Friday, January 2, 2009

Lebanon, Syria, America

I am working on a book on ethnobotany in Lebanon. I have been reviewing the literature and I found a marvelous piece of work: a doctoral thesis written by an American anthropologist, Jane Philips. The thesis, called Lebanese Folk Cures, is not dated but appears to have been published in the early 1950s from field work initiated in the mid 40's, right after WW2. It is based on interviews with a large number of Syrian immigrants to the US (Syrian means Lebanese in this context), and of interviews with almost a thousand people in Lebanon.

Philips reviews the social and anthropological work done on the Syrians in the US, in order to frame her work. Some of the stuff she reports is fascinating. Examples (p 79-80):

"A masters thesis (from Columbia University) in 1912 states that Syrians have developed lying to a "fine art"...among the Syrians in the United States, peddling is the principal occupation, factory work is second, while only 2 percent of the gainfully employed are professionals.

Another master's thesis in 1915 characterizes the Syrians as filthy and lazy...educators agree that the little Syrian girls are stupid, although the boys are bright, aggressive, good in arithmetics and bad in English.

Another thesis in 1929 studies retardation with special regards to the Syrians. Italians are thought to me more retarded than Syrians..."

Also of interest is this excerpt (p 88) from a 1951 study by Elli Shouby also from Columbia, called "Tentative Formulation of Some Prominent Aspects of Syrian Culture":
"Ability to create and change social frames of reference is to be added. Syrians are always on the lookout for bases on which to form an in-group with people they have to deal with. To give an illustration of this, let us take a Maronite from a small village in Lebanon, and see how he would act in interpersonal relationships. In dealing with a religious American Protestant, our Maronite would think of himself and talk of himself as originating from the Holy Land; with an American Catholic, the Maronite would think of himself as a Catholic; with a Maronite, he is a Maronite. Dealing with a Protestant from Beirut, he is a Christian Lebanese, but meeting a person from Aleppo or Damascus, he is a Syrian. Making the acquaintance of a Moslem from Egypt, he thinks of himself as an Arab, while in talking to a sophisticated American, he is a Phoenician. Applying for a job in a Jewish firm, he is a Semite, but if the firm is a religious Christian group of any sect, then evidently he is a Christian. In dealing with governmental and patriotic organizations, he is hundred per-cent American..."

And that's not even a comic routine.


Anonymous said...

I would like to see what passed as the scientific process back then.


Leila said...

The old racist anthropology just reminds us that nobody is all that objective - in a hundred years our descendants will be laughing at us (or shuddering).

Now about those morphing Syrians - I am STILL like that. I'm an Arab among Yemenis in Oakland, I'm a Christian, I'm a secularist American who touts the Constitution, I'm a liberal feminist Californian, I'm a woman of color, I'm a Democrat, I'm a Southerner (well daughter of the South) etc. etc.

Let's say that we Syrian/Lebanese/Phoenician/Arabs are the ultimate post-modernists. We know that identity is a construct and it's fluid. Nation, religion, tribe - all are constructed by language and customs, and all can be donned and doffed like theater costumes.

Ms Levantine said...

I agree with Leila. We have no problems with hyphenated identities. I consider myself Beiruti-Lebanese-Levantine-Arab-American-francophone... but not big on Phoenicians.

In the US, they are big on integration for obvious reasons. I remember reading not too long ago an open letter from an American politician of Lebanese origin, and his conclusion was that he is "American, no hyphens".

I enjoy being a mongrel.