Chehab was contentious from the very beginning. Chehab was wary of a man whom he viewed as an erstwhile competitor and opponent. The President was also engaged in a political contest with the National Bloc led by Raymond Edde whose Party Boulos supported and remained loyal to all his life. Both Boulos and Edde viewed the accession of a military man to the Presidency in Lebanon with unease. They deeply believed in Lebanese exceptionalism and were unsettled by a precedent which they feared would lead the country down the path of military authoritarianism and one-man rule which had become the norm in the Arab world. Their worst fears were realized when Chehab empowered the military’s second bureau and turned it into an apparatus of political repression. Where the President could not secure political support for his policies he would turn to the security establishment to crank up the pressure. As the Chehab presidency unfolded, the President became increasingly dependent on Army Intelligence whose mandate he constantly allowed to expand. The constant persecution by the Second Bureau of political factions who opposed Chehab ended up aligning these factions against him. When the Syrian Nationalist Party attempted its coup on December 31st 1961, they were quietly cheered on by many, even among those who opposed the party’s ideology. The party’s intention was to replace Chehab with Boulos whose impeccable Lebanese nationalist credentials would undoubtedly temper the fear that the putchists’ ideology would inevitably inspire.
The failure of the coup once again drove Jawad Boulos away from politics and into the arms of his first love; history.
As an exception among historians, Jawad Boulos was not an academic but a lawyer and a professional politician. He believed that absent sufficient knowledge of the history of their region, local politicians stood at great risk of adopting faulty policies that could have disastrous implications for the country. He understood, citing Burke that “People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors”. He believed that although the lessons of history were not dogmatic in nature, the understandings commanded by an appreciation of historical events have practical value in that they convey teachings which individuals and nations can and must use to their benefit. As a school of concrete experiences, history introduces us to experimental knowledge of humanity which is deeper and more varied than that which can be gleaned from our personal observations. He realized that the experience of others does not enlighten the many because we are conditioned to believe that we are of a “different” nature. Even though truth is in reality factual rather than rational when viewed through the prisms of both history and politics, he argued, the shapers of opinion have all too frequently been ready to cede to chimeric doctrines and ideologies which are rooted in abstractions and have no link to the reality thereby causing much damage and destruction. It was an argument that many of Jawad Boulos’ critics and detractors would use against him in connection with his defense of the concept of a Lebanese nation.
Jawad Boulos keenly knew that Lebanon’s experiment with republicanism was fragile and that the successful administration of this unique attempt at sustaining a truly democratic and fully inclusive system of government in the Post Ottoman Levant required that officials should be well versed in the lessons that the past had to offer and aware of the fundamental drivers of the historical experience that could only be ignored at great peril.
He felt he needed to take on the responsibility for providing that bedrock of knowledge and identifying those drivers to serve as guidelines informing the decisions of statesmen.
In approaching his subject, he was intellectually inspired by the school of thought of historical determinism. He believed that a careful scholar could uncover historical “constants” in the unfolding drama of events and that these constants were themselves determined by geography. Politics was the daughter of history and history the son of geography and geography itself was immutable.
This did not mean that he believed in absolute determinism. While he held true that Man was not wholly independent of his environment, chance probabilities remained a factor in driving history because men were relatively autonomous beings both physiologically and mentally and each individual retains a large element of freedom. This freedom is not absolute but affected by numerous external influences with color man’s attitudes. On balance over historical times, human initiative favored or hindered as it is by the influences of nature, is constrained by restrictive conditions that tamp down its impact and condemn it to a secondary role.
The leading luminary of this school of thought was the British historian Arnold Toynbee who wrote the foreword of the first tome of Jawad Boulos’ sweeping work and masterpiece “Peuples et Civilisations du Proche Orient des Origines a nos jours” which was written in French and published between the years 1961 (Tome I) and 1968 (Tome V). During this time he also wrote a history of Lebanon which he published in 1970 (Lebanon and the neighboring countries).
