Shaykh Ahmad 'Arif al-Zayn and others in a September 1927 issue of al-Irfan. Photo via Jadaliyya.

Included in the published proceedings of a 1979 conference at the American University of Beirut on "Intellectual Life in the Arab East, 1890-1939: Unexpected Dimension," is an essay by Tarif Khalidi on the Sidon-based early twentieth century journal
al-Irfan. "My interest in Jabal 'Amil," Khalidi wrote in his acknowledgments to the essay "owes most to al-Imam al-Sayyid Musa al-Sadr to whom this study is dedicated." And he ends his essay by writing: "The nahda of Jabal 'Amil as reflected in the magazine, is a subject worthy of thorough assessment This ought to be done soon, while the scholar can still interview living members of that fascinating generation." Below, an excerpt about the oppositional litterateurs of early twentieth century Jabal 'Amil.  

… attention should be paid to a vigorous literary and religious movement which flourished in Jabal ‘Amil in the mid to late thirties and crystallized around what is called ‘Usbat al-Adab al-’Amili, a literary fraternity that has yet to receive its due recognition in the history of modern Arabic literature and of the Nahda in general. This fraternity was first founded in Najaf, in the late twenties or early thirties, by a group of what one might call “angry young shaykhs” in revolt against the ‘ulama’ establishment…. 

The moving spirit behind it was al-Shaykh ‘Ali al-Zayn from Jibshit, a young Najaf-educated scholar and a noted wit. In May, 1937, Shaykh ‘Ali published a fraternity manifesto in al-'Irfan in which he set forth the basic principles of his group. Characterizing the atmosphere of his times as “feudal”, “reactionary” and “anti-democratic” (an early use of the Arabic word raj’i and a revival of the word dimuqrati), the Shaykh seemed to be declaring war on several fronts simultaneously. A theory of poetry and literary criticism was advanced because literature, in the view of this fraternity, was to become the chief vehicle of the political struggle against the ‘ulama’, the ruling landlords and the Mandate. The poetry of which the fraternity approved was defined as simple in diction and faithful to everyday reality. Thus, a fraternity member, ‘Abd al-Latif Sharara, made a scathing attack on the litterateurs of Jabal ‘Amil, ridiculing them for their descriptions of Europe as seen from “the cafes of Nabatiyyah” and arguing the the “power of passion” is essential for literary perfection. Poets taken to task for paying insufficient attention to the unity of the qasida, and for building their qasidas up, line by independent line. Poets are also criticized for dealing with theoretical subjects that can better be dealt with in essay form, or with antiquated subjects and in imitation of the style of Abu Tamman or al-Sayyid al-Himyari.   
The poetry unleashed by Shaykh ‘Ali and his fraternity was cast in certain philosophic mould which might be described as liberal sceptic. This masked a deeper political struggle against foreign domination, sectarianism and religious obscurantism, this last being especially note-worthy for our purposes in this study. The attack on the ‘ulama’, part of general onslaught on all men of religion, is made in the name of the higher principles of that religion. Several shaykh-members of his fraternity, claiming that they remained pious Muslims, “defrocked” themselves one after the other, causing an outcry in the ‘ulama’ establishment. The pride and joy of Shi’ite theology and law, the principle of itjihad itself, was ridiculed for having become an empty, chaotic and antiquated slogan. Genuine Islam must be continuously open to knowledge and to other Islamic sects. 

It has been suggested that the fraternity received some of its notions of literary criticism from the Arab literary clubs in North and South America. The suffocating environment of Najaf, however, must be judged an equally important cause. Moreover, conditions in Jabal ‘Amil inspired a poetic style and diction all their own. The introduction of certain ‘Amili colloquialisms into the poetry lent it great simplicity, beauty and repeatability. The hilarious anticlericalism of one poet drove an enraged ‘alim to issue a fatwa licensing his murder for unbelief (kufr). The fraternity had carried radicalism into the ‘ulama’ class.  

Tarif Khalidi, “Shaykh Ahmad ‘Arif Al-Zayn and al-‘Irfan,” in Intellectual Life in the Arab East, 1890–1939, ed. Marwan R. Buheiry (Beirut: American University of Beirut, Center for Arab and Middle East Studies, 1981), pp. 116-117.  



