Dylan Baun, Winning Lebanon: Youth Politics, Populism, and the Production of Sectarian Violence, 1920-1958 (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Dylan Baun (DB): The honest answer is a single quote I found in the archives at the American University of Beirut’s Jafet Library during dissertation fieldwork. It read: “With the youth at our side, there is no doubt we will succeed,” or in Arabic, Ma dama al-shabab mʿana fainana la shaka najihun. I found it in a 1940 pamphlet of the now infamous Kata’ib Party, titled “To the Youth.” I was surprised by the pamphlet and its contents, which focused as much on activities of the young (for example, going to the cinema, playing sports, listening to music, and so on) as their politics. This is juxtaposed to the literature on the Kata’ib and other parties/militias written in the wake of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), which emphasizes their irreconcilable ideologies and sectarian backgrounds. If their youth foundations are described at all, they are often characterized as fleeting, a novelty, or merely window dressing. But this quote suggested that the Kata’ib and groups like it (what I term “popular organizations”) directly targeted young people and conceived of their organization as youthful. At that point of my doctoral training in 2013, it was too late to change my topic (my dissertation did not focus on youth and stretched into the first phase of the Lebanese Civil War, 1975-1976). However, with this quote, and others similar to it which I found along the way, I decided I wanted to dedicate my first book to the early histories of these types of groups, as well as the youth politics and cultures they shaped well before the war.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
DB: I attempt to address three major themes and associated literatures in Winning Lebanon: the history of popular politics, youth and young people, and sectarianism. First, I conceive of the seven groups at the center of the book (ranging from the Lebanese People’s Party to the Arab Nationalist Youth) as actors within the broader field of popular politics. This may come as a surprise to those familiar with classics like Michael W. Suleiman’s 1967 Political Parties in Lebanon. While Suleiman and others provide key biographical information, I argue that these actors are not merely political parties, especially in the period under study. They remind me more of the popular associations of James Gelvin’s Divided Loyalties or the social movements at the center of Orit Bashkin’s The Other Iraq. I adopt a similar framing to these authors and add to it findings from the growing literature on populism. The outcome is a focus on popular organizations, their practices, and populist discourses (i.e., the youth and people against the elites).
Second, when the source work allows, I highlight the politics and cultures of specific young men and women of Lebanon, and their interactions with adults and the state. To this end, I am indebted to the recent work of Nazan Maksudyan, Heidi Morrison, Wilson Chacko Jacob, and other scholars of children and youth in the Middle East. I build from their scholarship with a focus on the culture of youth politics (what members of youth organizations wear, where they hang out, what they read).
Lastly, Winning Lebanon is not about sectarianism, but the story culminates with an event, the 1958 War, which would become characterized as “sectarian.” Central to understanding this war, and the young people that participated in it, is the work of Ussama Makdisi, Max Weiss, and others who have taken up the complexities of identity politics in modern Lebanon. I try to add to these works by discussing this moment, in 1958, where “youth,” as a category, became linked to sect-based violence, whether used by pundits, politicians, or the groups themselves.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
DB: As this is my first book, there are more connections than departures. Winning Lebanon’s interest in popular, organizational, spatial, and youth politics was first on display in my 2017 Arab Studies Journal article on the 1949 Gemmayzeh Incident. I argue this event, which started with a brawl between the Kata’ib and Syrian Social Nationalist Party, was representative of a longer and unfolding battle over space in Beirut between multiple youth organizations. The points I make on space in that article, specifically how popular organizations attempt to produce and claim it through gatherings (ranging from lectures to protests), are central to arguments I make in the book on the rising popularity of youth organizations in the 1930s through to the 1950s.
Regarding departures, my past work has focused on the masculine, middle class, and urban foundations of popular organizations. But in Winning Lebanon, I am equally interested in youth beyond the ideal. This is the reason I dedicate a chapter, probably my favorite one (viewed in the excerpt below), on these groups’ expansion efforts, and the incorporation of young women, and working class, rural, and diasporic youth into the fold. These populations were also active in the 1958 War, and hence, this story from the margins is central to the trajectory of popular organizations.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
DB: Everyone, of course! Seriously, though, in addition to those interested in the topics outlined above, I hope that those curious about the culture of politics will read my book. Politics is not just about power, but the beliefs, values, and practices of those who engage it. I would hope readers of Winning Lebanon, whether academics or not, regional specialists or beyond, anthropologists or geographers, would be inspired to ask for more from studies on politics, historical or otherwise. Most specifically, this book is written for students of modern Lebanon. While I am keen not to essentialize Lebanon, I am also aware that the fascination with Lebanon is not going anywhere; it is actually growing. Over the past few years, I have met and listened to graduate students interested in new and exciting topics, ranging from the history of comics to the status of domestic workers today. For these readers, closest to my generation of academic training, I hope my book serves as a corrective to the political history on which we all grew up.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
DB: As I am a latecomer to the history of children and youth, most of my current projects lay in this sub-field. I have two chapters coming out in edited volumes this year, one co-authored with the wonderful historian Carla Pascoe Leahy on “Spaces and Places” of youth, and the other a single authored chapter on the place of religion and religious practice in the history of youth organizations and youth culture. While my Middle East studies background has made me who I am, it has been enjoyable to get outside my comfort zone and connect with scholars working on the history of youth and children in other locales.
