The Shi‘is of Jabal ‘Amil and the New Lebanon
by Tamara Chalabi
New York: Palgrave, 2006. 227 pp. +xvii. $69.95.
Reviewed by Michael Rubin
Middle East Quarterly
Both Western and Arabic-language histories have neglected the Shi‘ites of modern Lebanon. Chalabi masterfully brings this missing history to life in a reworked Harvard doctoral dissertation. In an age where academics favor theory and polemic over scholarship, she fulfills the traditional detective function of historians. Fluent in English, French, and Arabic, she explored old archives and never-before-used personal libraries in southern Lebanese towns and villages. Excerpts from diaries flesh out political history to add a sense of local culture.
Chalabi begins her narrative at the end of the Ottoman era, describing the shape of society and economic life, not only the interplay of religious clerics, prominent families, and the nouveaux riches but also their relations with the Ottoman leadership. She traces these through the disruptions of the early twentieth century. World War I hit the ‘Amilis (that is, residents of Jabal ‘Amil) hard via conscription and famine. Chalabi shows how the Shi‘ites maneuvered through Arab nationalism, the French Mandate, and Lebanese state formation. Her exploration of competing gangs supported by French and Syrian concerns brings to light an important element of local history that remains strong in Lebanon today—Robin Hood-like figures who rob government tax collectors and redistribute their money. Acknowledging such local culture is necessary to understand contemporary regional attitudes toward the central government.
As Lebanon approached independence, intellectual debate focused upon conflicting notions of Arab and Lebanese identity, not only in Beirut and among the Christian and Sunni elite but also among the Shi‘ites. The Arab nationalist narrative eventually won out, and Shi‘ites resented their marginalization by the Beirut elite. Many ‘Amilis concluded that a system based on Arab identity offered them greater possibilities. Many embraced other pan-national ideologies and joined communist, Syrian nationalist, and Baath parties. Nevertheless, the Shi‘ites were incorporated in Lebanon and could not ignore the Lebanese state. Chalabi's discussion of petitioning and the growing Shi‘ite willingness to participate in parliamentary politics adds nuance. Discussion of religious leadership and education elucidate matters further.
In a forward, Fouad Ajami describes how, when he set out to write The Vanished Imam, in which he traced the influence of the Shi‘ite cleric Musa al-Sadr in the 1960s and 1970s, he realized how even the recent Lebanese Shi‘ite past was a scholarly void. Chalabi has corrected this and her work is required reading for any scholar or policy practitioner working on modern Lebanon.
 Reprint ed., Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992.
Related Topics: History, Lebanon | Michael Rubin | Fall 2006 MEQ
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