World Lebanese Cultural Union

INGO Associated with the DPI and Accredited with the ECOSOC



Century in the World
Introduction and Background

It is a preliminary survey of a subject which is of interest not only for the light it throws upon Lebanon and the Lebanese, buy also for its relevance to an important strand of modern history, the vast, world-wide movements of population which have changed the character of long-established communities and created new ones. From the middle of the nineteenth century onwards, people from countries in the Mediterranean basin have been moving in large numbers to North and South America and Australasia, and in smaller numbers to East and West Africa and northern Europe. They have included Italians and Sicilians, Greeks and Armenians, and those who were known generally in the nineteenth century as ‘Syrians’; ‘Syria’ was a name commonly used in the western world to denote the area which is now included in the states of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, and it is not always easy to discover from the records of the migration whether those who are referred to as ‘Syrians’ were, to use more modern terms, Syrians, Lebanese or Palestinians. This introduction, like some of the chapters which follow, will not therefore be able to limit itself strictly to Lebanese emigrants.

          Because of this confusion of names, but also for other reasons, it is not possible to give more than a very rough estimate of the number of emigrants or their descendants. To say that some hundreds of thousands have left Lebanon in the last century and a half, and that their descendants may number a few million, is at least to give some idea of the size of the movement with which this book is concerned.

          The largest communities of emigrants and their descendants are to be found in the United States of America, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean islands; in Brazil, Argentina and some other South American countries; in Australia; in Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal and some other West African countries; and in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other countries of the Gulf. There are smaller groups in other countries, and as far afield as Hawaii and Scandinavia. In the earlier years they tended to form separate communities, held together by ways of social life, cuisine, religious adherence or political loyalties, but in the second and third generations they have been drawn into the general life of the societies in which they have settled, in ways partly determined by the nature of those societies, and sometimes have risen high in them; those of Lebanese origin have included a President of Colombia, a Prime Minister of Jamaica, a majority leader in the US Senate,  a Nobel prizewinner for medicine, a President of the Royal Society, a world-famous heart surgeon, and an Australian novelist.

          This book represents one of the most comprehensive attempts to study the movement of emigration from a single country, and it raises questions which are important for other such movements as well. Some of these are questions about the process of emigration. Why did so many people move from Lebanon and Syria to far-away and unknown countries? One answer may perhaps be found in the growth of population. This had led to a movement of villagers southwards from the mountain-valleys of northern Lebanon into the Shuf and other districts of the south. By the second half of the nineteenth century, it may be that the economy of the Lebanese mountain districts was not able to provide for the growing population. The expansion in the production of silk, the staple of the Lebanese economy, had done so for a long time, but from the beginning of the twentieth century the weakly organized local silk industry was challenged and finally extinguished by competition from the silk of Japan and other countries, and then by the introduction of artificial fabrics.

          At the same time, the spread of education, mainly in schools created by Catholic and Protestant missionaries, was forming a growing number of educated men, and a smaller number of women, who looked for an opportunity to use their newly acquired skills. The growth of Beirut, as a centre for the export of silk and for the import and distribution of European manufactured goods, led to an increased awareness of what was happening in the outside world. Newspapers and periodicals were founded, and from the 1860s they could publish news of the latest happenings in the world, transmitted by the international telegraph line, which was extended to Beirut in 1863. The first modern Arabic encyclopedia, Da’irat al-ma’arif, published in Beirut from 1876 onwards, shows how much knowledge of the modern world was available to readers of Arabic by that time.

          Another reason for the emigration is often suggested: religious and political persecution, and in particular the Lebanese civil war of 1860. This may have been less important than it now appears in the collective money of Lebanese Christian emigrants and their descendants. Emigration ona large scale did not begin until a decade or two later, at a time when Mount Lebanon had a privileged administrative system under the protection of the European powers, which assured the freedom of the various religious communities. Beyond Mount Lebanon, however, in the provinces of Beirut and Damascus, the restrictions upon freedom of speech and writing during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid, the uneasy relationship between Muslims and Christians, and the sense of living in a stagnant society while other parts of the world were fast progressing, may have contributed to the emigration; so too did the dislike of conscription into the Ottoman army. Since 1975, of course, the Lebanese civil war, with the conflict between communities as well as the economic dislocation to which it has given rise, has been a main cause of renewed movement of emigration.

          At the same time as processes inside Lebanon and Syria impelled the young to emigrate, the economic and social development of the new countries of North and South America and Australasia was a force of attraction for them. These regions were in process of rapid economic growth, in an atmosphere of freedom, and this growth created needs which they could not fill from their existing resources; strangers coming from the outside world could fit easily into the interstices of an expanding economic system. Conditions for entry were easy in most of the countries, and changes in means of communication made it possible to travel to them. From the 1840s onwards Beirut was linked by regular steamship lines with some of the main ports of Europe, from which ships sailed to the New World, and in the 1890s the port of Beirut was improved in order to hand the expanding traffic.

