Monday, January 7, 2013

 (Photo: Rob Lancaster)There is a controversial myth in Lebanon concerning the ancestral origins of the Lebanese people. The myth says that the Lebanese are descended from the ‘Phoenicians’. It is controversial because today Lebanon is made up of people from very different origins, resulting in a complex mosaic of ethnicities, cultures and faith traditions.

How can a nation comprising Canaanites, Arabs, Syriacs, Assyrians, Armenians, Turks, Kurds, Copts… who are Christian and Muslim – Sunni, Catholic, Druze, Orthodox, Shiite – possibly claim to be descendants of one people: the Phoenicians, who are historically none other than the Canaanites?

Nowadays, very few would claim this as historical fact. A prominent Lebanese journalist: the late Ghassan Tueni, touches on this in his book A War on Behalf of Others about the war in Lebanon between 1975 and 1990. Writing about Lebanon’s ‘identity crisis’ he observes, ironically, that the Christians and Shiites who most insist on this hypothesis have the least claim to Phoenician ancestry: their origins lie in Mid-Syria, Armenia, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. Meanwhile those who most fiercely opposed it (due to their pro-Arab affiliations) are Sunnis and Orthodox whose ancestors have lived along the Lebanese coast for thousands of years, and are therefore more likely linked to Canaanite-Phoenician origins.

The culture, achievements and merchant activities of the Canaanites is the subject of much historical research. What interests me is why they were called ‘Phoenicians’ and why these questions are still alive today.

In fact they never died. The explanation is in the very name: the Phoenix is a mythological bird who never dies, and is constantly reborn from the ashes.

What's important, then, is not the link to Phoenicia through blood line, but the spiritual link to its very essence.

The variety of historical monuments in Lebanon shows how many different civilizations have each in turn occupied this land. The very mention of the word ‘occupation’ conveys a meaning of destruction and reconstruction. With destruction comes loss, separation, pain, death… while with reconstruction comes a new life, beauty, freshness…

This is exactly what happens to any people who choose live in Lebanon. Once you settle here, you have to be ready to accept losing everything, constantly, without any warning. But you also have a limitless bank account of hope for new beginnings.

Whether or not you are descended from Canaanites, here, you ‘become’ a Phoenician. This is not an ethnicity anymore but a spiritual state.

A month ago, I wrote about the awful explosion that shook the Beirut suburb of Achrafieh. The photos told the story and also showed a new kind of Phoenicians: a group of volunteers aged 16 and above, who were giving their time and energy to rehabilitate 69 damaged homes. Some of you helped with prayers, others sent donations.

Within two months the (still unknown) perpetrator of this devastation was the most insignificant person in the story. The heroes in centre place are the 1,400 volunteers who showed-up. Books could be written about the everyday miracles, the friendships and solidarity which emerged across generations, professions, faith traditions and nationalities.

In the last week of work, a Swiss friend and prominent engineer who witnessed a tiny sample of the work atmosphere said, ‘I have never seen anything like that!’ He was commenting on a group of 80 school students arriving at 5 pm on the eve of the Christmas vacation to start their work shift. As they came through the parking lot facing the buildings, they were singing loudly ‘Joy to the world…’ In 15 minutes they replaced their school uniforms with blue overalls and took on their tasks. The singing never stopped until midnight. Neither did the work.

On this Christmas and New Year, the miracle happened again: all homes were delivered back to their former inhabitants on Christmas Eve, decorated and warm.

In the name of all those who experienced the ‘Joy of Giving’, I want to address a heartfelt thank you to each and every one of you!

Behold the Phoenix reborn:

The devastation immediately after the blast

The homes restored

Wadiaa Khoury was born in Zahle, Lebanon. She studied educational sciences at Saint-Joseph University in Beirut before taking part in Action for Life, a 10 month IofC leadership training programme in India and East Asia. Since then, she has worked as the Community Service Coordinator at the International College in Beirut, then as a trainer in various Lebanese schools. While working, she has continued her studies, completing a Bachelor’s in Law, a Master’s in Public Law and a Doctorate in Educational Policy. In 2010, she participated in the Gandhi Voyage. She has a keen interest in building trust across the world's divides, particularly for religious and cultural dialogue.

NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.