Longing for Lebanon: The Question of Nostalgia and Memory of the Long 1950’s

By Sharon Arana

Picture: An armed Palestinian celebrating the rout of the Phlanagist, posing in front of a poster of President Nasser with Arabic graffiti writing on the wall that translates to “the socialist union was here.”

 

Throughout the Middle East, the long 1950’s have been hailed as the period most worthy of reminiscence. This “Golden Age” is remembered fondly as a romanticized version of reality, where politics and society held a feeling of security and prosperity. Particularly in Lebanon, the 1950’s are often regarded as the last moment in history that was stable before the 15-year long civil war that started in 1975, right at the end of what some consider the “Long 1950’s.” Often called one of the most “western” countries of the Middle East, with the capital, Beirut, known as the “Paris of the East,” Lebanon of the 1950’s was seen as a financial and intellectual hub of abundance, by both outsiders and those old enough to remember. But was life in 1950’s Lebanon really all beach days and shawarmas? Through primary sources, the desire for 1950’s Lebanon can be evaluated as a nostalgic memory longing for a time of less turbulence and a false sense of a cohesive national identity.

“The Golden Age”: All Glitz and Glamor?

There are various reasons why the 1950’s are considered the Golden Age in Lebanon. The foremost reason is the devastation from the bloody and destructive civil war, that occurred after the decade, resulting in many lives lost and a particular emphasis on the reconstruction process. According to journalist Sandra Mackey, cities such as Beirut were turned into “demolished ghost town[s]”[1] from warfare. This countrywide destruction brought to light the difficulties of moving past this period of history and establishing a new identity — and what exactly that identity will be. The long 1950’s are often considered the last time Lebanon was “stable” and “thriving,” remembered as a hub of activity and potential yet to come. In reality, this Golden Age set the stage not only for the various factions of the war but was also a consistent sliding scale on its own.

Beirut: Paris of the East?

As noted by Sandra Mackey in Lebanon: A House Divided, Lebanon was not that up-and-coming in the 1940’s, with Beirut, the capital, known as a sleepy village whose only call to fame was the American University of Beirut. By the mid-1950’s however, Lebanon, and more specifically the city of Beirut, got its true rise to fame.

According to Life Magazine in 1966, Beirut was “a kind of Las Vegas-Riviera-St. Moritz flavored with spices of Araby.”[2] Thanks to a tourism boom from cruise lines, Beirut was seeing an influx of travelers from all over the Mediterranean in search of a city exotic but still familiar. Beirut held enough casinos and French cafes to be seen as a western playground, while still feeding the orientalist view of being “authentic” enough with the local shawarma vendors along the streets. But outside of the tourist perspective, what was really happening in Lebanon during the long 1950’s?

Throughout the years, a series of events led to a constant buildup of tensions for the country. The “Palestine Question” — a discourse over Palestinian refugees in the south that turned into a sectarian issue — started rooting with the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. Lebanon saw its first wave of mass Palestinian movement and the need for relocation. The country saw a steady increase in refugee numbers and another mass wave during the Six Day War of 1967. At this time, the world also experienced a global movement of anti-colonial sentiment. In particular, Lebanon’s Middle East neighbors, such as Egypt, were leading the messages and rhetoric of postcolonialism in former colonies. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and his pan-Arabism movement sparked inspiration and a sense of unity in the region that spread to Lebanon.

However, not all Lebanese citizens agreed with the pan-Arab messages. Although the Muslim communities supported unity, the Maronite Christian population was not responsive to Nasser’s messages. This was a major threat to the newly minted National Pact of 1943, which was an agreement to create a multi-confessional state, having Maronite, Shia, and Sunni communities represented in the parliament. Lebanese President Camille Chamoun (in office from 1952-1958) felt a constant threat from the rise of Nasser and his ideas, as he saw how the sectarian divisions were growing with each new event.[3] As a Maronite himself, he also did not agree with the pro-Nasserist ideology. In Chamoun’s memoirs, he states that Nasser was committing subversive activities in Lebanon since 1955 and had the Egyptian embassy distribute his portrait.

This was, however, not just a black and white issue. It was after the Suez Crisis of 1956 that Nasser started extreme propaganda against Chamoun through the radio waves and press for his noncompliance with Nasser’s ideology. His campaigns against Chamoun were at its peak in 1958, when Cairo’s Voice of the Arabs radio show called upon the Lebanese people to get rid of their president, even going as far as promoting assassination.[4] Many Egyptians in Beirut (such as school teachers and military men) were found hiding explosives in their cars, ready to set up throughout the city.[5] There was an overwhelming amount of evidence that all the potential bombers had direct ties to the Egyptian state. However, the Egyptian ambassador threatened the Lebanese government stating that, if the information was released, Egypt would break all relation with Lebanon.[6]

“Lebanon, the country of honey and incense”: Romanticized Memory

It is clear that the long 1950’s in Lebanon was not all casino nights and bright lights. However, media representations have come to remember Lebanon of this time period only for its glory, not for its downfalls. This may be due partly to the fact that relics of the 1970’s are particularly violent and related to the political landscape, leaving the fond depictions of the 1950’s as beautiful memories for the collective mind, not representing moments of disunity but more of its representation of this utopia in the Middle East.[7]

Memory and Identity of the Golden Age

The image of the 1950’s as a perfect oasis in the aftermath of the civil war represents a Lebanese collective desire to forget that their issues pre-date 1975. Ignoring the turbulence of the 1950’s shows an erasure of the sectarian divisions that have been present far before the civil war and, most certainly, far before the 1950’s. Painting the 15 years of civil war as the real enemy of Lebanese unity disregards the fact that Lebanon was never united before the war in the first place.  

The concept of remembering Beirut as “the Paris of the East” in itself shows the conflict of the 1950’s where aligning yourself with your proximity to western culture makes you more “modern”, a concept created by westerners to standardize and label former colonies. Lebanon’s heavy influence from France, its former colonizer, allows this memory to thrive today — in the 1950’s, Lebanon was closer than any other Middle Eastern country to be considered western. War was a thing of their neighbors at the time — such as the bloody independence war going on in Algeria and various coups in other countries — it was not an issue of Lebanon, a country thriving off its tourism and reputation. The civil war destroyed that image of “potential”, which in reality, is one of the fundamental riffs between the Maronites and the Muslims. Postcoloniality came with not only breaking ties with the west but also refusing the concept of having to fit a certain mold — a discussion that was ultimately reduced to another layer to the sectarian divisions. Remembering the 1950’s as the Golden Age perpetuates the erasure of Lebanon’s history, the glorification of western influence, and allows for an escape from the civil war and its own debates of rebuilding — ultimately creating its own form of nostalgic nationalism for a country in an identity limbo.

_______________________________________________________________________________________

[1]Mackey, Sandra. Lebanon : A House Divided. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

[2]Mackey, Sandra. Lebanon : A House Divided. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

[3]Attié, Caroline Camille. Struggle in the Levant: Lebanon in the 1950s. London: I.B. Tauris in Association with the Centre for Lebanese Studies, 2004. 

[4]Ibid.

[5]Ibid.

[6]Ibid.

[7] See Appendix A, of an armed Palestinian celebrating the rout of the Phlanagist, posing in front of a poster of President Nasser with Arabic graffiti writing on the wall that translates to “the socialist union was here.”

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