          Such factors, propelling Lebanese from their own society into others, worked in different ways from one period to another. Four main phases of the emigration may be distinguished. In the first, stretching roughly from the seventeenth century to the middle of the nineteenth, limited numbers of Syrians and Lebanese went to Egypt and the main centres of trade between Europe and the Near East---Livorno, Marseille, Manchester. In the second, covering the second half of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth, there was more or less unlimited emigration to the countries of North and South America, although the Ottoman government tried at times to restrict it because of the loss of potential recruits of the army. In the third period, beginning after the first world war, the doors of the United States and other countries were closed to all but a limited number of entrants, but new doors were opened, as British and French rule in the west African colonies linked them with the world market and provided the administrative basis for economic growth. A fourth period began with the growth of the economies of the Gulf countries in the 1960s and the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975; some of those who had families in the United States or special qualifications were able to go there, others went to Canada, Australia, Latin America and Western Europe, but a considerable number were able to go to Saudi Arabia and other countries of the Gulf, where once more rapidly growing societies needed skills of every kind, from those of craftsmen to those of teachers, officials, doctors and large-scale contractors.

          In each of these periods the emigration had a special character. Those who went to Egypt or Europe during the first phase were mainly Christian or Jewish merchants from the large cities, Aleppo, Damascus and later Beirut. Those who went to America in the second period were, to a great extent, young men from the Christian villages of the Lebanese mountains, and similar villages in Syria and Palestine, many of them of humble origins and limited education; there were also emigrants of similar origin from the Druze villages. In the third period, a large proportion of those who went to West Africa came fro the Shi ‘I villages of southern Lebanon; this was a result both of the growth of population and of the integration of southern Lebanon into the administrative and economic system of Lebanon, which created new possibilities of movement and an awareness of new horizons. In the most recent period, a large proportion (although by no means all) of the emigrants have been those with education or a useful technical training from all communities.

          Emigration was not so simple a process as it may appear at first sight to be. Young men did not go spontaneously, without preparation and by simple individual choice, down to the harbour and board a ship. Emigration involved organization and decisions of various kinds. There was a decision to be made by the emigrant himself. This involved some knowledge of the outside world, for emigrants were not refugees seeking blindly for somewhere to hide. The knowledge might be minimal, however: there are stories of emigrants thinking they were going to one place and finding themselves in another, and in the popular language of the Lebanese countryside ‘America” might be used indiscriminately as a term for all the places where emigrants settled. Besides knowledge, there must have been an element of what is called ‘enterprise’; to go half way across the world, to a country of which one knew neither the geography nor the language, and engage in an occupation for which life had not prepared one, demanded courage, strength of will and the skills to survive. The decisions involved more than the individual, however. They must often have been decisions of a whole family: to take risk of sending one of its productive members away, and invest in him at least the capital resources needed to take him across the Atlantic Ocean and start him on a new life, was not an easy decision.

          Beyond the family, there is evidence of the existence of professional organizations. In Lebanon there were agents or brokers (simsar) who travelled through villages, encouraging the young to emigrate and helping them to organize the voyage. In the New World too there were simsars who would arrange the journey, meet the immigrant when he landed, advance him the means to begin his new life or provide, on credit, the goods for his pedlar’s pack. This may not always have been done by a simsar; the process of emigration was a cumulative one, a successful emigrant would send back for others from his family and village, and so there would grow up clusters of emigrants fro the same district in some town or region of the country of settlement. In due course too the family in Lebanon might send a bride for the emigrant, if he did not have the resources to go back to Lebanon to get married.

          The ways in which the emigration was organized help to explain the directions in which it went. Emigrants did not always end where they wished to go. Those who did not possess the qualifications needed to enter the United States might be carried by their ship to its next port of call in the Caribbean or the west coast of South America; those who reached Marseille and had not the resources needed to cross the Atlantic might end in West Africa.

          The experience of emigration was a varied one. The stereotype of the Lebanese newly arrived in North or South America is that of the pedlar, walking the roads from one village to another with his load of fancy goods or hardware carried on his back or on a pack-animal. This was not the only way of entering the new life, but it was common enough to serve as an authentic image of the newly arrived immigrant, and not only the Lebanese. In a region recently opened up to settlement, with no large-scale organization for the distribution of household goods, and with small villages or townships separated by long distances, the pedlar, like the country fair or periodical market, played an essential role. There was a succession of pedlar groups; as each prospered and established itself its place was taken by another. Thus in Brazil the Lebanese pedlars took the place of Jews from eastern Europe, and in their turn gave way to others. As they saved a little capital, they would settle in some town as shopkeepers, selling groceries, hardware or cloth; some were able to rise higher and become wholesale merchants, and a few became manufacturers of textiles or other goods.

