A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Lebanon where you least expect it

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on September 16, 2007

My mother’s family is filled with female bookworms: my grandmother, my aunts, my sister and I – all love to read. Wherever we go, we find books to buy – even at Costco, where my mother and I were last week. My mother bought this book, which I quickly spirited away to read before leaving Iowa:


Khoury is a Lebanese-Brit, I think, although he might be Lebanese-American. He writes thrillers – well, thrillers up until the denouement, which he hasn’t yet figured out how to make truly thrilling. But his books are enjoyable reads – sometimes for unexpected reasons.

The Sanctuary is set primarily in Lebanon in October 2006, when the country was first struggling to recover from the bomb attacks of the summer war. For those who know the country – and Beirut especially – the book offers delightful localisms, like references to AUB’s sea gate, as well as homages to local beliefs, like the omnipresence of the CIA.

And even those localisms that are off the mark are entertaining, if sometimes in a laughter-that-catches-in-the-throat type of way. For example, one young American geneticist is housed at the Hobeish ‘police’ station west of AUB overnight after her mother, an archaeologist and long-time AUB professor, is abducted. She blames her sleepless night there on how noisy the station was, thanks to a constant flow of “bookings”. So it was the noise of ordinary criminals being booked that kept her awake, rather than the screams of those up on the fourth floor? Khoury’s normalization of a station known for activities other than standard policing is funny – until it isn’t.

Khoury’s novel intersects with real life in another curious way: gene research. The book’s young geneticist has come to Lebanon on a research project financed by the Hariri Foundation – one intended to map the genes of the ancient Phoenicians. The Hariri Foundation hopes that the project’s results would show that Lebanese of all faiths have Phoenician ancestry, making Phoenicianism a basis for a common national identity. This would be a big improvement – thus far, claiming Phoenician ancestry has been a Lebanese Christian tactic in the larger (and rather Israeli) struggle to ‘prove’ that Lebanon is theirs.

According to a very recent Reuters article, there is a project underway to map the Phoenician genes – even if the Hariri Foundation isn’t involved:

In Lebanon DNA may yet heal rifts
By Tom Perry

BYBLOS, Lebanon (Reuters) – A Lebanese scientist following the genetic footprint of the ancient Phoenicians says he has traced their modern-day descendants, but stumbled into an old controversy about identity in his country.

Geneticist Pierre Zalloua has charted the spread of the Phoenicians out of the eastern Mediterranean by identifying an ancient type of DNA which some Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians share with Maltese, Spaniards and Tunisians.

A seafaring civilization which reached its zenith between 1200 and 800 BC, the Phoenicians’ earliest cities included Byblos, Tyre and Sidon on Lebanon’s coast.

But their link to Lebanon, whose borders were drawn as recently as 1920, has long been a subject of controversy in a country split between an array of religious communities. “Negotiating these waters is a very delicate job,” Zalloua said.

Seeking to set themselves apart from their Muslim compatriots, some Lebanese Christians have drawn on the Phoenician past to try to forge an identity separate from the prevailing Arab culture.

“Whenever I use the word ‘Phoenician’, people say ‘this guy is trying to say we are not Arabs’,” said Zalloua, himself a Christian. But after five years of research, the scientist says his work has shown what Lebanese have in common. “We had a great history — let’s look at it,” he said.

The genetic marker which identifies descendants of the ancient Levantines is found among members of all of Lebanon’s religious communities, he said. “It’s a story that can actually unite Lebanon much more than anything else.”

The marker, known as the J2 haplogroup, was found in an unusually high proportion among Lebanese, Palestinians and Syrians tested by Zalloua during more than five years of research. He tested 1,000 people in the region.


“The further south you go, the less likely you are to see this marker. The further north and the further inland you go, the less you see of this marker. It is very Levantine,” he said.

The same marker was found in unusually high proportions on other parts of the Mediterranean coast where the Phoenicians are known to have established colonies, such as Carthage in today’s Tunisia.

“It’s abundantly present in the Iberian peninsula,” Zalloua added. In Malta, the ancient DNA type was found in an extremely high 30 percent of samples, he said.

“We are seeing a pattern of expansion out of the Levant area along the maritime routes the Phoenicians used,” he said.

The J2 haplogroup has been dated using a calculation based on the rate at which DNA mutates. The fewer the mutations on any given type of DNA, the older it is.

“Our calculation estimates it at roughly 12,000 years old, plus or minus 5,000 years. It’s an old haplogroup and we are pretty sure it originated in this area,” he said.

Many Lebanese were keen to take part in the research, giving either a blood sample or a cheek swab so DNA could be extracted from their cells.

“They wanted to see if they are actually old Levantine or not. This area has been mixed through invasions. It has been a crossroads of many populations,” Zalloua said.

Albert Akl, 61, took part out of curiosity about his ancestry. Tests showed he had the J2 haplogroup.


“We belong to this area — we are not passers-by,” said Akl, an engineer. Although Phoenician history should be a source of pride for Lebanese, Akl said its importance should not be blown out of proportion in today’s Lebanon.

“It carries no big meaning,” said Akl, adding that he views himself as “Lebanese, Arab and Christian — in that order”.

The research has thrown up surprise results for some.

Zalloua tested his own DNA and found a type common in India and Iran. Another participant, Joseph Tabat, got an unusual result.

“I was always intrigued as to why I look different to the rest of the guys in high school,” he said. “I’m a red-head with freckles.” Tabat’s DNA matched types found in France and Spain, perhaps a sign that one of his ancestors was a European who arrived in the Middle East during the Crusades.

“Many of the people who think they are Phoenicians are not — like me,” he said. “I’d like to see a high percentage of Lebanese going through this experience. I think it would be a unifying force and not a divisive one.”


One Response to “Lebanon where you least expect it”

  1. intlxpatr said

    I love it. I think all this DNA and markers is going to surprise a lot of people who think they are one thing and will find out they are something else. And that we all have a lot in common. 🙂

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