Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)

Lebanese identities: between cities, nations and trans-nations

Lebanese identities: between cities, nations and trans-nations

Michael Humphrey


IN THIS ARTICLE, I DISCUSS the (re)constituting the ‘Lebanese diaspora.’ Our journeys and our presentations produce evidence of the existence of the Lebanese and their descendants in different parts of the world. Yet in what sense does the Lebanese diaspora exist? Does it exist by virtue of the historical fact of more than 100 years of emigration? Does it exist because of continuing personal ties and exchanges with Lebanon expressed by those millions of telephone calls, emails and visits home of so many different Lebanese? Does it also exist as a vital and complex network of global interrelationships forming a trans-formation? Does it exist largely as an imaginary homeland of nostalgic loss? Or is the very interest in diaspora being produced by the anxieties arising from the erosion of all identity in diverse nation-states in the face of globalizing processes?

In this article I explore the contemporary idea of diaspora as a product of large-scale migration and nation-state formation in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the past century emigration for economic or political reasons has resulted in cross-generational dispersal of people and introduced them into different societies and states whose own national trajectories have been distinct. The terms and conditions of national membership for migrants and their descendants have varied greatly for different generations of Lebanese emigrants across societies of North and South America, Australasia, Europe, and Africa. In the case of the societies of mass migration their experience in the 19th and most of the 20th centuries was assimilation while in the colonial and post-colonial states of Africa it was ethnic differentiation. I argue that the terms of participation of Lebanese immigrants in societies has been extremely important in shaping present interest in the ‘diaspora’ along with the crisis of the Lebanese nation-state itself and its renewal. (1)

The term diaspora has come into vogue in the last decade because it captures the ambiguities of contemporary social belonging. Diaspora refers to a form of social relations produced by the displacement from home. It implies a very conventional anthropological perspective on social life, the persistence of tradition (identity) despite its displacement from place of origin. It fits within the old dichotomy between tradition and modernity in which the anticipated loss of tradition is resisted. Yet current usage of the term includes not only the persistence of tradition (identity) as a product of collective resistance to cultural loss but also qualified acceptance by the host society. Diaspora identity is constituted against the national society out of a sense of loss and conditional belonging.

Today the use of diaspora refers to a sense of exile, the feeling of wanting to return home but being unable to because of exclusion by politics or history. One is made an outcast because of present need or fear, or because generational distance makes it impossible to find one’s way back home. But diaspora is not merely understood as banishment or being made an outcast from one’s home society but from all society. Its usage moves between the specificity of an historical experience to an existential condition. It is even used as a metaphor for the existential condition of post modernity to refer to uncertainty, displacement and fragmented identity. (2)

The contemporary use of the term Lebanese diaspora embraces all these different senses of exile. The ‘Lebanese diaspora’ and its present self-consciousness was brought into existence by the displacement of people by the Lebanese war. In their case the diasporic experience is the product of national disintegration and the destruction of social worlds and their experience of resettlement in migration. But alongside the ‘new’ war refugee communities are the ‘older’ Lebanese communities who experience the diaspora as a nostalgic sense of exile experienced as loss of culture and loss of social connections with the past. In addition, the diasporic identities of the ‘new’ and ‘old’ communities are being shaped by the corrosive effects of globalization which are accelerating the loss of cultural identity not just across generations hut within generations. The experience of social transience engendered by globalizing the processes makes all social and cultural renewal problematic. Social contexts everywhere are being eroded by the practices of flexible accumulation making social continuity as the basis for identity increasingly insecure. Postmodernity celebrates these experiences as ‘de-territorialisation,’ ‘hybridity’ and ‘exile.’ This is a world in which everything and everybody is being prised from their roots.

In thinking about the expression ‘Lebanese diaspora’ we need to negotiate these very different historical and metaphoric uses. One problem with the expression ‘Lebanese diaspora’ is that it is homogenizing. When used to refer to the resilience of tradition it conjures up a cultural essentialism, i.e., Lebanese ‘cultural survival’ across generations is an expression of their qualities as a people. Of course diaspora as an ‘imaginary transnational community’ is necessarily homogenizing, as is the ‘imagined community’ of the nation-state. However while diasporic imagining might be homogenizing the diaspora has not been formed by a singular process, are not culturally very similar. Nor do Lebanese diaspora communities conceive of the ‘imagined present’ or ‘past’ in the same way. The Lebanese emigrants who constitute the present diaspora are the product of quite different migrations with their own very distinct relationships to societies and to contemporary Lebanon. Some have been constituted through labor migration, others through trading activities, and others through flight as refugees from war and economic crisis in Lebanon. Moreover the societies in which they have become residents and/or citizens ranging from mass immigration societies, colonial societies, postcolonial societies and the former European colonial states now increasingly themselves countries of immigration, are very different.

Globalization is an important dimension of contemporary diaspora identity. The very possibility of diaspora identification has been enhanced by the technologies associated with space-time compression. For contemporary migrants this allows the possibility of close participation in social relations and nationalist politics at home. Middle East diasporas have involved themselves in nationalist politics since the Ottoman period but today diaspora politics takes place in a world where distance and time no longer attenuate communication and social identification. Previously distance had more effectively separated emigrants from the flux of ‘homeland’ politics and greatly restricted their capacity for participation, especially the possibilities of witnessing events and communicating personally with the people involved. The very globalizing processes that have displaced many migrants and refugees from their homelands now also allow a vital nationalist politics of identification and even participation at a distance. Global communications have created the capacity to produce and disseminate local culture globally through video, radio, television broadcasts and the Internet. These communications technologies create the possibility of projecting local diaspora realities–exile politics, cultural hybridity or national nostalgia–as an integral part of a transnational cultural identity. Thus in the Beirut press you can read about ‘racism’ towards Lebanese immigrants in Sydney.

