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Microhistories of Arab Internationalism: The Lebanese National Movement

Panel VIII-22, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
This panel explores the Lebanese left in the 1970s-1980s. We trace the trajectories of the constellation of leftist parties and movements, known as the Lebanese National Movement, and the relationship between its precursors and afterlives. Our central goal is to contextualize this movement within a global setting, moving away from the Lebanese exceptionalism that is common in the literature of this period. We probe the meanings of transnationalism in an Arab context, including the implications of migration, mobility, and interactions between cities of the Global North and South, as well as the flow of ideas and sentimentalities among communities of the Global South. Ranging from famous musicians to organizational fronts, we follow the people and ideas that constructed international, radical networks grounded in global and local revolution. Collectively, we argue that Lebanese Marxists propagated an Arab (inter)nationalism that, during the 1970s, rooted itself in the global language of dissent and solidarity, from their particular vantage point that centered the Palestinian and Lebanese experience. By doing so, we aim to tell a story of the Global Sixties and its afterlives in a localized setting with a specific and contingent history. Using Lebanon as a case study, we engage in a multilayered inquiry into the subjective experience of the Left, its transformations, and its multifaceted expressions in the lives of its ordinary participants, protagonists, and advocates. We focus on the personal (biographical) narratives to trace the ways in which Arab Leftists maintained a transnational worldview in both perspective and practice. We utilize different sources, including oral history, personal letters, and songs, to dissect the various forms of witness and testimony, focusing on ordinary people beyond the traditional annals of writing about the Left. This is an exercise in micro-history that, by considering other constituencies of the Lebanese Left, aims to broaden the scope of studying Leftism outside the works of professional intellectuals and textual traces of the past.
  • Marcel Khalife is a Lebanese 'Oud composer, singer, 'Oud player, and music theorist. A militant communist, Khalife vehemently espoused the revolutionary horizons brought about by Lebanese National Movement (LNM) and the Palestinian Revolution. During the years of civil strife in Lebanon (1975-1995), his songs infiltrated popular culture, circulating widely through militant radio stations, cassettes, and a vibrant fan base. Born in 1950 in the northern town of Amchit, Khalife was among the first to receive a higher degree in Sharqi musical theory from the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music in 1975. Soon after civil violence erupted in Lebanon, he relocated to Paris, where, in "self-imposed“ exile, he released his first solo album, Promises from the Storm. Upon his return to Lebanon in 1977, Khalife's name and his band "al-Mayadine" became intimately associated with the LNM’s cultural milieu, especially the Lebanese Communist Party. Along with leftist militant artists like Ziad Rahbani, Khaled Habre, and Ahmad Kaabour, Khalife's songs embodied a radical ethos of cultural production as revolutionary praxis. In contrast to his comrades' guitars and pianos, however, Khalife's music is celebrated for its capacity to captivate the untrained ears of Lebanese audiences through the familiar sounds and scales of the 'Oud. Nonetheless, this representation presumes a purity of Sharqi sounds that is diametrically opposed to Franji (foreign) influences. Against this binary, I examine Khalife's work as a negotiation with contemporary (and modern) global stylistic and performative elements, but one emanating from a particular vantage point within the Sharqi musical tradition itself. I draw on lyrical, musical, and stagecraft elements to highlight Khalife's inherently transnational approach and influence. Informed by the movement of ideas and sentiments amongst Arab constituencies (Palestinian-Lebanese), as well as around the globe, Khalife articulated an Arab internationalism that is rooted in the dissident lexicon of the Global Sixties, at the intersections of countercultural dissent and anti-imperialist struggle. As a public intellectual whose work effectively and affectively spoke to public sentiments, Khalife's work shows how militancy was being understood and translated into popular culture and consumed via mass media. His work provides a nuanced reading of the Lebanese/Arab leftist experience as it manifested outside the works of "professional" (textual) intellectuals, whether committed to or critical of party-line narratives.
