Most books on Lebanon crafted with sympathy and discernment are exercises in exploring the spirit of this singular country and its people. Salameh, a language professor at Boston College, demonstrates a unique approach to understanding that singularity. The essence of his thesis is that language—one rooted in the distant past and leavened with a multiplicity of more contemporary influences—continues to leave its imprint both on how the Lebanese communicate in the popular domain but also on what makes Lebanon the extraordinary human venture it is.
Salameh attempts to solve this puzzle by contending that there is no "single homogenous Arab cultural mass" but a diversity of ethnicities, languages, and peoples across the Middle East. In fact, Arabic, the supposed glue that holds together this disparate mass of humanity, "is a dead language." No Arab really speaks Arabic: Different peoples in their respective countries speak Egyptian, Tunisian, Moroccan, or Lebanese. There is no cohesive Arab nation, no collective Arab memory, and thus no living "pure" Arabic language.
The case of Lebanon's language and its authenticity was elevated to a sacred mission by Saïd Akl, poet, linguist, and philosopher, who assumes a central role in Salameh's narrative. He paints a vivid human portrait of the great man (born in 1912 and still living) who, among other things, proposed a Lebanese alphabet to replace the Arabic, thus liberating the spoken language from its Arabic moorings, much like the decision by Atatürk to write Turkish in Latin characters. For Akl, that alphabet is nothing more than a Phoenician creation, so that introducing Latinized characters into Lebanon would actually be an act of cultural recovery. For most Muslims and Arabs, however, it would be a separatist rebellion and viewed as a declaration of war against the Arab world.
The sub-text of the language controversy then is the struggle of a Christian community in Lebanon to survive and flourish in the Muslim Middle East that is experiencing a sweeping Islamist tidal wave. Also, the debate as to whether the Lebanese are really Arabs has yet to be resolved. Akl and other intellectuals—for instance, Charles Corm and Michel Chiha—hammered away at the notion that the Lebanese are not Arabs at all. For them, and now for Salameh, the neighborhood norms of Islam and Arabic have no authority to overwhelm or suppress the specific features of Lebanon.
Salameh's meticulous research makes for a most worthy book that makes a significant contribution to the literature. His study elucidates a core aspect of national identity with repercussions for all the Arabic-speaking countries. The author questions a conventional and sanctified concept of an Arab world which, battered and bruised by internecine political rivalries and animosities, is as desiccated as a Middle Eastern desert in the heat of summer.