Culture

A timely tale on the peasants’ republic

BEIRUT: History gets a bad rap. People often read novels and other works of fiction, even though these can be concerned with historical events.

Historical fiction is less popular than fiction. People avoid straight history altogether.

Academic history is unpopular because it’s generally written with an expert audience in mind.

Jens Hanssen’s 2005 monograph “Fin de Siècle Beirut” is unlikely to have been read by many Beirutis because it targets a more rarefied readership, one more interested in spatial theory and the detritus of Istanbul’s Ottoman administrative archives than the city’s pre-Civil War “golden age.”

Malcolm DeBevoise’s 2011 translation of Samir Kassir’s history “Beirut” is more likely to speak to an anglophone Beirut audience.

Historical fiction is more accessible than history. Conventionally the form weaves fictional characters and bodice-ripping plots into the fabric of a broader narrative, peopled by historical figures and events. In practice, the most popular works of historical fiction follow this approach.

Historical fiction is more commercially successful than academic history simply because – though it relies, rather selectively, upon the findings of academic history – it believes in heroic figures and “great men,” something academic historians realized was methodologically problematic a long time ago.

A master of historical fiction is the prodigious Franco-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, best known for his 1986 masterpiece “Leon L’Africain,” which illustrates Renaissance-era confrontations between the Muslim and Christian worlds.

In his 1994 novel “Le Rocher de Tanios” (The Rock of Tanios), the francophone Maalouf faithfully depicts the social and political turmoil in Ottoman Mount Lebanon in the last decades of the 19th century.

By turning his characters (both imagined and historical) into classical heroes, the journalist-cum-writer excels in vivid and refreshing descriptions of the historical periods and events he scrutinizes.

Maalouf’s historical fictions are not written to instruct his readers about the past as much as to allow them to live it. They are regarded as the closest you can get to experiencing history first hand.

“La Republique des Paysans” (The Peasants’ Republic), the fifth novel of Ramzi T. Salame, is indebted to Maalouf’s oeuvre. The book puts the reader at the heart of the 1858 uprising in Mount Lebanon’s province of Kesrouan, undertaken by impoverished and oppressed Maronite peasants against their feudal overlords in the Khazen clan.

Led by Tanios Chahine, the revolt is regarded by some to be the Ottoman Empire’s first genuine popular rebellion, leading to the establishment of the short-lived peasants’ republic from which the book takes its title.

Salame recounts the story of Elias, a French consular employee in Beirut who, following the assassination of his brother and his fiancee by a Khazen lord, resigns his post and returns to his hometown of Kfardebian to join Chahine’s simmering revolt.

Soon enough, Elias becomes one of the main pillars of the uprising, standing out during the battles and negotiations that culminated into the birth of the ephemeral peasants’ republic.

Salame’s account in no way romanticizes the 1858 revolution. It is rather a critical account of key historical events that might have changed the course of Lebanon’s history had the revolt not been sabotaged by the Ottoman elite and the representatives of the European powers in the region.

The book ends on a bitter note, with Elias abandoning activism for good after the collapse of the republic that he struggled for and paid a dear price to establish.

A bit of a polymath – it is his painting that adorns the cover of his book – Salame’s writing is simple and straightforward. He relies heavily on dialogue to convey his ideas, rather than narration or description.

Though “Paysans” calls itself as a “roman,” it is evident that, except for the plot device that opens the book, Salame is more interested in depicting the events in which the characters participated than the characters themselves.

Elias himself is remarkably chaste, as revolutionaries go, and nearly 350 pages go by without a single bodice getting ripped.

Stylistic weaknesses aside, Salame’s book offers insights into a key episode in Lebanese history. It provides an accurate and engaging account of events that shook Kesrouan in 1858, and which – when run through the twin sieves of socio-economic dislocation and sectarianism – had disastrous repercussions in the Chouf and parts of Syria.

As it is chaste, “Paysans” would be a good fit in the country’s history curricula. Lebanese grade school students would likely prefer Salame’s rousing depiction of the revolt with its intelligent context to the dry-as-dust renderings in conventional history texts.

“Paysans” informs students as to how popular revolt, originating in social injustice and inequality, have been as integral a part of Lebanon’s origins as sectarianism and the pervasive interference of foreign powers in its domestic affairs – both before independence and since.

At this crucial moment in the region’s history, when popular uprisings have swept the Arab world from North Africa through the Levant to the Gulf, Salame’s historical fiction could be a useful tool for students to draw lessons from Lebanon’s revolutionary pioneers, and perhaps avoid their mistakes.

Ramzi T. Salame’s “La Republique des Paysans” is out now from L’Harmattan.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 22, 2011, on page 16.

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