Eulogy for a Lebanese Intellectual

On the death of historian Kamal Salibi.

In 1979 an extraordinary academic conference was held in Hamburg. The peace agreement between Israel and Egypt had paved the way for leading Arab and Israeli academics to jointly attend a gathering about the major issues facing the Middle East. Thus my colleagues and I had the privilege of getting to know personally the leading Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi. From the moment we met the conversation flowed, and Salibi, who died on September 1 at the age of 82, asked us: "What happened to your classical music radio station?"

The question revealed a fascinating aspect of Arab intellectuals' attitude toward Israel. At the time, Salibi was living in Jordan, after fleeing Beirut; his home country had just emerged from the first phase of its civil war. Salibi, a classical music lover, would listen to the "Voice of Music", which was received clearly in Jordan. But the Jordanians hadn't received the news that a prolonged strike at the Israel Broadcasting Authority had silenced the station.

Since then many things have changed in Israeli-Arab relations and the relationship between Israeli and Arab academics. In 1996 I was a guest at Salibi's home in Amman. At that time, he was leading the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies on behalf of Crown Prince Hassan, and he invited a number of his Jordanian and Jordanian-Palestinian colleagues to meet the guest from Israel.

For Salibi, the expatriate's life in Jordan was difficult. He was a Lebanese patriot who believed in Lebanon's uniqueness. His project as a historian was to describe the complex connection between identity, the reception of identity and the writing of history. As a Protestant, Salibi believed Christian communities had a special role in building a Lebanon distinct from its Islamic surroundings, but he was free of the fanaticism about Lebanon's Christian nature that characterizes many of his Maronite colleagues. This outlook was expressed in his most important books, "The Modern History of Lebanon" (1965 ) and "A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered" (1988 ).

Salibi was an unusual figure in the Arab academic community, in that he authored the most important books about his own country's history. The key books on Egypt, Iraq, Syria and most of the countries of the region have been written by Western historians. In those countries, historians lacked academic freedom and the ability to examine their own countries "from the outside." In this respect Lebanon and Salibi were unique.

After completing his doctoral studies in London under the supervision of Prof. Bernard Lewis, in the 1960s Salibi joined the faculty of the American University of Beirut, one of the main institutions of pluralistic Lebanon, which was then the media and intellectual capital of the Arab world. Beirut and the university survived the civil war and the subsequent waves of violence, including the first and second wars with Israel and the rise of Hezbollah and the Shi'ites. However, Beirut's 1960s glory has not returned.

Kamal Salibi wrote more than 20 books, including one on the Lebanese Civil War, one on Jordan and a rather peculiar volume in which he tried to prove that the biblical stories did not take place in the Land of Israel but rather in the Arabian Peninsula, along the coast of today's Saudi Arabia. He invested great effort in etymological and topographical analysis to prove this thesis. But the book is not convincing and it embarrassed many of Salibi's associates.

What prompted a top historian to risk his reputation on a futile exercise like that? It was not an attempt to refute the Jewish ancestral claim to the Land of Israel, as Salibi was not a sworn enemy of Israel or Zionism. Perhaps it was an intellectual exercise, an attempt by someone whose world had been destroyed to find refuge in an intellectual game.

Salibi was a sworn bachelor, and he had no children. He will be remembered by his readers, who will continue to enjoy the deep understanding, thorough research and clear style presented in his books.