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Pleasures of Lebanon

In response to:

The Road Not Taken from the October 9, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

Mr. Mortimer is too harsh on those who are “lyrically nostalgic about the douceur de vivre of prewar Lebanon” [NYR, October 9, 1986]. After all, in spite of its corruption and other defects, it was the freest and most tolerant country in the region and the one that provided the highest level of living and the greatest amount of dignity to the bulk of its inhabitants. It was also the most vibrant cultural center in the Arab world.

It is true that the Shiis benefited less from all these aspects than did the other communities—Christians, Sunnis, and Druzes—but then they were by far the least educated and socially most backward, a fact for which their compatriots were not primarily responsible. Many were improving their condition by emigrating to West Africa and the Gulf, as Christians had done before them to the Americas, and others through education. I myself in the mid-Forties, had many Shii students at the American University of Beirut, who later rose to prominence. It is also true that Shii lords treated their peasants abominably—but that is hardly a matter for which the other communities should be blamed. In Christian and Druze villages the situation was very different.

The old order in Lebanon has passed beyond recall. A relatively free, liberal, pluralistic society could not coexist with its various neighbors. They have done their best to smash it up and it is in their interest to blacken its reputation. As a Middle Eastern proverb has it, “when the ox falls many knives are drawn.” However, such an acute observer of the Middle East as Mr. Mortimer did not have to add his voice to that of the detractors.

Charles Issawi

Princeton, New Jersey

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