Benedict Anderson (1992) describes the contemporary phenomenon of diaspora identification and mobilization as ‘long-distance nationalism.’ However he questions the morality of diaspora participation at a distance arguing that they can ‘live their real politics long-distance, without accountability.’ (3) These are not ‘true exiles’ waiting for victory to return home, Anderson argues, they are rather ’emigres who have no serious intention of going back home, which, as time passes, more and more serves as a phantom bedrock for an embattled metropolitan ethnic identity.’ (4) Despite its nonaccountability this long-distance nationalism is not transitory because, according to Anderson, it is anchored in metropolitan identity politics of the host society. For Anderson, diaspora nationalism suffers from what Bauman calls ‘optical morality’–one which diminishes with distance–and becomes a largely symbolic rather than moral belonging. (5)

What continued dispersal of people as diasporas and the emergence of new communications have done is to enlarge the sphere of the national and create a ‘transnational’ national space or a ‘deterritorialised nation-state.’ (6) But the political significance of the diaspora to homeland politics can vary enormously, depending on the relationship between the diaspora, homeland and the state. From the perspective of the state the (national) ‘diaspora’ may constitute a potential or actual extension of the national community. From the homeland the question of ‘accountability’ looks less important than the diaspora’s potential for identification and mobilization around causes ranging from the repatriation of savings to the willingness to vote in home elections or merely to perpetuate cultural knowledge and national culture (traditions, religious belief and language). The diaspora is regarded as an extended national domain i.e., President Aristide of Haiti has referred to Haitians living in the United States as the ‘tenth province of Haiti.’ (7)

Diaspora identification may derive from the desire of individuals to re-anchor their identity in social origins provoked by a sense of loss in the milieu of multiculturalism but it can also derive from the legacy of past and continuing personal suffering from actual participation in nationalist struggles. When diasporas have been created by displacement through state repression and war they often remain very active political constituencies with grievances against the state. In post-war situations of ‘democratization’ the transnational character of the nation has been formally acknowledged by actually enfranchising those in the diaspora, whether or not they intended to return after the election–i.e., U.N. sponsored elections or referendum on self-determination in Cambodia, Bosnia and East Timor.

Anderson’s argument that long-distance nationalism serves as a ‘phantom bedrock’ to re-anchor ’embattled metropolitan ethnic identity’ unnecessarily narrows the range of identification and attachment experienced in the diaspora. His formulation emphasizes the immigrant metropolitan experience of exclusion or marginalization as the primary source of identity. However it may be more accurate to understand long-distance nationalism as operating along a continuum in which metropolitan life and ethnic identity largely coincide at one end and diverge at the other. The divergence between the concerns of daily life–working, bring up a family, children’s school work, etc.–and intensive identification with national politics and the rhythm of life lived elsewhere is made possible through new communications technologies. The internet and television allows life to be lived in two places at once and for either location to dominate an individual’s concerns.

So what constitutes the Lebanese diaspora? Is there a Lebanese diaspora nostalgic for home? Do those who identify as Lebanese in the diaspora share the same imagined homeland? Is the idea of the concept of the Lebanese diaspora just too historically, culturally and politically diverse to be of much use? To what extent does diaspora identity continue to shape by transnational nationalist politics after the war?

In the next section I outline the historical formation of the modern Lebanese diaspora by contrasting Lebanese ‘ethnicities’ in different societies. By ‘ethnicities’ I mean the cultural differentiation of groups within nations, especially the constitution of collective identities against the national. I then explore the theoretical significance of the division of ‘old’ and ‘new’ communities in situating the contemporary Lebanese diaspora in the wider impact of globalization.


Lebanese have been emigrating for over 120 years to very different kinds of societies with distinct terms of social and political participation. These can be broadly characterized as emigration to:

* immigration societies with the premise of assimilation.

* colonial and postcolonial states with the premise of non-assimilation.

* colonizer societies with the premise of assimilation.

In this essay I briefly compare the Lebanese experience in the Americas (Argentina), West Africa (Cote d’Ivoire) and Australia to demonstrate the specificity of Lebanese ethnicity in the diaspora and their relationship to the homeland.

Historically the Lebanese diaspora has been formed by the two large periods of mass migration. Firstly between 1898-1914 when some 100,000 emigrated from Lebanon and secondly between 1975-1990 when some 274,000 emigrated. In between the ebb and flow of emigration and remigration has continued.

Americas: Argentina

Modern Lebanese emigration began in the 19th century well before the French Mandate of Lebanon and the creation of Lebanon as an independent state. In the Americas the terms originally used to describe them ‘Syro-Lebanese’ in North America and ‘Turcos’ in South America are evidence of this pre-national identification. These terms referred to their cultural and political origin–immigrants from an Ottoman Turkish province. The participation by the Lebanese in mass migration at the turn of the century was phenomenal. By 1914 emigration was running at around 15,000-20,000 a year. It was estimated that around 100,000 Lebanese or one quarter of the entire population was abroad. (8) By 1926 the number of Syro-Lebanese in the largest states in the Americas were 165,654 in the United States, 162,178 in Brazil and 148,270 in Argentina. (9)

This early period of emigration is usually characterized as being the product of Ottoman religious persecution. However this account fits more with the emerging Lebanese nationalist project and history than with the actual historical complexity of this emigration. Initially the Ottomans had prohibited emigration but were subsequently persuaded to allow it because of the economic benefits of remittances. (10) While predominantly Maronite and Orthodox Christian there were significant numbers of Shi’i, Sunni, Alawi and Jewish immigrants before 1914. Moreover more than one third of all Ottoman emigrants returned home. (11) It was during the French Mandate that the Syro-Lebanese immigrant communities began to distinguish themselves nationally primarily on the basis of sect. In Argentina the Maronite Catholics overwhelmingly identified as Lebanese and Greek Orthodox as Syrian. This sectarian division was sharpened by the long-distance nationalist politics promoted during the Mandate period through the campaign for the registration of Lebanese nationality in French consulates. (12) This was the era when the fate of minorities was decided and those who failed to secure a state of their own were offered Minority Treaties guaranteed by the League of Nations. (13)

There was another dimension to the sectarian and national differentiation in the Syro-Lebanese communities which supports Anderson’s point about long-distance nationalism being as much to do with ‘ethnic politics’ in the host society as nationalist identification back home. In Argentina the Turcos were a stigmatized immigrant group within a strongly assimilationist national culture. The Syrians and Lebanese shared the common experience of settlement, racism and commerce. Many had first established themselves as petty traders on the margins of Argentine society often on the frontiers and their commercial success was generally resented. This pattern of petty commerce was a common success; they sought social respectability through upward mobility and at the same time sought to distance themselves from the stigmatized traders.

