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Radical History Review 86 (2003) 37-65

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"The First Boat and the First Oar":
Inventions of Lebanon in the Writings of Michel Chiha

Michelle Hartman and Alessandro Olsaretti


It was this sea that perhaps saw the first boat and the first oar. ... For the historian (the geographer might have another view), the Mediterranean seems to be the chosen sea—a providential and necessary factor in the course of creation. ... More than any other sea, it is above prejudice and violence and is a sign of brotherhood and harmony.

—Michel Chiha, Le Jour, February 11, 1944

In a sentimental essay about Lebanon's rightful place as a Mediterranean nation, Michel Chiha claimed the first boat and the first oar as quintessentially Lebanese inventions, the appropriate tools of a people of travelers, adventurers, seafarers, and merchants. Chiha worked with these and other emotionally powerful myths about Lebanon throughout his published essays and speeches to provide both an ideal image of Lebanon and concrete policies for its realization. 1 Though he was by profession a banker, never published a book or a study of Lebanon, and held only minor government positions, Chiha's power and influence on the nascent Lebanese nation-state during the period of the French mandate (1920-43), through Lebanese independence in 1946, and until his death in 1954, remains undisputed. 2 His most identifiable role in the foundation of the Lebanese nation was his contribution to and penning of the Lebanese constitution in 1926, leading to the nickname Abi al-dastur [End Page 37] (the Father of the Constitution). In addition, he was an active advocate of a political party, Hizb al-dastur (the Constitution Party), which was prominent throughout the French mandate and gave independent Lebanon its first president, Chiha's close friend, colleague, and brother-in-law Bishara al-Khuri. Chiha's influence, however, was diffuse and resided in informal contacts and relationships (such as those with General Gouraud and al-Khuri).

Michel Chiha's family background helps to explain some of the connections that led to his role in the formation of modern Lebanon. 3 His father's family, the Chihas, were Roman Catholics with close ties to the church as well as the Pharaons, the family of Chiha's mother and of his wife, who were a prominent banking family. 4 Due to his father's premature death, Chiha began working with his mother's brothers in the family bank at the age of sixteen, and he later spent a period in Egypt avoiding Ottoman conscription in the First World War. 5 His prominent and well-connected family enabled him to forge ties with people throughout the elite. He made his more public commentaries in his frequent editorials and essays published in the party's mouthpiece, the French-language daily Le Jour, and in his speeches primarily given at the Cénacle libanais (the Lebanese Circle), of which he was one of the earliest members. 6 Revered by members of his own party, Chiha is often credited with being one of the architects of the confessional system of government, inscribed within the 1926 constitution. The 1943 National Pact, which tacitly established a power-sharing arrangement between different confessional groups, later enshrined this system. The confessional representation in parliament would be in multiples of eleven with a six/five (Christian/Muslim) ratio, with government positions divided up among the different groups with a Maronite Christian president, a Sunni Muslim prime minister, a Shi'i Muslim speaker of the house, and so on. 7 Because of this arrangement, the Lebanese nation-state was associated with a Christian majority government. Lebanese nationalism, therefore, overlapped significantly with Christian particularism and the desire for a homeland separate from Greater Syria. Other interests and themes also interacted with confessional identity in Chiha's nationalist thought, and to understand these aspects of his intellectual production, it is essential to relate the latter to contemporary developments in Lebanese culture and society.

In this essay, we will consider how Michel Chiha inscribed a nationalist...


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