Butrus al-Bustani (Author), Jens Hanssen (Editor and Translator), Hicham Safieddine (Editor and Translator), Ussama Makdisi (Foreword), The Clarion of Syria: A Patriot's Call against the Civil War of 1860 (University of California Press, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Jens Hanssen (JH): I have been working on Butrus al-Bustani and Nafir Suriyya since my doctoral work on Fin de Siècle Beirut. During a Thyssen-Foundation postdoc at the University of Erlangen on the sociological dimension of modern Arabic thought, I realized that Nafir Suriyya signaled not only a break in al-Bustani’s oeuvre but also the Nahda more generally. The civil war in Mount Lebanon and the massacres in Bab Tuma, the Christian quarter of Damascus, in the summer of 1860 shocked new intelligentsia in Bilad-al-Sham and turned many from literati cultivating Arabic heritage into public moralists with political commitments to the reform project of the Ottoman state. Al-Bustani’s Nafir Suriyya was a case in point. The eleven bi-monthly to monthly pamphlets that made up Nafir Suriyya are heart-felt, urgent responses to unfolding human suffering. They have received renewed scholarly and popular attention in the last two decades, but were not available in English.
The translation of the pamphlets progressed slowly, in part because I had kids and because the summers I had ear-marked for working on the manuscript saw political crises in the Middle East, usually involving Israeli military assaults. Coming to think of it, I do not know how any of us politically-committed Middle East scholars ever find the time to write. Also, the language of Nafir Suriyya was so experimental. When I once showed a particularly difficult passage to my late colleague Michael Marmura, he smiled and reassured me: “Jens, this Arabic is of an idiom all its own, namely its author’s.” Only when Hicham agreed to join the project did things start to move along more quickly. We also decided to augment the translated text with introductory chapters on the historical, historiographical, biographical, and conceptual contexts.
We do not think the value of al-Bustani’s social analysis lies in its prophecy. Instead, we have treated it as productively flawed. It is symptomatic of a mode of cultural self-criticism that is largely blind to the emergent picture of political and economic forces at work and which we address in the introduction. If we nevertheless urge a charitable reading of Nafir Suriyya, it is because al-Bustani’s was a desperately hopeful “clarion call,” that—above all—displayed all the personal tribulations and intellectual dilemmas after civil war.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JH and Hicham Safieddine (HS): Our book benefits from and contributes to the growing and increasingly nuanced literature on the Nahda. This is no longer the uncritical story of intellectual pioneers who are ahead of their time, nor is it the origin story of Arab “Westoxification.” Rather, the Nahda is staged in multiple and contested ways. In this sense, Bustani’s Nafir Suriyya is a remarkably raw historical and literary document that lays bare just how much Nahdawis were grappling with themselves as much as with the society they felt the burden to improve. The answers the Bustanis and others gave to the questions they faced are by no means incontestable. But to blame them for not anticipating the subsequent histories of capitalist, colonial, and sectarian violence seems unfair. As Fanon put it so generously at the height of the decolonization struggle: “[w]e must rid ourselves of the habit, now that we are in the thick of the fight, of minimizing the action of our fathers … [t]hey fought as well as they could, with the arms they possessed then.”
Our introductory chapters extract a number of key issues that Butrus al-Bustani dissects, like sectarianism, for which he did not even have a stable name yet. His search for categories of analysis is striking and a chapter is dedicated to the conceptual and semantic horizons of the Nahda in the wake of 1860. We discuss the emergence of patriotism as an emotive force of overcoming the social symptoms that Bustani claimed led to the civil war. The fact that “Syria” is invoked as the geographical reference for a new political community signals that the civil war was not just a tragedy affecting Mount Lebanon where most of the fighting took place.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
JH: I have been working on the Nahda for a while. This has yielded two volumes I co-edited with Max Weiss. The first was anchored in Albert Hourani’s seminal book, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, and the second, Arabic Thought Against the Authoritarian Age took the narrative up to the “Arab Spring” in 2011. Who knows, there may be a third California University Press volume in the offing that gives an account of Arab intellectual responses to the current political climate in the Middle East and the world at large.