          There were several other paths of entry into the economy of the country of settlement. Some who had the necessary education or capital resources entered world-wide network of textile traders, importing European woolen and cotton goods and distributing them; the small Syrian and Lebanese community in Manchester was at the centre of the network, in a period when Lancashire cottons dominated the world market. Some immigrants with a higher education entered the professions, in particular that of medicine; doctors trained in the medical school of the American University of Beirut could qualify to practise in the United States. As the Lebanese communities grew, they began to generate their own needs: workshops and shops to import or produce the ingredients of the Lebanese cuisine, and Arabic newspapers and periodicals, published in Brooklyn, Sao Paulo or Buenos Aires, which gave news both of the ‘old country’ and of the new communities, and helped to create and maintain a separate identity in them.

          When there were large communities in a city or a district they formed their own organizations. There were ‘Syrian’ or ‘Lebanese’ or ‘Syro-Lebanese’ clubs which were open to all. At moment of political crisis, there might emerge general organizations of all those for whom their Syrian or Lebanese origin had a meaning: during the first world war, for example, news of the famine in Lebanon aroused world-wide concern and led to the creation of relief committees. Most of the organizations were more limited, however. The most stable of them were the religious communities, for the immigrant brought his religion with him, and did not, for the most part, wish to dissociate himself from it. Among the Christians, some were drawn into the Catholic or Protestant communities of their country of settlement, but others remained faithful to their own Lebanese or Syrian churches: Maronite, Greek Catholic and Greek Orthodox priests, and even Protestant ministers, came from Lebanon and officiated in their own churches, built by the community; as time went on, the liturgies were translated into English or other languages for the benefit of the second generation. Druzes tended to conform outwardly to the religious customs of the communities among which they settled. Mosques intended specially for Syrian, Lebanese or Palestinian Muslims were slower to arrive, but they were built where the Muslim communities were large, as in West Africa.

          There were other kinds of association too, official or unofficial societies of immigrants from a single district or town, or even of a single extended family; they mite hold regular conferences which kept alive the memory of customs or kinship ties among the younger generation, and sometimes they had charitable activities. The political loyalties and animosities of the country of origin also might be carried to the countries of settlement; the various alternative conceptions of the nation---Arab, Syrian or Lebanese---were alive in Sao Paulo and New York, Sydney and Dakar, London and Paris. Sometimes the divisions expressed themselves in violent action: a former military ruler Syria, Adib Shishakli, took refuge in Brazil after he lost power, and was there assassinated by a political opponent; in recent years, the conflict between different Shi‘i parties in Lebanon has spread to Shi‘i emigrant groups in Australia and in West Africa.

          The processes by which immigrants were drawn into the life of their countries of settlement were complex, and varied greatly. At one level, they were not drawn in completely for a long time. The nuclear family remained a piece of Lebanon transplanted to Sao Paulo or Brooklyn. The pattern of relationships, between husband and wife and parents and children, tended o remain as it was; food, one of the main pillars of life in common, also remained. Links between the emigrant family and parents, brothers and sisters and cousins still in Lebanon might remain strong. In thus preserving the stability of family life the role of mothers and grandmothers was all-important. Perhaps, however, the stability was more apparent than real. Beneath the surface change took place, and might have led to the widening of the gap between the generations (even if it was bridged by natural affection); sons and daughters, brought up in schools of the new country, speaking its language as their own, and exposed to all the influences of their generation, might not easily and deeply accept patterns of behavior which seemed normal and right to their elders.

          Outside the closed world of the family, the path of assimilation into a new society depended on the nature of that society. In a talk given to the conference from which this book springs, Fuad Khuri distinguished three modes of assimilation, which he called the ‘northern European’, ‘southern European’, and ‘African’. The first is that to be found in North America and Australia, where the population ay be of different racial origins but there is a single culture, that of the dominant social group, to which all others try to assimilate. The second mode is that which exists in Latin America, where society is not only mixed in origin but mixed in culture as well; different cultures are accepted as being on the same level and capable of contributing something to the common stock. The third is that which exists in West Africa, where the culture of the indigenous majority is not communicated to immigrant groups, which remain in most ways alien to the society in which they live; an alliance of interests may be formed between rich Lebanese immigrant merchants and the ruling elite, but this is precarious at best and may disappear if circumstances change.