  • Using a series of oral history interviews I conducted with a longtime, influential, southern Lebanese communist partisan, Husayn Ba’lbaki (Abu Jubran), this paper presents a biographical, microhistorical reading of the trajectory of the Lebanese National Movement (LNM) and its alliance with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) between the 1960s and 80s. Born circa 1931, Ba’lbaki hails from ʿAytarun, a southern village bordering Palestine. A militant in the Lebanese Communist Party (LCP) since 1950, in the 1960s he became involved in a series of heterodox communist factions and eventually settled in the Organization of Communist Action in Lebanon. From there, he held an important position of responsibility in the LNM in south Lebanon during the war era. It situates these interviews alongside diplomatic sources and recently published memoirs of other participants in the LNM-PLO alliance, including accounts by two of his closest Palestinian comrades in the late 1970s, Muʿin al-Tahir and Shafiq al-Ghabra, both influential fighters and leaders in Fatah’s Student Brigades (al-Katiba al-Tullabiyya, later the Jarmaq Brigade). Much analysis routinely underlines the PLO-LNM’s political organization and armed resistance as ineffectual, if not “callous, arrogant, and shortsighted.” Yet buried under the condescension of the larger defeats is an underappreciated history of significant achievements and continuous struggle against overwhelming power. These histories can be retrieved through oral histories and memoirs of committed participants and villagers who were the subjects and objects of rule and various political projects, carefully contextualized and juxtaposed alongside policy records, print media, and memoirs. The steadily advancing age of this generation makes the necessity of such investigations even more pressing. In doing so, it pushes against the recent wave of Anglophone research on the twentieth-century Arab left that has thus far focused considerably on the history of professional intellectuals at the expense of other constituencies.
  • Imad Nuwayhid (1944-1975) was a student, writer, fighter, and “martyr.” Well before his death during the earliest phase of the Lebanese Civil War, Imad was working in the hospitality industry, traveling around Europe, and engaging with European and Arab thinkers alike. He left Lebanon for Switzerland and England in the late 1960s as a Marxist-Leninist intellectual, frequenting smaller, middle-class, student organizations in Beirut like the Union of Lebanese Communists. He returned in the early 1970s, searching for a new home in the Arab Left, eventually joining the mainstream Lebanese Communist Party in 1973. Thereafter, he trained with the PLO and joined the ranks of the fighters in the Lebanese National Movement. Imad’s shift, simply put, from intellectual to fighter, was not unique. It reflected other, leftist, young men and women who were at a crossroads in the early 1970s: between theoretical and realized revolution. Some of them held out in their smaller cadres, but many ended up joining more established political parties of the Lebanese National Movement, like the Lebanese Communist Party and Progressive Socialist Party. Imad’s actions, then, provide an opportunity to examine the history of the Lebanese Left in the years preceding the war. With Imad’s letters from London in the early 1970s, the print culture of multiple leftist organizations he frequented, and interviews with his friends and comrades, this paper finds that a transition towards Arab internationalism in the 1970s, grounded in Palestinian armed liberation, coupled with the local incursions between the Lebanese state, workers, and the PLO, were central in youth like Imad turning away from the more intellectually driven, middle class movements and towards the larger, working class, more established fighting forces. In London, Imad criticized British treatment of foreigners and actively connected the plight of Palestinians and Arabs to those of other oppressed people, whether in the Global South or North. In Lebanon, Imad’s witnessing of the Ghandour Factory Strike of 1972, and the May ’73 crisis, both of which pitted leftist works and the Palestinian cause against the state, convinced Imad to move towards the front lines. This paper seeks to contribute to the literature on the global ‘60s, the Arab Left, and youth politics in this era. It joins those scholars that attempt to write the Middle East into the global ‘60s, following the people and ideas that constructed international, radical networks, grounded in global and local revolution.
  • Sparse records point towards the Lebanese National Resistance Front, or JAMOUL, that played a crucial role in initiating resistance to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, in parallel to the significant role of Islamic organizations. To approach JAMMOUL’s history behooves social and discursive contextualization. A re-telling of this story from the present moment is embroiled in competition over resistance narratives, disagreements over the transformation of the Lebanese left, and disparagement of contemporary resistance agents. These political positions created highly polemical representations of the past that call for a re-representation in a way that expresses the nuances and richness of this historical moment, and might speak to a larger debate regarding the transformation and demise of the Lebanese left. My task is neither to demonize nor romanticize the Left's resistance against the Zionist enemy, but an attempt to provide a critical history of the rise of the armed resistance movement that was part of a larger project of secular revolutionary thought and the ways in which this particular history has refracted onto the present political landscape. I do so by gathering varying historical descriptions and political discussions from current and former leftists on how they understand this particular historical conjuncture from the present moment. Weaving in newly conducted interviews from both JAMMOUL participants and onlookers, I identify both discursive tropes orienting scholarship and sociological-political factors shaping participants’ understanding at the time. I do so by contextualizing the organization’s formation within a field of struggle, and examining the material that has accumulated, particularly from Leftist sources, to recuperate JAMMOUL’s experience.