HS: My primary research explores the formative role of Arab financial systems, including central banks, on the formation of modern nation-states with a current emphasis on Lebanon. A corollary topic is the intellectual history of post-World War II Arab economic thought. My book on Lebanon’s financial foundations, entitled Banking on the State is due out this coming July. The Clarion of Syria addresses questions of civil conflict, sectarianism, and foreign intervention that are pertinent even if not central to understanding the twentieth century socio-economic history of Lebanon. It is also a study of Arab intellectual history, my second area of interest. In terms of my engagement with translation, this book is part of my long-term commitment to translating texts of modern press culture and political thought from Arabic to English.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JH and HS: This translation is an attempt at opening up the critical and comparative study of the Nahda to global intellectual historians. It makes a key historical document of Nahda accessible for the first time to an English audience in classrooms and among broader communities and publics. We are particularly pleased that California University Press has included the book in its global, open access digital series hosted by Luminos. Moreover, AUB Press is in the process of publishing a bilingual version of the translation. That will turn the book into a great Arabic language and literature-teaching tool. All this is quite timely because in November of this year, the American University of Beirut is hosting a big conference in Arabic to mark Butrus al-Bustani’s two-hundredth birthday.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JH: Currently, I am working mainly on a large research project that explores the entanglement of Arabic- and German-speaking intellectuals in the twentieth century. The idea is to read, for example, Nietzsche with Farah Antun, May Ziyada, and ‘Abd al-Rahman Badawi; Kafka and Benjamin with Mahmoud Darwish; Hannah Arendt through her Palestinian translators, Ernst Bloch’s materialist interpretation of Ibn Sina through his Tunisian translator Mohammad Turki and other Arab leftists who have shared his particular reading of Arabic philosophy.
HS: I am currently working on two main projects. The first, in collaboration with Angela Giordani, is another translated work, namely selected writings of Arab Marxist and Lebanese communist Mahdi Amel (Brill/Leftword). Amel, who was assassinated in 1987, examined the relationship between colonialism, underdevelopment, and national liberation. Recent Anglophone scholarship has shown keen interest in his legacy, but his own works have yet to be made available to English readers. I am also working on a journal article that explicates Amel’s conceptualization of sectarian hegemony in a colonial context. The second project is an exploration of post-World War II Arab liberal economic thought. Arab economists based in the region, like Said Himadeh, Yusif Sayigh, and Abdallah Tariqi, who also acted as state technocrats, developed models for economic development that combined elements of Keynesianism, developmental institutionalism, and in some cases socialist planning in order to address the challenges of state-building in the Arab world. Their story has yet to be told.
J: How does the work speak to contemporary conflicts in the region?
JH and HS: By the time we teamed up, the Syrian uprising had turned into a civil war and a humanitarian catastrophe, which gave al-Bustani’s clarion calls to his compatriots renewed urgency. Here was a text that tried to work through unspeakable violence and fratricide to rebuild society and envisage a future in which people transcend their particular communities. In that sense, it is an anti-sectarian text avant le mot. But it is important to note that the civil war and sectarian strife that rocked Syria and Mount Lebanon during al-Bustani’s lifetime was the outcome of social, economic, and political developments that were historically specific. They must not be conflated with contemporary conditions nor invoked as part of an orientalist or essentialist narrative of an unchanging war-torn Arab world. As we point out in the introduction, civil wars have not been a particularly common occurrence in the history of the region. But as is the case elsewhere, past conflicts, and particularly civil wars, cast a long shadow over the present. The war of 1860 is no exception. Rereading these pamphlets in the context of today’s political violence, in wartorn Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world, helps us gain a critical and historical perspective on sectarianism, foreign invasions, conflict resolution, Western interventionism, and nationalist tropes of reconciliation.
Excerpt from the Book
Excerpt from Intro:
Translating Civil War
By Hicham Safieddine and Jens Hanssen
News of the spell of atrocities and abominations committed this summer by the troublemakers in our midst has reached the corners of the earth. All over the civilized world, it has drawn pity and gloom on one hand, and anger and wrath on the other.
With these opening lines, Nafir Suriyya – “The Clarion of Syria” – launched its urgent appeal to overcome the civil war in Mount Lebanon and Damascus in the summer of 1860, and to rebuild Syrian society in the war’s aftermath. This key text of the Nahda – the 19th-century Arabic reform and revival movement – has received renewed popular and scholarly attention recently. At the time of its publication, Nafir Suriyya ran as a series of eleven pamphlets from September 1860 to April 1861. The pamphlets did not present a detailed litany of atrocities that other contemporary eye-witnesses provided. Rather, they addressed an array of universally-resonant and locally-relevant themes that render the pamphlets pertinent beyond their immediate context. With a style oscillating between Paulinian sermon and Socratic dialogue, the author ponders the meaning of civil war in relation to religion, politics, morality, society and civilization.
The author expresses gratitude for European intervention but warns of its potential long term harm. Key passages evince a subtle understanding of the rights of “man” on the one hand, and susceptible deference to the rule of law and political authority on the other. The pamphlets also advocate the twin prerogatives of opposing separation between people of the same homeland based on religion or kinship while proposing the separation of religious and political authority; they espouse an Ottoman reformism that affirms loyalty to the imperial center but calls for the rulers to attend to the welfare of their subjects. Other passages grapple with the difficult but necessary task of refuting Orientalist stereotypes about Arabs while at the same time publicly exercising cultural self-criticism. Still others extol the value of Western civilization and the need to emulate it but warn against superficial appropriation. Above all, Nafir Suriyya was an anti-sectarian clarion call to build a cohesive and “civilized” Syrian society in place of what the author considered a community riveted by the most pernicious of conflicts, violent fanaticism and factionalism. As the author put it:
The worst thing under the firmament is war, and the most horrendous among them are civil wars which break out between commoners of a single country and which are often triggered by trivial causesand for disgraceful intentions.