With the onset of what became known as the “two year war” (1975-1976) but more commonly, if incorrectly, as the Lebanese Civil War, Jawad Boulos found himself once again at the forefront of the political stage. Along with leading lights such as Charles Malek, Fouad Ephrem El Boustani, Said Akl, Edward Honein , Abbott Charbel Kassis and political patriarchs Sleiman Frangieh, Pierre Gemayel and Camille Chamoun he founded the “Lebanese Front” which met in Awkar and devolved into the central policy making body of Christian and other nationalist forces in Lebanon during the war. The Lebanese front was instrumental in devising policy, providing direction, mobilizing resources and support and coordinating between the various nationalist factions facing the PLO and its allies in the Lebanese left, the Syrian nationalists and their foreign mentors. In 1978, he resigned in disgust from the front after the Ehden Massacre. He retired to the “Christ Roi” monastery to live out the remaining years of his life. In 1982, a few weeks before his death, he published his last work also written in French but translated into Arabic “Les Tournants Majeurs de l’Histoire du Proche Orient depuis l’Islam”.
Jawad Boulos’ body of work was aimed first and foremost at demonstrating the authenticity of the Lebanese entity throughout history and defeating the view that Lebanon was an artificial social and political entity wholly proceeding from the Sykes Picot agreement. His writings also defended the view that the ideology of a greater Syria was a romantic fallacy and that this purported Greater Syria which would encompass the entire Levant had never existed throughout history, nor could it exist as a political unit in modern times. His last book aimed at proving that the concept of an Islamic Oumma, inasmuch as it would be attached to a specific geographical area such as the State created by the first Caliphs was itself a purely ideological construct with no geographical or historical foundations in the Levant. The only purely Arab caliphate which was centered on Damascus lasted close to 100 years (the Omeyyad Caliphate (640—750); the blink of an eye in historical terms. After that, the Caliphate(s) came under the influence of the Persians and Turks, ceased to be centered on Levantine Damascus, and intermittently, would also move away from Sunnism (under the Fatimids).
In an era where, to quote Henry Kissinger “ ever more issues are treated as if of factual nature, the premise becomes established that for every question there is a researchable answer, that problems and solutions are not so much to be thought through as to be “looked up”. But in the relations between states- and in many fields- information, to be truly useful, must be placed within a broader context of history and experience to emerge as actual knowledge. And a society is fortunate if its leaders can occasionally rise to the level of wisdom.”
It is this wisdom that Jawad Boulos sought to uncover and communicate. It is our loss that his, and other like minded voices were drowned out in the drama of Lebanon’s ”grab what you can as fast as you can” attitude that permeated government after independence and till this day.
This website aims to celebrate the memory of this patriotic statesman who believed in the greatness of his Nation and of its people and who would not rest until he had put forward the theoretical principles that informed his convictions. It aims at introducing the coming generations who have been steeped in the idea that their country is somehow an artificial entity, a passing historical mistake that will somehow be corrected by the emergence of a new regional order. It is in essence an archive of the intellectual outpouring of a man whose vindication in politics, I remain convinced, would have changed the course of the modern history of Lebanon and perhaps protected it from much of the turbulence that it faced in the second half of the twentieth century right up to the date of this writing.
I have taken the decision of making Jawad Boulos’ works available online in the form of e-Books so that they can once again be at available to the larger public. These books are unfortunately no longer in print and are not available in book stores. The site also provides access to a selection of conferences he gave, interviews he granted, articles he wrote, reports about his activities and views, letters he composed or received and opinions that referenced him or his work. I have tried to make this archive as complete as possible. Inevitably new documents will surface as I hope they will. Readers are welcome to post any documents, photos or information they may have to further enrich the site. All contributions are welcome.
Thank you for visiting the site, I hope you will conclude that it provides valuable insight into the history of Lebanon and the Middle East and a useful tool for those who are searching for a deeper understanding the dynamics that have shaped our Nation and continue to impact the entire Middle East.
This Website would not have seen the day without the generous contribution of Mr. Edmond Abchi. When I called Edmond to thank him for the grant he had previously made to fund the restoration of the mausoleum of Youssef Bek Karam and the statue of Patriarch Douaihi, he challenged me to test his commitment to any project connected with upholding the history and traditions of our beloved Ehden. I did! And the result was his unhesitant, unconditional and unlimited support to this project. I would like to express my gratitude to this exceptional man who has never strayed far from his roots of his ancestors and who remains anchored in the values that have made the strength of the Maronites: Faith, strength of character, commitment to the task at hand, attachment to freedom, love of the land, attachment to identity, unity of purpose and generosity of spirit. May his kind multiply and be blessed.
Jawad Simon Boulos
Beirut on August 13th, 2015