In order to demonstrate their respectability and assimilation as Argentines the upwardly mobile set up ethnic organizations to perform a supervisory role over the conduct of ‘their communities.’ (14) As the Argentine state, in line with the U.S. and Canada, because more and more discriminating over the racialized and politicized ‘ideal’ citizen immigrant communities responded by policing their own. Ethnic organizations such as the ‘Patronato Sirio-Libanes’ assumed the role of guardians of the community reputation, providers of charity and go-betweens with government agencies, especially immigration authorities. The issue of illegal immigration was a major concern because of its impact on the community standing. In 1928 the Patronato, seeking to influence government attitudes towards Sirio-Libanes assumed the role of guardians of the community reputation, providers of charity and go-betweens with government agencies, especially immigration authorities. The issue of illegal immigration was a major concern because of its impact of the community standing. In 1928 the Patronato sought to influence government attitudes towards Sirio-Libanes immigration by securing as their honorary president as the President of Argentina, Hipolito Yrigoyen. They hoped thereby to secure an annulment of a foreign ministry directive urging Argentine consulates not to grant visas to Sirio-Libanes. (15) One Argentine Lebanese community paper in 1936 writes about ‘Arab Assimilation’ assuring readers that ‘the Syrian-Lebanese community has not isolated itself and does not constitute a danger to the Argentine nation.’ (16) In Argentina during the 1920s and 1930s the differentiation between Syrian and Lebanese articulated a long-distance nationalism which was about the ethnic distance of groups from assimilation.

Today in the provincial cities of the north the Syrian and Lebanese ethnic distinction and rivalry persists but is now primarily a local and not nationwide phenomenon. Their sense of ethnic devaluation is not the product of recent destabilization of ethnic respectability by the arrival of Lebanese civil war refugees as in other countries but their awareness of the vulnerability of all ‘difference’ in nationalist politics. These are third and fourth generation communities who in many ways still seek recognition as full citizens. They are still referred to by the historically obsolete names, ‘Turcos’–subjects of the Ottoman Turkish Empire–which had originally pejoratively marked them as different when their parents and grandparents had first arrived. In 1976 on the anniversary of the Avellanda Immigration Law Resolution 5675 “A Tribute to Arab Immigration” finally acknowledged, after 100 years the contributions of Arab immigrants to national development and prosperity. In Tucuman this amounted to a few octogenarian Lebanese and Syrian Argentines receiving certificates of good citizenship!

But one event in Tucaman captured the ambivalence of all ethnicity in Argentina. This was the dedication by the Union Cultural Argentino Libanesa (UCAL) of a monument to the Phoenicians on a small piece of land donated by the local newspaper La Gaceta. The monument celebrated the Lebanese contribution to ‘world civilization’ characterized by the creation of the alphabet in 1300 B.C. The pamphlet published to commemorate the unveiling of the monument stated that the alphabet was ‘the most important creation of humanity to transmit ideas.’ Here the Argentine Lebanese of Tucuman were claiming they had contributed ‘high’ cultural capital. This claim echoes Sarmiento’s belief expressed in his treatise ‘Civilisation or Barbarism’ (1889) that only through European migration could Argentine rejuvenate itself. (17) In practice the Lebanese and Syrians had been stigmatized and declared unwanted immigrants by the late 1920s. What the erection of the monument laid claim to was the ethnic recognition the Lebanese in Tucuman still felt they had been denied, despite their elders’ diplomas certifying their good citizenship in 1976.

The experience of the Lebanese and other immigrant communities in Argentina highlights the very different terms under which earlier migrants and their descendants were forged as national citizens. Argentina was always a strongly assimilationist state, but never more so than when under military dictatorship. Even those who had achieved wealth, respectability and political patronage had no defenses against the arbitrary power of the military in their ‘sacred’ war for the Nation in the 70’s and 80’s. The politics of the ‘Dirty War’ in Argentina brutally reinforced the fact that all ‘other’ identities had to be subordinated to the Argentine version of ‘good citizen’ determined by the military. The ideal citizen was apolitical, individualistic, middle class, consumerist and nation-fearing. Even the Argentine Lebanese elite, amongst the most respectable, wealthy and assimilated, found that they could not protect themselves from the ruthlessness of national renewal under the Argentine military. The honorary Argentine Lebanese consul’s daughter in Tucaman became one of the ‘disappeared’ in the late 1970’s, one of the more than 30,000 arbitrarily eliminated for their real or imagined transgressions of the Nation.

West Africa: Cote d’Ivoire

In his study of the Lebanese communities in Cote d’Ivoire the major social division Chris Bierwirth identifies are the established families, the durables and the newcomers, the nouveaux. This division refers to those families who established themselves in French colonial Cote d’Ivoire and those who have arrived in the post-1975 Lebanese civil war period. The Lebanese durable, who began arriving around 1920 during the French colonial era were a ‘hyphen,’ neither African nor European colonial society.’ (18) The socially marginal status of the Lebanese was reinforced by their role in business which set them apart as a commercial group and in some cases plantation labor. (19) Originally their marginality related to their position in the hierarchy of colonial society. They intentionally preserved their status as an ethnic community to maintain their social status below the French colonizer but above the colonized African. Now their ethnic marginality relates to their political position as long resident non-citizens. They are generally economically privileged, yet politically vulnerable. Even the 10 percent who have acquired Ivorian citizenship are considered foreigners by the Ivorian originaires.