Nafir Suriyya, no. 5, November 1, 1860.
Excerpt of Translation:
By Butrus al-Bustani
October 25, 1860
We have talked about the homeland at length in our pamphlets. We did so because the homeland is the dearest thing to those who love it, and it is the most pleasantly coined word adorning the Arabic language. Syria, which is known as Barr al-Sham and Arabistan, is our homeland with all its diverse plains, coastlines, mountains, and barren lands. The inhabitants of Syria, regardless of their religious beliefs, their physical features, their ethnicities, and their general diversity, are all our compatriots. For the homeland resembles a chain of many rings. One end of the chain represents our place of residence, birthplace, or ancestral home. At the other end lies our country and everyone in it. The center and magnet of these two poles are our heart. The homeland holds strong sway over its children. It draws and holds them within its embrace, however loose this embrace might be. It also captures their hearts and pulls them closer to their homeland so that they may return even when their lives are more comfortable abroad.
“If homelands were not to die for, the ill-fated homelands would turn into ruin.” The more we identify with the homeland’s material and moral aspects, the more we are attracted to it, and the fonder we become of it. For we deem our house to be the best of houses, our compatriots the best of people. As the saying rightly goes: “Seek the host—not the house.” For whoever travels the world sees as clearly as daylight that no matter how meritorious a homeland is, the evils of its people can ruin it. Conversely, no matter how rotten it is in and of itself, the merits of its people compensate for it.
People of the homeland have rights vis à vis their country and it in turn has obligations toward them. It goes without saying that the more these rights are fulfilled, the more people grow attached to their country, and the more desirous and pleased they are in rendering those duties. Among the obligations that a country owes its people is to secure their precious right to life, honor, and prosperity. These obligations also include upholding civil, moral, and religious freedoms, especially the freedom of conscience in confessional matters. Many were the countries that were sacrificed for this freedom.
Compatriots love their country more when they sense that it is theirs. Their happiness lies in its civilizational development and comfort while their misery lies in its destruction and misfortune. Their ability to take part in its affairs and to get involved in its welfare increases their desire for its success and their enthusiasm for its progress. The more responsibility is placed on them, the more intense and resolute these feelings become. Therefore, one of the most important duties of our compatriots is to love their homeland.
It has been mentioned in a hadith: “Love of the homeland is an element of faith.” Many were the people who sacrificed their lives and all that they own out of love for their country. As for those who exchange patriotism for confessional fanaticism and who sacrifice the welfare of the homeland for personal interests, they do not deserve to belong to the homeland. They are its enemies. Those who do not expend any effort to prevent or alleviate incidences harmful to the country are equally its enemies. In these difficult times, few compatriots have displayed their patriotism. The ugly deeds of those who fired the first shot and those who lifted the first stone off the mouth of the dreadful volcano that is torching the country and its people have forever left a black mark in the annals of Syria. Likewise, those who did not work hard to muzzle the barrel of that gun and the mouth of that volcano are guilty; they have fallen short in their duties toward their homeland.
Let us take this opportunity to make clear the feelings of gratitude and welcome toward our brothers who are on the other side of the Atlantic and toward their children who are guests in our country. They have shown and are still showing continuous assistance to our compatriots. Their generosity shames us.
Our country is world renowned for its water, air, and soil. It is the most proud and praiseworthy. Yet for a number of generations, it has been afflicted by the corruption of uncivilized segments of its people. That is why you see it increasingly lagging behind other countries and becoming even more backward following the recent unrest. But we hope that with the help of God, with the stamina of our Sublime State and the friendly Great Powers, this current setback, whose echoes have reached the corners of the Earth, will turn into the beginning of great goodness and usher in a new age for Syria. The following may suffice as a reminder for those who are weary:
Tell those who carry a burden: burdens do not last
Happiness dies out; worries become a thing of the past
We warn you of obstinacy, despotism, fanaticism, and idleness. They are devoid of goodness. And we alert you to these precious words: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We remind you of this as well: Man’s true homeland is not in this world but in the spiritual world beyond the grave. There he shall remain till the horn is sounded and he is resurrected for Judgment. Alas, many of our brethren have gone this year to this other, everlasting homeland. Numerous are the causes but death is one. It is therefore incumbent that we prepare for that homeland and the Day of Judgement.
From a patriot