My next big project is a return to form of sorts, moving away from the first half of the twentieth century in Lebanon and towards the 1960s, 1970s, and the war. The project centers on a single individual who was a Lebanese student, traveler, activist, and martyr in the Lebanese Civil War. I have searched for information and detail on this individual in the archives, conducted interviews with their friends, relatives, and comrades, and hope to continue these efforts in the next few years. The project plans to “use” this individual, their life, death, and legacy, as a microhistory, and to, hopefully, make interventions in the literature on the “Global Sixties,” the Arab Left, and the politics of memory around the Lebanese Civil War.
J: What does this book hold for those interested in Lebanon today, and specifically that of the tumultuous last year?
DB: I think those that have followed the revolution in Lebanon since 17 October 2019 could learn a lot from 1958. Since last year, thousands of young people have come out to the streets to demand change to the status quo and engage in public debate over a new Lebanon that is radical, feminist, and equitable. In 1958, the demonstrations leading up to armed conflict were dominated by both young men and women, and those on the left imagined a new Lebanon that both adhered to a constitution and meshed with other radical, liberation struggles of the Global South. Also, many of the protests across 2019 to 2020 are not just an occupation of public space but have been designed to be disruptive. This was definitely the case in 1958, where young people set up barricades across the urban space of Beirut and beyond. Tied to this, 1958 was also countrywide, as it started with secession attempts in Tyre and Tripoli before reaching Beirut. While the epicenter today may be Beirut, revolutionary activity spans from Zahle to Nabatiyeh. The biggest difference, of course, is who was leading the charge: youth organizations cum parties in 1958, which are now seen as part of the problem. The book tells the story by which these groups became officialized, and their youth politics deemed as dangerous and reckless. The latter is the reason I believe Winning Lebanon may be most relevant to those young activists who are currently becoming the site of similar criticisms.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 3, Broadening the Base: The Poor, the Countryside, Women, and Abroad)
When discussing young women in these groups, it must be remembered that all popular organizations first conceived of themselves as masculine, deploying masculine coding to talk about their group and its members. This started with the Lebanese People’s Party. When the group addressed “the comrades of peasants and workers,” it only used masculine nouns – ila al-rifaq al-fallahin wa-l-ʿummal. And recall how the Syrian Social Nationalist Party reached out to women in its earliest al-Nahda newspaper, targeting male readers to buy female products (pantyhose, for example) for their wives. Masculine symbolism was even more obvious with the Kataʾib; its slogan since the 1930s was “God, Family, and Country,” stressing the importance of the former two – faith in God and the patriarchal structure – in developing the third: the masculine nation (al-watan). Leaders from different backgrounds and ideologies, ranging from Rashid Baydun to Kamal Jumblatt, referred to their followers in public as ikhwati, “my brothers,” or shabab, the masculine noun for youth. This was reflected in the membership of the Talaʾiʿ, as no young woman ever joined its ranks. Even groups like the Progressive Socialist Party, which fashioned themselves in distinction to early masculine, nationalist sociopolitical formations, pictorialized the party and its followers as all male in the first few years of its founding. This was the case in the earliest cartoons commemorating Yawm al-Barouk, which showed only men struggling to propel the party.
Given these masculine foundations, it is notable that most groups spent considerable time debating the women’s question starting in the 1940s. In a 1943 Bayrut article, titled “Lebanese Women: Their Merit in the Success of Our Cause,” Muhyi al-Din al-Nasuli, the founder and former president of the Najjadeh, asked “Do we run with the [women’s] movement” of Europe or the “heritage of our ancestors?” To Nasuli, putting the two in contra- distinction did not necessarily mean women’s empowerment was a pure import. He mentioned Qasim Amin, the nineteenth-century Egyptian supporter of women’s rights, and quoted the much earlier Ibn ʿAsakir, a twelfth-century Damascene historian, who preached “Nothing but kindness to women.” Following these great men, Nasuli supported emancipation – as long as Arab heritage was not forgotten – and celebrated women’s involvement in politics, whether during contemporary demonstrations in Egypt or Lebanon.
A later 1949 al-ʿUrwa journal article carried a similar message. In his “Women and National Life,” author Hafez al-Hamali discussed how many men “see nothing more in women than an annoying parasitic organism.” Hamali took issue with this characterization – what he saw as the product of “miserable thinking.” But he did not “want to discuss these reactionaries for long” as he was “one who prefers to live instead of dying.” With a touch of dark humor, these words are significant for their placement in an AUB student journal read by students that would eventually be linked to the Arab Nationalist Youth. It points to Hamali’s belief that these misogynistic opinions were not merely a problem within the religious establishment or among simple men. They were also rife in institutions of higher learning. In the face of such discrimination, Hamali advocated not for “effort of women appointed by men, but all effort possible,” even that inspired by women.