The Lebanese are a small community in Cote d’Ivoire but the actual size is a matter of speculation and sensitivity. Because the Lebanese are often targeted as scapegoats for economic crises there is a tendency either to inflate to deflate their numbers; some feel there is greater protection in larger numbers others in smaller numbers. The total estimated is at between 60,000 and 70,000. (20) However the ethnicity of the Lebanese is defined by their marginality and by the kinship networks which formed the basis of recruitment and economic opportunity. (21) Distinctively between 80-90 percent of Lebanese-Ivorians are Shi’i. Most of these families originate from Southern Lebanon and are based on clans; ‘Ezzedines from Dair Qanun an-Nahr, Fakhrys and Bilals from Zrariyah, Omais from Sai’ida, Jabers and Yassines from Nabatiyah.’ (22) They also tended to concentrate in particular locations although the majority of the diaspora is now concentrated in Abidjan. In addition to continuing but small migration from Lebanon there have been larger regional migrations of second and third generation Lebanese from West African countries because of war or trade laws restricting Lebanese enterprise. (23)

It is the historically negotiated position of their acceptance as a business class in Cote d’Ivoire that produces the cleavage between the durables and nouveax. Sect, which is frequently the source of division amongst other immigrant communities, is played down as source of difference and conflict. Inter-confessional marriage and inter-confessional aid are expressions of social affinity. The durable refers to the third generation families who in some eases, have succeeded in moving from trade into manufacturing. Their careful attention to patronage and protection by African politicians however is always vulnerable to changes in power. This makes their relationship to the nouveaux a source of constant tension. When the media scapegoats the nouveaux as the Lebanese menace publishing the names and pictures of miscreants accusing them of ‘tax evasion’ (greed) the durables are tarred with the same brush. On occasion this scapegoating has led to popular rioting and looting of their businesses without police intervening to prevent it. (24)

In Cote d’Ivoire and other West African states the durable ought to hold onto their economic role by seeking accommodations with political power in the postcolonial state. The Lebanese communities have sought to protect their interests by supporting political elites. Often this has taken place through community organizations. For example, in Cote d’Ivoire the peak community organization is the ULMCI (Union Libanaise Mondiale en Cote d’Ivoire), a chapter of the international ULM (Union Libanaise Mondiale). Their vulnerability has produced a conservative politics in which the interests of a political elite are served while at the same time always being vulnerable to popular vengeance.


As in the Americas the Lebanese first arrived in Australia in the late 19th century and were largely Christians from Maronite Catholic and Greek Orthodox background. They also assumed a similar position on the economic margins as petty traders, were referred to as ‘Syrian,’ and were often resented for their success. In Australia their Ottoman imperial origin meant they were classified as Asiatic and consequently were kept under close surveillance by local police who were required to report on their activities. (25) The significance of their classification was found in the development of the racialized immigration policy of the day. In the 1880s Chinese exclusion acts were introduced almost simultaneously in the U.S., Canada and Australia. The introduction of immigration policies in settler societies reveals its significance in shaping national identity and composition. In Australia these exclusionary policies of ‘purification’ culminated in an attempt to repatriate all non-White labor to achieve ‘White Australia’ at Federation, the birth of the nation as an independent state from Britain in 1901.

The Lebanese were classified as Asiatic. On the white/black continuum the greater the color the greater the distance from citizenship. The Lebanese were fitted into this spectrum on the cusp of Europeaness which meant potential for full assimilation. In order to achieve acceptance as citizens they sought to have themselves officially recognized as European. To achieve this they had to challenge prejudices about the occupation of petty traders who were described in parliamentary debates as neither ‘honest or productive.’ (26) The Lebanese argued that they were from the ‘Semitic branch of the Caucasian race.’ (27) One William Abourizk had earlier tried to persuade the Australian Prime Minister of the affinity of ‘Syrian’ culture. He wrote, ‘Syrians are Caucasians and they are a white race as much as the English. Their looks, habits, customs, religion, blood … are those of European, but they are more intelligent.’ (28) It was not until 1920 that they were accepted as non-Asians and therefore eligible for citizenship.

Lebanese immigration to Australia can be divided into three periods: the early period 1880-1946; the mass migration period 1947-1974; and the post war period from 1975. The Lebanese born population grew from 1886 in 1947, 24,218 in 1971, 49,617 in 1981. (29) What is immediately obvious in these statistics is the small number of Lebanese that arrived in the early period and even during the mass migration period and the doubling of the Lebanese born population within four years after 1975. The distinction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ communities was that the former were more cohesive, recruited largely through chain migration over decades and overwhelmingly Christian, especially Maronite and Orthodox. The social character of these communities was well reflected in the village community associations and churches. The most prominent leaders of the community were successful businessmen and these became presidents of the Australian Lebanese Association which had formed in 1949 soon after Lebanese independence. In Australia, Lebanese identity before 1940 was largely familial and communal before 1940 and became national and communal after 1947.