          The distinction between these three types of settlement should not be understood too literally. They are ‘ideal types’ in the sociologist’s sense, logical constructions that, used sensitively, may throw light upon the nature of any particular society, which is complex and full of contradictions. Thus Fuad Khuri has pointed out that in the United States some Lebanese communities live in a ‘cultural ghetto’, in partial isolation fro mthe host society in spite of its assimilative power. He has drawn attention also to the contrast between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, two states on the same island, but one of them having a society of ‘southern European’ type, and the other of ‘African’.

          Whatever the process of assimilation, it is a slow one; the ‘melting-pot’ does not work so quickly and easily as an American popular belief once held. In many ways it takes three generations. In the first, social life tends to take place mainly within the immigrant community. Among the educated members of the community, a culture expressed in Arabic may continue to exist. The poetry of the mahjar, the emigration, added a distinctive note o the Arabic literature of the early twentieth century: Fawzi Ma’luf in Sao Paulo, Iliya Abu Madi in Brooklyn were known wherever Arabic poetry was read; Jibran Khalil Jibran, by exception, wrote in both Arabic and English, and his English books have acquired lasting fame in the United States. Notwithstanding the persistence of ancestral ties of language and loyalty, this first generation often had a deep attachment to their new homes, born of gratitude for freedom and opportunity and pride in the acquisition of a new identity.

          In the second generation, those born of immigrant parents in the new country, feelings may be more mixed. Whether Arabic remains as a second language may depend partly on the size of the community, partly on the presence of grandparents in the home. Marriage outside the community is more common. Cultural life will be carried on in English or French, Spanish or Portuguese. New national loyalties will supersede the old. A vestigial sense of belonging to Lebanon may well continue, but it will be defined in new ways. Once more, Fuad Khuri has pointed out that the second generation of Lebanese in Brazil will no longer accept the slightly derogatory term of ‘turcos’, by which their parents had been known, since they were emigrants from the Ottoman or Turkish Empire, but may define themselves as ‘Phoenicians’.

          In the third and later generations, still less will remain; some foods, which have entered the general cuisine of the new multi-cultural societies of the New World (kibbe, tabule, Lebanese bread); memberships of a religious community, in some instances; perhaps some link with relations in the ‘old country’, and a concern for its fate, heightened by knowledge or recent events; perhaps a nostalgia for an almost unknown past which may still haunt the imagination, as in this poem by David Malouf, the Australian novelist (distant kinsman of the Arabic poet of Sao Paulo, Fawzi Ma’luf), in which he remembers his grandfather:

  I find him in the garden. Staked tomato plants are what

He walks among, the apples of paradise. He is eighty

          and stoops, white-haired in baggy serge and braces. His moustache

          once warrior-fierce of quarrels in the small town of Zable,

          where honour divides houses, empties squares, droops and is thin

          from stroking, he has come too far from his century to care . . .

                                                   This is his garden,

          A valley in Lebanon; you can smell the cedars on his breath

          and the blood of massacres, the crescents flashing from ravines

          to slice through half a family. He rolls furred safe between

          thumb and strained forefinger, sniffs the snowy hills; bees shifting

          gold as they forage sunlight among stones, churchbells wading

          in through pools of silence. He has never quite migrated. [1]

          Little has been written about the influence of the emigrant colonies on Lebanon itself. It is clear at least that remittances sent back to their families by successful emigrants have had an important effect upon the country’s economic and social life. They have enabled families to buy land and bring it into production, to rebuild the family home in the village with stone walls and red tiles on the roof, and to educate the younger children and so fit them to move in their turn down from the mountain to Beirut or into the outside world. Some richer emigrants have also built schools or clinics.

          Some of the emigrant colonies have been able to play a part in the public life of Lebanon. A rich emigrant may make an alliance with  a Lebanese politician giving him money to fight elections, and hoping in return for favours for his family or village, or honours when he comes back to visit the ‘old country’. In the present age, the ties have tended to grow closer. The ease and rapidity of modern communications have increased the number of those of Lebanese descent who have been able to visit their places of origin. The Lebanese government has tried to strengthen the links between the country and those who left it in such ways as by the creation of the World Lebanese Cultural Union; and the tragic events of recent years must have stirred ancestral memories wherever Lebanese have settled.


[1]  The author would like to thank the University of Queensland Press for permission to reprint extracts from the poem ‘Early Discoveries’ by David Malouf, published in ‘Neighbours in a Thicket’ (University or Queensland Press, 1974).

NOTE: The Article above was extracted form the Introduction of the book, "THE LEBANESE IN THE WORLD: A Century of Emigration", which contains revised versions of papers given at a conference on Lebanese emigration, held in Oxford in September 1989, together with a few additional papers. This book is edited by Albert Hourani and Nadim Shehadi
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