A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

still more from the Green Guides: Lebanese social classes

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 11, 2008

Its a glum Thursday in New York – rainy and cold. So I can’t resist writing a bit more about life in sunnier climes, like … Lebanon.

Here’s another excerpt from The Green Guides: Beirut and the Republic of Lebanon, from which I’ve been stealing shamelessly this past week. This one is a short bit on Lebanon’s social classes:

There are no social classes in Lebanon, in the strict meaning of the term, namely, exclusive segregated groups. The practically equitable distribution of land abolished social distinctions. However, there is still a remnant of feudalism in some regions in Lebanon, but it is less prominent than in other Arab regions, and is disappearing.

The well-to-do class is, on the whole, constituted by businessmen. The absence of distinct classes and the happy distribution of land are the causes of the high social and intellectual standard of the Lebanese people.

To fully understand Jamil’s description of Lebanese social classes, I had to do a bit of research here – thank you, Google Scholar and Google Books. Apparently many scholars define social classes with respect to their residences: in cases of strict social class division, rich people and poor people do not live side by side. This is an important distinction – the inner cities of many American urban areas and the suburbs of many European cities show what happens to the level of city and social services when middle- and upper middle-class residents leave.

I do think that there were social classes in Lebanon in the 1940s, but I can understand that the existence of multi-class neighborhoods helped to even out the financial gaps – both because wealthier neighbors insisted on city services (electricity, street cleaning, police protection, …) and because their proximity to poorer neighbors might have encouraged them to provide gifts of money or food – or to help them get jobs – when times were tough.

Its also very interesting that Jamil describes the wealthiest class as composed largely of “businessmen”, and not the feudal aristocrats of the 18th and 19th centuries. I don’t know enough about the politicians of the 1930s and 1940s to be able to answer this question myself, but I am curious: Who was more involved in politics then – the “old” families or the “business” (trade, commerce, import/export – however you call it!) families?

3 Responses to “still more from the Green Guides: Lebanese social classes”

  1. Hi Diamond,

    There were social classes in Pre-war Lebanon, one of the causes of the Lebanese civil war is that the obsolete institutions of the Lebanese State failed to adapt to the social aspirations of a newly educated lower middle class that emerged during the Chehab era.

    From the creation of Greater Lebanon until the late 60’s, the Lebanese bourgeoisie was composed of old families, businessmen, high ranking civil servants prominent journalist, lawyers and scholars educated at AUB & USJ and land owners in rural areas. Thinks changed in the late 60’s when new university graduates from the Lebanese University and the Arab University contested the social order and enrolled in the leftist parties.

    In the 70’s, Lebanon broke along religious lines because the Maronites refused to give up their dominance on the state, and long social lines because of the emerging middle class that challenging the establishment.

    About the mixed neighborhoods, Ras-Beirut is a perfect example, I remember slums near the Chatila Mosque and the St-Rita Church in Manara, on the street parallel to Najib Ardati St where we used to live till 1974. My parents used to give old cloth and sometimes food to the poor people living there, and who were native of Ras-Beirut. Till the late 40’s. The native Ras- Beirutis like the Chatila and Itani families were generally poor people, until the city expanded to Hamra and Sakiet El-Janzir, and their land gained value. Some of them, who did not have much land remained poor while others sold their land or built residential and commercial building on their farm land, thus gaining access to wealth and education.

    Real poverty was in the suburbs. Karantina was the fist slum with Armenian, Kurdish, and Arab Bedouins. Then with the influx of Palestinian refugees, and the rural exodus from the Mountain, the Bekaa and the South, a poverty belt spread around Beirut in the 50’s and 60’s.

  2. Leila1000 said

    There are so many ways to define a social class — by income, for instance, or according to the Marxian definition of a group that develops class consciousness. Regardless of how you define it, the issue of spatial polarization is somewhat separate. In some places, such as American cities, lower classes typically do not live next to higher classes, but elsewhere they can coexist side by side, such as in Brazilian cities where neighborhoods are right next to slums. Anyway, I think you could argue that any country with inequality has a class system. It’s just that in Lebanon, which is so diverse, class intersects with religion and ethnicity in complex ways. So to hear that Lebanon is a class-less society (just a “diverse” one) is bewildering! I’m not terribly familiar with stratification studies of Lebanon (though I’m a sociologist by training, as you might tell from the jargon), but I’m sure that there are studies of class structure there and how it’s changed over time.

  3. Kheireddine, you are quite right – there definitely were social classes in Lebanon before the civil war. But what you are saying (which is an accurate account of post-WWII history) doesn’t contradict the guidebook – it shows what tremendous dislocations happened starting twenty years after the guidebook was written, and in particular how the ineptly-handled urbanization of poorer rural Lebanese helped make Beirut such a powder-keg.

    Leila, I think your sociologist side is very helpful here! I agree with you that class is not necessarily definable by residence, and that Jamil’s description of the Lebanese classes thus errs a bit on the rosy side!

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