After post 1975, the influx of more than 20,000 civil war refugees who were largely poor, sometimes destitute and over half Muslim, transformed the character of the Lebanese community in Australia, especially in Sydney where 75 percent of the Lebanese born population were concentrated. Suddenly an overwhelmingly Christian Lebanese community was confronted with new Muslim immigrants and sectarian identity polarized by the war. The older community regretted what they saw as the passing of the old values. As one prominent businessman commented ‘in those days, elders worked their guts out to uplift the Lebanese image and support Lebanon. They sacrificed time, money … for no personal interests, prestige and status. These days things have changed. Leaders are motivated by personal interests, prestige and status. The “community” is deeply divided and leaderless.’ (30)

The Lebanese communal identities carefully negotiated over a century suddenly confronted an external and internal politicization. Externally the new communities introduced the concerns of the war and internally competition between sect communities was intensified in the context of the new politics of multiculturalism. The social expression of this new identity politics was the proliferation of Lebanese community associations to the peak of around 250 largely based on village community associations. The provision of welfare services and government grants became the focus of intra-Lebanese ethnic competition. Multiculturalism opened up a new arena for party politics and petty patronage which the Lebanese were quick to learn and exploit. The extensive media coverage of the war formed the backdrop against which local Lebanese affairs were played out. The other factor that politicized ethnic differences was the unemployment predicament of many of these war refugees. From 1980 onwards the Lebanese born have experienced consistently high levels of unemployment, around three to four times the national average. The issue of Lebanese unemployment became a matter of public policy. From the perspective of the Department of Immigration unemployment was looked at as a cultural attribute and something to inform immigration selection about who were the most desirable migrants–i.e., who would be the least burden on the welfare purse. (31)

With the end of the Lebanese war by 1990, transnational nationalist issues gradually receded from Lebanese community politics. The community did not remain focused on the national project of Lebanese during the post-war reconstruction and reconciliation. The community identification with sect declined as the problems around making a life in Australia dominated. Nevertheless the legacy of the war in the form of second generation adolescent unemployment in industrially depressed western Sydney and some criminality could be anticipated. (32) Lebanese ethnicity was once again primarily being shaped internally by ethnic differentiation measured by distance from assimilation.

The other dimension of the 1990s was the way external political events like the Gulf War and to some extent the Israeli/Palestinian conflict articulated broader Arab and Muslim identification. However this was not usually as a trans-national Arab or Muslim political community but one responding to media vilification and discrimination through collective stereotyping of Arabs and/or Muslims. Often the distinctions between Arab and Muslim were very blurred and politically undirected, except negatively. Such media reporting essentially used local Arab/Muslim immigrant communities as a context to tell a story often directed at the potential ‘enemy within.’ Consequently external events introduced via the media have come to play an ongoing impetus for scrutinizing the ‘internal’ racialized borders (which citizens are really to be trusted), means to constantly open up the question of entitlement and citizenship of different ‘ethnic’ groups. Australian Lebanese engagement with the media becomes a way to include or exclude oneself from the mediated categories for complex reasons.

The response to media representations reveals the political inequality in the capacity of immigrants to define self-other identity. In multicultural societies the valency of cultural difference is not stable. The Lebanese, or different sections of the community, cannot fix the coordinates of their identity. Neither can they easily opt out of the labeling process ‘to become the invisible against which others’ visibility is measures.’ (33) Thus the most recent attempts in Sydney to recruit Lebanese community ‘leaders’ to help police ethnic boundaries and respectability by helping to prevent crime amongst its second generation teenage youth is a precarious project because of the vulnerability of all ‘ethnicity.’ In fact the cooperation of community leaders with NSW state government in this project was as much to recover the ‘traditional’ authority they had already lost rather than to enforce existing conservative patriarchal values.


A recurrent theme in the situations of current Lebanese emigration is the relationship between old and new communities in societies. In the Lebanese case it refers to the relationship between old established communities and the post 1975 Lebanese war emigrants. The tension in the relationship between old and new communities reveals the extent to which ethnic difference remains a status marker within the host society and a means to distance Lebanese of any generation from full citizenship. Interestingly this applies to mass immigration societies such as Australia as well as postcolonial societies such as Cote d’Ivoire. Even in mass immigration societies such as Argentina which received very few post 1975 Lebanese immigrants, the contingency of ethnic status has been expressed through the vulnerability of ethnic difference in the periods of ultra–nationalist military dictatorship where, in the name of the national unity, all difference is potentially made subversive. The vulnerability of and contingency of ethnic difference in securing social valuation, stratification and citizenship tells us something more broadly about contemporary migration, cultural identity and the nation-state. The history of the Lebanese experience of becoming citizens of nation-states, including Lebanon itself, highlights the changing social parameters of membership (and citizenship) in different states. The politics of (ethnic) identity and racism suggests that while globalization is engendering contemporary diasporas through economic displacement on the one hand it is promoting the erosion of citizenship on the other. This involves an intensification of exclusionary politics implemented at the border and internally within national societies.

The use of the term ‘diaspora’ here refers to the re-constitution of ‘Lebaneseness’ across generations at a very particular time historically. Lebanese ‘ethnicities’ are not now being shaped by colonization or decolonization in which the modern nation-state was either being constructed through colonial/capitalist expansion or through independence struggles but during an era of globalization when the very viability and form of the nation-state is under siege. This includes both the societies as well as Lebanon itself after the experience of war and project of national renewal. In fact pluralization and ethnic differentiation in nation-states must be understood as part of the contemporary transformation of national communities. (34) The shifting temporal-spatial configurations of power and wealth are changing the relative significance of the city and nation-state as sites of long-term cross-generational-social inclusion. Ethnic differentiation, and the diasporic remembering it provokes in contemporary Lebanese communities, is thus a complex expression of the contingency of belonging to a particular nation-state, even after several generations, and the corrosive experience of globalizing processes on all social relationships and valuation. As Rosaldo points out, in immigrant societies cultural differentiation has been a measure of the distance from full citizenship. (35) In other words, globalization contributes to social displacement in families, in the workplace, in cities and also of national populations through economic crisis or/and wars. The phenomenon of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in contemporary civil war is a radical expression of displacement designed to evict and detach people from their pasts.

