Kamal Salibi (1929-2011), the Model Teacher-Scholar

Kamal Salibi, 1929-2011.

Scholars of the Arab world and of Lebanon in particular lost a pioneer with the passing just over a week ago of historian Kamal Salibi. I was fortunate to have met him and to have spent time with him during a much too short stay in Beirut in 2008-2009. He will probably be best remembered for his penetrating analysis of sectarian and national identity in Lebanon, House of Many Mansions (1988). His earliest published work is the meticulous Maronite Historians of Medieval Lebanon (1959). He achieved some acclaim (and more notoriety) for three books, notably The Bible Came from Arabia (1985) that used place names to postulate the theory that ancient Israel existed in the Arabian Peninsula. This is only to scratch the surface of his prodigious output which includes other seminal works on medieval Syria and one of the earliest interpretations of the origins of the Lebanese Civil War, Crossroads to Civil War: Lebanon, 1958-1976 (1976).

I have been reading histories of the Arab world and the Middle East for the better part of 30 years. Unfortunately, very few of those who write in English write books that are enjoyable to read. I count three works among the best written in English: Albert Hourani’s Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939 (1962) (someday I will write about the best article ever written, Hourani’s “The Changing Face of the Fertile Crescent in the Eighteenth Century” (1957)); Hanna Battatu’s magnum opus The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq’s Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of Its Communists, Ba’thists and Free Officers (1978), too bad they don’t make titles like that any more;  and Salibi’s House of Many Mansions. I can’t help but think that the passion of all three for the peoples of the Arab world and their rootedness in that world helped the English flow more beautifully than is otherwise the case.

Salibi may be remember even more for his decades of mentorship and the generations of students who benefited from his critical counsel and his boundless encouragement. Aside from a few stints abroad, he spent his entire teaching career (1953-1998) at the Department of History and Archaeology at the American University of Beirut. There are many others who could comment on this better than I. While in Beirut, I came across a recently published book, Campus at War: Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967-1975 (2009) by Makram Rabah. I began to learn then about Salibi’s non-sectarianism and his devotion, first and foremost, to his students. He was a Protestant by birth but was involved in organizations representing the spectrum of Lebanese and Arab identities. He was a mentor to many of the Palestinian students who were politically active in their heyday at AUB in the 1960s and 1970s. After retiring from AUB, he became founding director of the Royal Institute for Inter-faith Studies under the auspices of Hasan b. Talal, uncle of King Abdallah II of Jordan. When I met him his office was at the Druze Heritage Foundation where he was a consultant. I am sure I am just scratching the surface of his activities on behalf of students of all backgrounds.

As a scholar, a mentor, a secularist, and one who never turned his back on his Arab heritage despite the horrors of civil strife and despotism that continue to plague the Arab world, Kamal Salibi is nothing less than a hero. I am reminded of a line from a book I reviewed here not long ago, David Wengrow’s What Makes  Civilization?: “civilization is the historical outcome of exchange and borrowings between societies, rather than… attributes that set one society apart from another.” This is the kind of Lebanese, Syrian, and Arab civilization that Salibi celebrated.

Sectarian fault lines persist and they are rearing their ugly heads in the current struggle in Syria. But, both outsiders and insiders are often too quick to point to sectarianism as the defining characteristic of complex and diverse societies such as those of Lebanon and Syria. Kamal Salibi’s life and work are testimony to the limitations of such analyses. There are many other examples among the Sunni, Alawi, Druze, Christian, Isma’ili, Kurdish, Turkoman, and Armenian citizens of Syria. I hope to profile some of them here in the coming weeks, months…

Did I mention that House of Many Mansions played a role in the romance that led me to my life-partner Sandra? No, I won’t go there…

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About Steve Tamari

Ever since I was a child I wanted to blog. Here goes. I have crossed many borders and boundaries. My father is from Jaffa, Palestine and my mother is from Little Rock, Arkansas. We lived in the United States, Algeria, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and Haiti as I was growing up. Since then, I've lived in Greece, France, Palestine/Israel, Syria, Germany, Lebanon, and, now, southern Illinois. I study the Middle East and Islam and I live in the Midwest on the edge of the Bible Belt. I am a Quaker (and a pacifist) and I am attached to my students, many of whom serve(d) in the military. There are other contradictions and ambiguities in my life and in our world that I want to explore here. Please give me your feedback.
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One Response to Kamal Salibi (1929-2011), the Model Teacher-Scholar

  1. Pingback: Mt. Lebanon: Holy Land or Den of Heretics? | insidethemiddle by steve tamari

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