HST231: The Vast History of a Small Country!

“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it…” states Edmund Burke, the renowned Irish author and political theorist. This explains the importance of history courses in providing students with essential knowledge of their past in order to prepare them for their future. This too is the essence of the “History of Lebanon” course at LAU (HST231): to help students understand the development and evolution of “Lebanon” as we know today. The course “uncovers the historical roots and hidden causes behind many of the current political conditions, polemics and rhetoric,” according to Said Abou Zaki, one of the course’s professors.

Why you direly need to study History?

“Lacking solid historical knowledge hinders the citizens’ ability to reach sound political choices and blurs their understanding of their own social and political identity,” adds Abou Zaki. Asked about the significance of this course, Joumana, a Lebanese student, noted the following: “I never understood what history teachers used to say that to understand your future and present you need to know your past until I took this course. The course showed the origin of the troubles Lebanon is facing now.”

George Orwell has once asserted that “the most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” Asked about the significance of learning history, Abu Zaki seems to agree to this, explaining that: “historical knowledge is one of the key factors that molds our conscience and defines our political and social identity. Thus it should always feature as an essential component of our cultural education whether in high school or university—even if it is not required, seek it.”

HST231 in a nutshell:

The course comprises several events starting from the long rebellion of the Druze of Mount Lebanon against the Ottomans in the 16th century all through to the French mandate and establishing the constitution then the National Pact as the two foundations for the political practices in modern Lebanon. “It presents more than 450 years of the turbulent history of the country and bridges its past with its present,” says Abou Zaki.

The course gives students insights into many of the peculiar features of the history of this country: its local communities, the Western influence on the cultural and political constructions, seismic demographic developments and their social and political repercussions; and the mixed blessing of Lebanon’s strategic geopolitical are just few of the crucial topics that most students rarely acquire knowledge of in their daily life. Quoting the British Colonel Rose who has once said that: “Syria is the key of the Levant, and [Mount] Lebanon is the key of Syria,” (July 1841) Abu Zaki explains that students will discover how geography gave this small country such a strategic importance that extends far beyond its size and boundaries. Furthermore, the course will reveal how the direct intervention of the European powers, mainly France, in the affairs of Mount Lebanon during the 19th century has intensified sectarian tensions and fueled communal wars between Druze and the Maronites for decades.

Due to the massive fractures and splits between the different sectarian and political parties in Lebanon, the Lebanese have failed so far to agree on a unified narrative of the country’s history. As a consequence, many crucial developments and phases of its history have been discarded or muted. Unfortunately, Lebanese students nowadays are still studying the impact of the first and second world wars on their country instead of studying and analyzing the local decisive events like the 1860 or 1958 civil wars; a point made clear by Zahraa, who asserted that “even though I took history for more than 5 years at school and studied it for the official exams, this course was the only one which gave me a real history [of my country] that I can talk about in society.”

Students who were questioned by the Tribune unanimously agreed that the course was very organized and systematic in informing them about Lebanon’s history from the 16th up to the 20th century. Being grounded in original archival material and the latest scholarly findings, it provides them with a solid basis through which they can confidently and ably scrutinize the situation and engage in a comparative analysis between Lebanon’s history and its present.

Igniting students’ knowledge:

The surveyed students have agreed that before taking this course they had little or no information on the history of Lebanon. Abou Zaki notices that students are most often amazed when learning how “deeply rooted in history” are some of the influential families ingrained within the Lebanese political arena. “If there is anything this course taught me is that Lebanon is still the Lebanon of the 1800s and 1900s, the same dilemmas occur time and time again. The course has taught me to see and love Lebanon in a different light,” notes Annalise.

The course has benefited students not only on the intellectual level, but also in their daily lives. “I’ve learned a lot of things that I believe are relevant in my everyday life and that even allow me to analyze the current situation we’re experiencing in Lebanon from a different point of view,” assures Omar, who has recently taken the course. Another student, Touline, explained her interest in the course by noting that it “helps in spreading our Lebanese culture and show the world how the Europeans imposed their culture on the East [in general] and manipulated my country’s geographical boundaries and constitution.”

As mentioned earlier, the course explains the historical background of Lebanon’s political structure and practices. The knowledge it provides benefits both local and foreign students. This is confirmed by Manon, a French student who explained to the Tribune that: “as a foreign student, I found that this course helped me to understand Lebanese social and political construction [and] realize the emotional attachment of Lebanese to their community or geographic origin.”

As for Rim, a Lebanese student who lived abroad, the course was enlightening because she “developed the knowledge of how beautiful modern Lebanon is when you understand the history behind each region/town and how religious communities have [long periods of peaceful and cooperative] cohabitation.” Explaining why the course quickly won her over, Touline stated that she found it “worth studying for because it’s like listening to a story of many volumes in which we are side characters in its recent chapters.” Reflecting on the course, Ali, another Lebanese student who lived abroad, stated that he finds himself now “a better informed Lebanese citizen.” For he thinks it’s truly enlightening to “understand how Lebanon is ruled and by which families and what each generation of those families did.”

Students’ responses to the various questions asked in preparation for this article showed clear appreciation of the vast and beneficial information included in this course and the professor’s wide knowledge on the topic, and hence recommended it to all their colleagues at LAU. To Danial, it was mind opening: “I recommend this course to be taken by every student who is willing to be at least knowledgeable of what is going on around him”! Their answers seem to echo the inspiring words of Lord Acton, an English writer and historian, who stated that: “History is not a burden on the memory, but an illumination of the soul”! 

Furthermore, they seem to agree that unless the Lebanese understand their history better and get to terms with all the drastic events that have occurred, they will never be able to move on to a brighter future, but instead, will be stuck in this vicious cycle of harmful misconceptions of the other, resentment, anger and fears—HST231 course is one good place to begin with.