In the context of globalization the diasporic responses of ‘old’ and ‘new’ communities are very different. Those individuals and families still nurturing a kinship and identification with a Lebanese heritage as opposed to those who have assimilated to the extent of abandoning any Lebanese connection, seek to restore Lebanese identity genealogically through family memory retrieved in stories, mementos and official archives. Extremely impressive examples of the historical recovery of Lebanese immigrant pasts in Australia were presented at a recent Watan National Forum in Sydney–they included detailed accounts of hawking, the recovery of the village of Kousba in migration in the form of history, detailed Lebanese genealogies, their social networks and cultural objects. But only ‘old’ communities can reconstruct an historical genealogy in the host society and tell a story about their accomplishments and recognition. Only they have the accumulated cultural capital that can recover identity through kinship and place (family name and village), a very traditional Lebanese strategy of identification, having a place in the world.

The ‘new’ communities by contrast can only establish a connection with this past through their connection with kinship or community (village or sect) ties. Their cultural connection does not however guarantee any particular standing or access. Moreover their very newness is often seen as threatening or ‘polluting’ by the established (old) communities whose investments in ethnic identification are often primarily focused on preserving an achieved ethnic status and respectability in multicultural societies. The ethnic identification of ‘new’ communities is shaped by the contingencies of their cultural capital (education, employment prospects, community ties, age, and health) and the politicization of their social marginality as new or recent migrants. Their ‘ethnicity’ marks them negatively as different and distanced from assimilation. In the context of cultural pluralization produced by migration and by social stratification, ethnicity remains a social marker relative to other ethnicities subordinated to national identities. (36)

The ambivalent relations between ‘old’ and ‘new’ communities highlight the fragility of ethnicity as identity and valuation in societies, whether in societies of mass immigration or postcolonial ones. It highlights the contingencies of citizenship in different kinds of society and not just postcolonial ones. The nation-state of post-modernity is in fact much less inclusive. Many postcolonial states are being pared down to minimalist institutional and political functions forcing more and more people to fend for themselves. Those who are best equipped to do so such as the Lebanese commercial communities in West Africa then find they become targets of abuse and even violence as the population is manipulated to view them as the cause of their misery. In post-modern/post-industrial states the dialogue is between the successful ‘assimilation’ of ‘old’ migrants and the marginality of ‘new’ migrants in the context of the tightening of citizenship entitlements politically expressed in the intensification of immigration selection. The most restricted are the illegal migrants and then those granted temporary residence status under the increasingly restrictive immigration and refugee policies.

Yet the ‘old’ communities in telling their history are also describing their journey which is invariably about their self-transformation, their successful assimilation. In the Watan conference, I was struck by the comment of an old Druze who had become intensely involved in recovering Lebanese genealogies and histories in Australia. Listening to the very strident comments of younger writers about their experience of discrimination and racism in contemporary suburban Australia he replied quietly, “you just don’t know how hard it was.” He had omitted his experiences of racism from his presentation while the younger presenters of the ‘new’ communities were largely concerned with the issue of racism. Identity was not to be located in the family or achievement (progress towards middle class respectability) but in the assertion of victimhood; more accurately in their experience of the continuing use of cultural difference to differentiate citizenship and entitlement. This new currency of the politics of identity as victim is very postmodern in character. It is the resort to suffering to establish the authenticity of claims and therefore rights. However its reference is often very fluid, unlike the genealogy of tradition, shifting between different level ethnicities between for example, Sunni Muslim, Lebanese, Muslim and/or Arab. The specificity of these identities becomes very existential and contingent on the dramatic nexus of nomadic media events and images unanchored from historical and social contexts.

Identity politics of the ‘new’ communities clash with the strategy of the older community of protecting one’s name by celebrating achievement but being quiet on suffering–no complaints! Based on their historical experience of assimilation into the ‘modern’ nation-state the ‘old’ communities are wary of negative exposure fearing the collective devaluation of the whole category.

If we understand Lebanese ethnicity as constituted through specific political and social relationships to the national what about the Lebanese diaspora? Does the ‘Lebanese diaspora’ refer to an identity as trans-nation within some global schema of ranking and entitlement? Firstly, it is impossible to homogenize the contemporary Lebanese diaspora as a ‘cultural’ or ‘political’ community. Perhaps it could be imagined that it once was in the 1920s and 1930s during the creation of the Lebanese nation-state. At that stage the diaspora was connected through the personal chains of migration between national territories not yet systematically regulated by passports and border controls. (37) Although they arrived with well-defined communal identities formed in the multi-religious (and hierarchical) Ottoman order in Latin America they rarely became distinguished in the eyes of the host society by the national identities they subsequently took on. Thus in Argentina they remained ‘Turcos’ and never really distinguished as ‘Lebanese’ or ‘Syrian’ in origin, let alone Maronite Catholic or Greek Orthodox.

It was the Lebanese war that revitalized diasporic identification, however this was primarily along sectarian/communal rather than national lines. The impact of the ‘new’ (displaced) communities in societies revived the cultural relevance of sectarian differences. Because the meaning of the war remains politically unresolved and the Lebanese state yet to be reformed and reconciled as promised in the Ta’if agreement diasporic identification remains primarily communal. Yet the diaspora does represent a loose kinship network which has provided a conduit for limited global mobility between different Lebanese diaspora communities. The Lebanese trans-nation provides a limited means to move between national spaces stratified as a hierarchy of desirable national citizenships. The contemporary diaspora is not, however, a political community in exile mobilized by trans-national nationalism and waiting to return home.

The personal familial diaspora networks create potential links for mobility rather than guaranteed ones. Even in Australia where the family reunion migration category remains high (around 60 percent) there are very considerable barriers to bringing dependent kin, especially aged parents. (38) Even patronage and long-term relationships between communities and their Australian parliamentary representatives have difficulty securing any special considerations based on long term community electoral loyalty. (39) In other words, the benefits of citizenship (welfare entitlements, portability of pensions, public health benefits) are becoming less and less transferable to non-citizen kin.

