Identity can be a touchy issue in the Middle East. Upon arriving to Lebanon, I wondered about passing myself off as one of my beloved neighbors to the north, the Canadians. I’m from Seattle, three hours from the border, I very nearly am Canadian, right? Never mind that I can count on my fingers the number of times that I’ve actually been to Vancouver, B.C., and I’ve never been to any of Canada’s eastern cities like Montreal, Ottawa or Toronto. Nor, frankly, can I remember the name of the Canadian president (or do they have a prime minister?). Nah, I probably couldn’t fake being Canadian.
So when asked where I’m from, I’ve tried to put on my most lovable face as I answer, “from the U.S.” I just wasn’t sure how well-received my American-ness would be in the Middle East nowadays. However, the conversation usually continues on like this:
“Oh, my aunt/cousin/nephew/brother lives in America!” (Often in Texas – one Lebanese explained to me that it’s because they like the hot weather.) We then chitchat for a few minutes about the U.S., and I go on my way feeling like I just got a dose of the famed Middle Eastern hospitality.
Last week, however, I did get this response, delivered in a stage whisper:
“I am half-American as well, but we should probably not say that too loudly right now.”
In fact, since the most recent anti-American protests, including the killing of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Libya, and the burning of a KFC/Hardee’s in northern Lebanon, my husband and I have been letting him answer the nationality question when we’re together. He was born in Sicily, and raised in Rome. Everybody loves Italians. There’s gushing. There’s poetic waxing.
“I spent my honeymoon in Venice. It’s the most romantic city.”
“It is my dream to visit Italy one day!”
“Rome is so beautiful. We walked everywhere.”
“I love Italian food/wine/art!”
With daily three-hour flights to Rome from Beirut, many Lebanese have visited Italy, and a surprising number speak Italian as well. We revel in their enthusiasm.
For the Lebanese, identity can be complicated. I have one Lebanese friend who spent many years overseas, in Venezuela and in Nigeria. She recently commented to me, “When we are overseas, we are all Lebanese. As soon as we return, we are no longer Lebanese, but Christian or Muslim, Maronite, Orthodox or Armenian Apostolic [Christian sects], Sunni, Shi’a or Druze [Muslim sects].” Not to mention Twelvers, Ismailis and Alawites (branches of Shi’a Islam), or Greek Melkite Catholic, Latin Rite Roman Catholic, Coptic, Assyrian, Syriac Orthodox, and Anglican (branches of Christianity). (Her proposed solution to more harmonious living, by the way, was to legalize interreligious marriages in Lebanon – see my earlier post on that topic.)
Upon arrival to Beirut, I also might have thought that being Arab could be a unifier for the Lebanese. But then I saw the puzzling divisions of airport immigration lines into “Lebanese” and “Arabs and Foreigners.” So the Lebanese do not consider themselves Arab? Who are the Arabs for the Lebanese then? Visitors from the Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Oman? Egyptians and Moroccans and other North Africans too? An Egyptian friend I’ve made here commented that “the Arabs” had not come to Beirut this summer for their usual vacations due to the regional instability. So I guess he does not consider himself Arab either. I still haven’t quite got it figured out.
So when one Lebanese person I met referred to “the Arabs,” I asked him what he considered himself.
“We are Phoenicians,” he answered with pride.
In addition to being ignorant of Canadian politics, I’ll admit that I’m not well-versed in Phoenician history either. I probably should have looked it up when I first moved here and was staying two blocks from the famed Phoenicia Hotel. But better late than never is a cliché I like to put to good use, and I looked it up this morning. According to Wikipedia, ” ‘Phoenicia’ is a Classical Greek term used to refer to the region of the major Canaanite port towns, and does not correspond exactly to a cultural identity that would have been recognized by the Phoenicians themselves.” So the Phoenicians were the Canaanites, belonging to a region that Biblical scholars will easily identify, encompassing the city-states of Byblos, Sidon, Tyre, and Berytus (Beirut), cities that live on in modern-day Lebanon. It’s also an identification most frequently used by Christians in Lebanon, often controversially, as a way to set themselves apart from their Muslim compatriots. (That said, you will also find many Lebanese who are Christian, but do identify themselves as Arab. It may be possible to find as many answers to the identity question as there are people in Lebanon.)
Genetics, however, may have a different story to tell. Geneticists have identified the J2 haplogroup marker as belonging to the ancient Phoenicians – and Lebanese geneticist Pierre Zalloua found that many Christians and Muslims alike in Lebanon carry the marker. And that not all Lebanese who might have considered themselves “Phoenicians” do carry the J2 marker, but instead may have genetic markers identifying ancestors from Arabia, from India and Iran (perhaps from ancient traders), and from France and Spain (perhaps from Crusaders). Or all of the above.
A haplogroup is like a huge branch of the human family tree. Haplogroup J2 is found in the Middle East, North Africa and Southern Europe, with especially high distribution among present-day Jewish populations (30%), Southern Italians (20%), and lower frequencies in Southern Spain (10%). Another that is shared by much of the male populations of Lebanon, Syria, Malta, Sicily, Spain, and Israel, is haplogroup G. As my Sicilian husband has frequently pointed out to me, everyone from the Vandals and Goths and Normans from the north, the Arabs from the south, the Spaniards from the west, and the Greeks and Phoenicians from the east, came to Sicily and left their mark. It’s no wonder that my husband is so warmly-welcomed here in Lebanon. With those Arab and Phoenician branches intertwined in my husband’s Sicilian blood, he’s like a long-lost cousin coming home.