a memoir

On September 1, 1920, the French high commissioner, General Gouraud, proclaimed from the porch of his official residence in Beirut the birth of the state of Greater Lebanon. Soon the French would draw further arbitrary borders to divide their newly won domains in neighboring Syria. By the time the colonial powers finished, a territory previously divided only by the geography of mountains, rivers, and valleys was transformed into a puzzle of political divisions represented by five states of uncertain identity: Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Transjordan.

Once a gateway to Damascus and Jerusalem, Sidon and Haifa, Marjayoun was now part of Lebanon, pitifully small and dominated by Maronite Catholics, aligned with the French. Its environs had been incorporated into other new nations. parts of the Houran were, for a time, two borders away. The new frontier between Lebanon and Palestine was eventually demarcated by a British and a French officer on horseback, who put a stake in the ground every two kilometers. Lost was the Hula Valley, an expanse long frequented by Marjayoun’s traders and landlords. Its rich farmland, with its lake and marshes, was now included in Palestine. (In 1947, the United Nations made it part of Israel. Marjayounis were never compensated for properties seized.)

Customs posts traced borders that defined the reach of the French in Syria and Lebanon, the British in Palestine. Trade routs were severed, landholdings partitioned. Towns like Quneitra, Haifa, and Jerusalem, where residents of Marjayoun had worked and visited for decades, became more distant.

Isber and the other Greek Orthodox in Marjayoun were more comfortable as Arabs–not only in language, but in customs, tradition, and history, still drawn from the Houran, where some Christians continued to live as Bedouin tribes. To some, they were more Arab than their Muslim neighbors. And, after World War I, memories of Mourad Gholmia’s hastily stitched flag remained resonant. Sympathy ran deep for Feisal and his ambitions for a greater Arab kingdom. All this irked the Maronites, who chanted at Marjayoun’s residents: O girl in the red skirt with the ruffled trim, the French are now governing, so let the anger kill you, O Orthodox!

The French divided as they conquered, favoring Catholics over Orthodox, Christians over Muslims, the countryside over the city, and minorities over majorities. While many Orthodox may have been skeptical of Maronites speaking on their behalf, Muslims were aghast at the notion of being ruled by a French overlord, a Christian one at that. Opposition among Muslims percolated–from gangs exploiting the prevailing lawlessness to insurgent bands fired by nationalism. Sectarian agitation had begun to rumble across the country. As each year passed, it deepened dangerously. One chronicler called it rare to see a man lacking either a French- or a German-made gun.

house of stone

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