Generally the cultural capital of families or communities with transnational connections cannot compete with the benefits or disadvantages conferred by citizenship. The currency of kinship as opposed to passports is usually limited, with the former creating the expectation and the latter deciding the reality. The trans-nation exists across state borders which are exclusionary: hence the attempts by refugees to erase all national markers and reduce oneself to ‘pure humanity’ in order to gain citizenship. ‘The persistently disqualifying, rights-limiting character of a passport as a marker of nationality has led to the growing phenomenon today of people destroying their documents in a desperate attempt to gain access, via the asylum process, to countries that have otherwise closed off access to people of their nationality.’ (40)

Despite the suggestion that globalization has ushered in a market place for everything this is not true in relation to migration. The nation-state, preoccupied with surveillance to define national sovereignty and thereby limit entitlement, has intensified the scrutiny of individuals. Yet there is an ambiguity about regulation and surveillance of movement of workers as opposed to consumers. The internationally mobile consumer, the tourist, is welcomed in the new service economy while the internationally mobile worker, the migrant, is very restricted. The state and corporate world collaborate in a new form of surveillance to encourage mobility of consumers informed by panoptic sorts of matched up personal data on credit, criminality and citizenship. Thus in Australia last year more than four million tourists passed through immigration controls in contrast to around 80,000 migrants. When scrutinized at the border any kinship connections with citizens become a cause for suspicion will they overstay, will they work on a non-working visa? (41)

Ironically at the same time as an individual identification has been intensified by machine readable passports and corporate guarantees of credit-worthiness via credit cards making each individual the border, there is a growth in racism with the use of visible bodily markers to determine entitlement. This arises from the increased value of citizenship and its greater policing. This is particularly evident in Europe where freeing up internal national borders has seen a heightened attentiveness to racial distinctions. ‘If travelers are not routinely required to produce documents demonstrating their nationality, and the continent is perceived by many of its inhabitants, however anachronistically, as “white,” visible markers thought to signal membership grow in importance as reasons for suspecting that a person may be liable to movement controls as a non-national of the Community’s member states. Skin color, hair, and the other stigmata of racial identity unavoidably move to the fore as a means of identifying outsiders.’ (42)

The point is that the Lebanese diaspora and ethnicity is being shaped by the increasing restrictions on citizenship, both in their ability to preserve achieved ethnic valuation in particular societies and their capacity to confer the rights of achieved citizenship on other kin. However there is another change which may introduce new parameters to the diaspora and the values of kinship. Torpey suggests that we may well be witnessing a decline in state monopoly over the legitimate means of movement. Alongside state regulation is the growth of private regulation rooted in private ownership and private security (gated suburbs). In this world, passports give way to money as the most relevant form of identification. This constitutes a post-national membership probably most developed in the metropolises of the South, including Beirut.


Diaspora is a very homogenizing term that overstates the resemblances and mutual interests of Lebanese across generations, or even their contemporary identification with a shared national story. Lebanese ethnicities are defined primarily in relation to the states of which they are a part and the primary schism there is shaped by the relationship between ‘old’ and ‘new’ communities. The dynamic between the old and new tells a variety of stories-historical differences in migration patterns, sectarian identity and assimilation, changing currency of cultural capital–amongst which is the conditionality of membership in national societies formerly shaped under modernity and now under post-modernity. By this I mean the terms and conditions under which migrants become part of societies has changed. In mass migration societies, for example, incorporation previously meant radical cultural stripping and individualization whereas now incorporation in the multicultural city celebrates ethnicity as cosmopolitanism and diversity. However because of the vulnerability of ethnicity it is also potentially a source of collective devaluation. Even in the mass migration societies whose economic fortunes waned by the 1950s–i.e., Argentina, Uruguay and saw large scale Europe migration dry up ethnicity remained a source of casual stigmatization, reinforced during periods of aggressive nationalism under military rule.

In postcolonial societies where ethnicity was quite explicitly a measure of differentiated citizenship the Lebanese occupied marginal positions preserved by economic success and political alliances. Yet this has often proven to be very fragile and, as minority entrepreneurs, they have discovered that in the politics of the crowd they remain a vulnerable target of revenge for the poor and repressed as close by and accessible symbols of privilege and wealth. (43)

The other essential dimension of Lebanese diaspora identity is the longer-term impact of the Lebanese war on the future of Lebanon as a nation-state. The disastrous denouement of the war in the late ’80s with bitter intra-Christian and intra-Muslim fighting produced a large wave of emigrants, especially Christian Lebanese giving up on the future of Lebanon. The end of the war then brought about a rapid dispersal of population which was permanent. The political outcome has been the ‘communalization’ of the diaspora rather than its “Lebanisation.’ The argument that the war brought the country together in shared suffering is not true as far as its consequences in the diaspora are concerned. There certainly was during the war years a recovery of Lebanese identity across-generations and their mobilization in support of communities (usually local) back in a homeland many had never known. However the post war exodus, with the increasing departure of Christian (especially Maronite) communities, has fragmented the Lebanese diaspora into communalism, which in turn assumes the form of ethnicities in the host society. On occasions when bad press reconstitutes “Lebaneseness” as a collective national identity there is often a collective response about ‘racism’ and ‘stereotyping.’ Yet behind this is a diverse politics. The critic of racism is more often because of the defensive response ‘we are not all like that’ rather than ‘we want respect and rights.’ The defensive response seeks to protect oneself by demanding that all ethnic difference should be concealed if all it does is expose one to racism.

The impact of communalization of the diaspora is only extended by the failure of the Ta’if Accords to reconstruct and reconcile the Lebanese within a new moral community. The failure to implement policies intended to undermine confessionally based political power have curtailed that hope. The amnesty law on the one hand and the electoral law on the other consolidated communal constituencies rather than enlarging them to the provincial level as had been planned. The issue of the ‘Disappeared’ also symbolically and legally reinforces the failure to redeem the dead and missing of the war in a national project of renewal based on an inclusive, democratic and autonomous politics.