Key in both articles is a distinction, “between backwardness and progress (bayn al-rajʿiyya wa-l-taqaddum)” as Hamali puts it, or traditional, often religious views, and modern, emancipatory power. As the articles suggest, in theory, leaders and members of popular organizations leaned toward the latter or at least looked to square progress and tradition. Article titles across the press of popular organizations during the mid- twentieth century confirm this sentiment, including the Progressive Socialist Party’s “Women and National Education,” the Kataʾib’s “The Revolution of Women on Tradition and Men and Its Effects,” and the ʿUrwa’s “Islam and the Rights of Women.” Another theme in Nasuli’s and Hamali’s articles is equal effort, equal opportunity, as women “proved their rights equal to men.” With this belief, popular organizations began to recruit young, educated women into their youth. In the late 1940s to 1950s, the Kataʾib, Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and Progressive Socialist Party all included weekly columns in their news- papers with titles like “The World of Women,” or “The New Woman.”
Despite this incorporation, both in readership and authorship, popular organizations had relegated new female members into feminized cultural spaces. As the name of a Kataʾib column in 1948 signals, titled “In the World of the Arts, Women, and Cinema,” these sections of the newspaper were baked with preconceived notions of women’s activities and the necessity of women’s character building. A particular instance in the case of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party is instructive. In a May 14, 1953, edition of al-Nahda, the cover stories followed party appeals for the government to recognize it as an actual political party. The women’s column for that issue, called “The New Woman,” did not include a parallel call. In its place was an article, written by Samiya Jumblatt, titled “Some habits which hinder your progress and how to avoid them.” For Jumblatt, the big questions of the day were not will the government heed “the [party] demand for legal license,” as party officials wondered. Rather she asked her female readers, “Do you take things personal and react quickly” and “Are you under a ton of anxiety?” Handling female emotions and masculine politics were to be separate spheres of knowledge, even if both were covered by the party, and the party served both women’s and men’s affairs.
This compartmentalization in text was not absolute. Sometimes stories in the women’s column were about women’s right to vote, which was won in 1952. Moreover, the paradox of female wants – art, film, beauty – and male duties – nation building – was not reflected in physical practice. Put differently, women had been active in street politics throughout the mandate and early independence periods, and popular organizations were keen to harness youth female energies and forge networks with existing movements. A 1944 edition of the Lebanese Communist Party’s Sawt al-Shaʿb included a story on the Lebanese Women’s Association, one of the first female empowerment groups in the country. Like many other Sawt al-Shaʿb articles, this one focused on protest, as the association made a “call for the women of Lebanon resisting high prices.” Similarly a year earlier, the Kataʾib sought to make connections with this women’s social movement. According to one Lebanese Women’s Association member in the midst of 1943 independence demonstrations, the Kataʾib protected them, as “every three women marched abreast, with the men of the Kataʾib on both sides of the procession. It was very impressive!”
Popular organizations did more than link with women’s groups; almost all built their own women’s branches. In the late 1940s, both the Kataʾib and Syrian Social Nationalist Party dedicated time and space to discussing the contributions of these sections of their organization. In al-ʿAmal, the Kataʾib celebrated the “rising activities of the women’s branch.”This included the creation of a series of conversations and lectures, convened by May Joseph Fayyad Mendoza, on and for women, held every Saturday at Bayt al-Kataʾib. Kataʾib leader Pierre Gemayel was invited to one of these meetings in 1949. He told the group, “We have recognized Lebanese women and the necessity of their help in national action along- side men” and that “they [women] work energetically in the cause of realizing Lebanon as a just and free country.” To encourage these efforts, Fayyad and Gemayel would travel to regions outside Beirut to “organize Kataʾib women’s organizational sections.”
And in honor of a 1949 international women’s conference in Beirut, the women’s branch of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party produced a pamphlet, in English, presumably for conference goers. The writer(s) claimed this was the party for women, as it was the only one where women could “hold offices, perform duties, and carry responsibilities,” similar to that of men. And women were activists in the party, apparently heading protests in Kora, North Lebanon, in 1936, the first to be “organised totally by women in this country.” It appears that separating female and male spaces in print, as was evident in the party’s al-Nahda, did not mean women were any less active than men. They certainly were not encouraged to be less active, as the pamphlet read the party had created a “new personality, a new home, and a new generation of Syrian men and women.”
These examples demonstrate how popular organizations’ discourse of women’s empowerment, dating back to the early 1940s, had come to fruition by the end of the decade. While rejecting a simple, teleological path – especially given al-Nahda’s distinction between female questions and male duties in 1953 – by the late 1950s, young women were a part of the organizational consciousness of popular organizations.