Everyday Sectarianism in Urban Lebanon: Infrastructures, Public Services, and Power. By Joanne Randa Nucho. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2016. 167 pp. $27.95, paper.
Nucho seeks to debunk the claim that sectarian identity in Lebanon is essentially primordial, “an inborn quality,” insisting instead that it is a process manufactured “by institutions affiliated with sectarian parties and religious organizations.” The author uses the Armenian community in the Beirut suburb of Bourj Hammoud as a case study and extends her conclusions to other sects in Lebanon. Nucho blames the institutionalization of sectarian identity in Lebanon on a range of foreign—Ottoman, British, and French—officials who acted in collusion with local elites and empowered them to perpetuate sectarian cleavages.
The author claims that the French mandatory authorities in Lebanon produced the sectarian geography of Bourj Hammoud after it was inhabited by thousands of Armenian survivors of the 1915-16 Ottoman genocide. The provision of essential services, such as primary medical care and educational facilities, transformed Bourj Hammoud into an “Armenian ‘public sphere.’” The author concludes that the advent of non-governmental and official welfare service providers led to the emergence of a distinct Armenian sectarian identity along ethnoreligious lines.
Armenian Bourj Hammoud undeniably constitutes a cohesive sectarian sect, but it is simplistic to attribute this fact to foreign actors. The ethnicity of Armenians is deeply rooted in their history, and their modern nationalism dates back two hundred years. So, when survivors of the genocide arrived in Lebanon, they already constituted an ethno-national community. On settling in Bourj Hammoud, their immediate task was to reconstitute their severely battered community and rebuild their culture, both of which they accomplished marvelously. Social services did not create Armenian identity but helped the traumatized Armenian remnant to reconstitute it in a new, congested urban setting.
It is puzzling why Nucho ascribes Lebanese sectarianism to foreign machination when the reverse is closer to the truth: Sectarianism facilitated foreign intrusion under the pretext of protecting endangered minorities. Further, the book’s title is misleading: The Lebanese Armenians, especially those of Bourj Hammoud, hardly represent a microcosm of Lebanon. Rather, they are an ethnonational community with a distinct historical evolution and patterns of communal interaction that do not represent other Lebanese sects.
Hilal Khashan, American University of Beirut