- The Lebanese Diaspora: The Arab Immigrant Experience in Montreal, New York, and Paris by Dalia Abdelhady
In the spirit of unpacking the prevalent image of a monolithic and uniform Middle East, Dalia Abdelhady, a senior research fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University, proposes a tantalizing journey into the discovery of another Middle East. Her book The Lebanese Diaspora: The Arab Immigrant Experience in Montreal, New York, and Paris is an important, topical, well-researched, well-written, and all around fascinating addition to the study of modern Lebanon and the “Lebanese Universe”—le monde libanais—as Saïd Akl termed the Lebanese diaspora.
The book begins with a word of caution to the reader against the prevalent, clichéd depictions of Lebanon and its peoples: studying the Lebanese as a monolith, notes Abdelhady, is tantamount to denuding them of their congenital diversity and slotting them into “commonalities of language and culture that are often contested” (p. ix). She further writes that she “was drawn to studying the Lebanese specifically as a result of the diversity of the community and the contentions inherent in defining a Lebanese identity” (p. ix).
Alas, Abdelhady proceeds to do exactly what she set out to avoid. Beginning with her book’s title and subtitle, polar opposites feuding for hearing and clashing for meaning, the author ends up misleading as much as illuminating. One wonders why she would promise to parse a distinct immigrant community (“the Lebanese diaspora,” as her title indicates), only to end up lumping it into a generic and widely varied “Arab immigrant experience”—a distinct and disparate experience from that of the Lebanese proper.
Abdelhady marshals a wealth of data spanning three continents and mining a wide range of Lebanese ethno-religious groups—Maronites, Melkites, Shi’ites, Sunnis, and others. And although she expertly crafts her analysis of the complex and varied ways in which those Lebanese [End Page 731] diasporic communities view their own identities and integrate into their host societies, she nevertheless still manages to conflate them with Arabs throughout. To wit, she gives voice to the children of the “Lebanese diaspora” defining them, in their own words, as hybrid cosmopolitan polyglots, “product[s] of two or more cultures” (pp. 61–62), “belong[ing] to multiple societies” (p. 192), “a mixture between East and West” (p. 96), and “formed at the intersection of multiple culture” (p. 84). Yet she still anchors them to an exclusivist Arab lot, foregoing not only the fluidity and diversity of identity in Lebanon proper and among her own Lebanese respondents, but also throughout the Middle East as a whole.
Clearly, there are tensions between “being Lebanese” and “being Arab,” and managing this minefield certainly requires nuance, tact, and impartiality, especially in the context of value-free scholarship; that, however, does not seem to warrant Abdelhady’s concern. Her lack of attention to, perhaps even her contempt for, Lebanese specificity—even when pointed out to her by her respondents—seems to be a natural order of things. What’s more, commendable and crucial a study as this remains, in the aggregate, the book still leaves the reader with mixed feelings. It offers too little context to the modern Lebanese diasporic experience, and it foregoes that phenomenon’s all-important mid nineteenth-century progenitors and their political, social, and ethno-religious roots.
Still, this volume’s major flaw remains its profound misunderstanding of the complexity of Lebanon’s politics of identity, its disregard for Lebanese history, its frivolous use of the putative term “Arab” in reference to Lebanese groups that would ordinarily take great umbrage at being defined as such, and its perfunctory framing of the Lebanese experience as one of an “Arab immigrant” subgroup, even as, and by the author’s own admission at times, the circumstances, framework, and agents of Lebanese immigration, as well as the Lebanese historical, national, linguistic and cultural trajectories, remain markedly distinct and different from those of Arabs proper.
Perhaps Abdelhady could...