The Lebanese diaspora is not the Kurdish diaspora strongly motivated by the desire for autonomy or succession and return from exile, a nationalist movement for the liberation in which a wide range of international resources have been mobilized. It is not long-distance nationalism. For example, the European Court of Human Rights has been extensively used against the Turkish government in this activist politics of the diaspora. The Kurdish diaspora is motivated by return with its government in exile and its international public relations. The Lebanese diaspora is more a diaspora of dispersal in which the recovery of identity reflects the experience of cross-generational attrition in assimilating societies, the impact of globalization on the terms of participation under post-modernity, as well as the destructive and meaninglessness of a war that killed and dispersed without a redeeming peace. The recovery of the imaginary homeland for many Lebanese resembles the broader predicament of our times, social transience, fluid identities, and individual uncertainty.


(1.) The term ‘host society’ is used to distinguish between country of origin and country of immigration. While the term has been used for suggesting migrants and their descendants are merely ‘guests’–not full members or citizens–I use it here merely as a sociological convention. It is used here to refer to societies where Lebanese immigrants settled.

(2.) Ian Buruma. “The Cult of Exile,” The Australian Financial Review, Sydney, 2001.

(3.) Benedict Anderson, “Long-Distance Nationalism: World Capitalism and the Rise of Identity Politics,” Wertheim Lecture, CASA, University of Amsterdam, 1992, p. 12.

(4.) Ibid.

(5.) Zymaut Bauman, Postmodern Ethics (Oxford: Blackwells, 1993).

(6.) L. Basch, N. Schiller and C. Szanton-Blanc. Nations Unbound: Transnational Postcolonial Predicaments, and Deterritorialized Nation-States (Longhorne, PA.: Gordon & Breach, 1994).

(7.) Ibid.

(8.) K. Hashimoto. “Lebanese Population Movement 1920-1939” in A.H.N. Shehadi (ed.), Lebanese in the World: A Century of Emigration (London: The Centre for Lebanese Studies and I.B. Tauris, 1993), p. 105.

(9.) Charles Issawi. “The Historical Background of Lebanese Emigration, 1800-1914,” in Shehadi, p. 31.

(10.) Kemal Karpat, “The Ottoman Emigration to America 1860-1914,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 17, 1985, p. 188.

(11.) Michael Humphrey, “Ethnic History, Nationalism and Transnationalism in Argentine Arab and Jewish Cultures,” Immigrants and Minorities, Special Issue on Arab and Jewish Immigrants in the Latin America, 16:167-88, 1997, p. 169.

(12.) Hashimoto, p. 99.

(13.) J. Torpey, The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 127.

(14.) Humphrey, p. 172.

(15.) I. Klich, “Arab-Jewish Immigrants in Latin America,” Immigrants and Minorities, 16: 1-37, p. 5.

(16.) Margarita Mugnos de Escudero, “Asimilaciondel Arabe al Ambiete,” Numeroc Unico, San Juan 1936.

(17.) Domingo F. Sarmiento, Civilizacion y Barbarie, Felix Lajoune (ed.), Buenos Aries, 1889.

(18.) Chris Bierwirth, “The Lebanese communities of Cote D’Ivoire,” African Affairs 98: 79-99, 1998, p. 79.

(19.) D. Bigo, “The Lebanese Community in the Ivory Coast: A Nonnative Network of Power?” in Shehadi, pp. 509-530.

(20.) Bierwirth, p. 85.

(21.) Fuad I. Khuri, “Kinship, Emigration and Trade Partnership Among the Lebanese of West Africa,” Africa, XXXV (4), 1965, pp. 385-395.

(22.) Bierwirth, p. 86.

(23.) Ibid: p. 87.

(24.) Bigo, p. 528.

(25.) Anne Mansour in her work on the Lebanese in 19th century Queensland points out that ironically, it was because of their status as Asiatics that they turn up in public records that provide an historical record of their lives in different towns.

(26.) Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 1, 9 July 1903, p. 1939.

(27.) A.T. Yarwood, Asian Migration to Australia: the Background to Exclusion, 1896-1923 (Parkville: University of Melbourne Press, 1964), p. 141.

(28.) Ibid.

(29.) Australian Bureau of Statistics (cumulative).

(30.) Michael Humphrey, “Sectarianism and the Politics of Identity, ” p. 457.

(31.) Humphrey, “Family, Work and Unemployment: A Study of Lebanese Settlement in Sydney,” (Canberra: Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Australian Government Publishing Service, 1984); Humphrey, “Racism and Unemployment Amongst Lebanese,” Seminar Proceedings of Sydney, The Arabic Community: Realities and Challenges (Sydney: The Arabic Welfare Inter-Agency, 1986).

(32.) Humphrey, Family, Work and Unemployment.

(33.) Brackette Williams, “A Class Act: Anthropology and the Race to Nation Across Ethnic Terrain,” Annual Review of Anthropology, 18, 1989, pp. 410-444.

(34.) Michael Humphrey, “Civil War, Identity and Globalisation,” New Formations, 31: 67-82, 1997.

(35.) Renato Rosaldo, Culture and truth (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), p. 218.

(36.) Williams, p. 429.

(37.) Torpey.

(38.) Sponsors are required to pay a guarantee of $64,000 and it can take yeas to actually get accepted. The present waiting list is around 2000 grandparents and parents.

(39.) Ruddock favor Lebanese, i.e., Controversy over his readiness to grant SLA members who fled to Israel refugee status in Australia.

(40.) Torpey, p. 155.

(41.) In Australia it is extremely difficult for individuals from the South to get a tourist visa to visit family in Australia for fear of them overstaying. A watch list of countries exists created on the basis of statistics on who overstays most often.

(42.) Torpey, p. 155.

(43.) For example,. Asian businesses in Uganda in the 1970s and 1980; Chinese businesses in Indonesia in the 1990s; and Korean businesses in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riot.

Michael Humphrey is with the School of Sociology, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Association of Arab-American University Graduates and Institute of Arab Studies

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group