George Grosz, "The Communists Fall and Foreign Exchange Rises," 1919.
 via the Brooklyn Museum

In 1975 Edward Said wrote a short—but very sweet—piece on the breakout of civil war in Lebanon. The essay was originally published in a pamphlet entitled "Lebanon: Two Perspectives" by the Association of Arab-American University Graduates (AAUG) containing an just an essay each by Said and Leila Meo. Said's essay has never been collected in any of his many books, so it has been reproduced below for your reading pleasure.


Most attempts to describe modern Lebanon have now broken down, as has the country itself since the past spring. A certain amount of necessary disorder in Lebanon has always been assumed, even cherished, by the Lebanese and by experts on Lebanon the unlikely mix of dozens of political, religious, ideological, and social forces with as many theories and techniques for understanding or reconciling them has created a scheme of Lebanon based on its rational irrationality. For after its last civil war in 1958 Lebanon prospered unimaginably, and acquired a reputation for making the impossible work. Yet — and here the recent violence bears me out — there was no particular vision articulated, built upon, institutionalized. Instead the well-organized Phalanges, for instance, took a right-wing abstraction for its stand and drew Moslem Arab Lebanon out of the picture. But the Phalanges was doing no more than what the unwritten national pact of 1943 had hinted each self-proclaimed group do. And when private myths backed by private armies encountered each other in reality, bloodshed and anarchy followed. No coherence of vision, no Lebanese national consciousness, no clear foals or priorities stood in the way.    

There is tremendous waste now in Lebanon; the mood is national suicide. It is a direct consequence of the willed uncertainty Lebanon has cultivated since its independence. Yet every Arab and hordes of parasitic foreigners, have profited from the wanton freedom of its atmosphere. Syria and Israel, one as neighborly Arab and the other as a hostile state, have viewed Lebanon as to be pressured or invaded at will. Compared to the grayness of Israel and the other Arab States, Lebanon has spontaneity and an unframed charm. There were no actively abused minorities, no legislated nonpersons. Nevertheless its prosperity and its energetic hustle had no particular content to them; they could be done with as either a foreign patron or a local talker liked. What Lebanon represented, what nationally it stood for, remained an unasked question. Here and there a sensible vision of a pluralistic Lebanon emerged, but could not prevail. There was mind but no real will or body.  

The present fighting is not between two sides, one Christian, one Muslim, one right, one left, one inside patriot, one outside agitator, one good, one bad. Israeli pieties about Lebanon’s embattled Christians are fatuous hypocrisy since, aside from using Maronite fantasy to support Zionist exclusivity, Israel has shown comparable piety only for destroying the Arab realities of Palestine. There is no simple oppositions in Lebanon and no unitary front, just as there are no simple certainties over which people will fight. The crisis is a crisis of representation. No single group represents either a decisive majority of people and power or a decisive majority of ideas. The street fighter is not represented by the group or leader in whose name he fights, and vice versa. No party speaks for all the Christians, nor for all the partisans of Lebanese (as opposed to Arab) nationalism. Yet people take to the streets fighting, to see what can happen. A vicious way to explore and test, but in Lebanon very few know any better.  

Certainly the ruling class cannot tell the people what will happen; no such class in recent history has been so short0sighted and ignorant as this one. It has not even learned how to preserve itself, much less to conduct the country's affairs. Intellectuals have small credibility in Lebanon, not because they have no good ideas, but because that is all they have. The middle class in impotent, its education notwithstanding; having without even a peep abdicated its right to participate in the country, except for making the easiest money on earth, it is now shelved and frightened. The Palestinians in Lebanon have something to say, but only a handful will listen to them since Lebanon is not Palestine after all. Yet the idea of a pluralistic society advocated for Palestine will be intensified, no shaken by the Lebanese tragedy. The great mass of poor people, put hideously in relief by the vulgar spending within a few yards of them, endure but more and more frequently cross from the bidonville into the militant ranks.  

The crisis of representation is Lebanon’s own, of course, but there are other things involved in it too. Part of the fighting is about who will, and has a right to, speak for the Arab future, the metropolis or the rural village. This is a profound uncertainty reflected everywhere. Does metropolitan Cairo have the right to dictate the future with its Sinai deal, or do the villages, slums, camps have it, where the majority lives and suffers? Do traditional politicians speak or should a party? The older generation or a younger one? A valueless military-economic alliance or an authentic socio-political movement?  

None of these questions are resolved in Lebanon today. For its disorder and weakness this fragment of the Arab East suffers the combined evils of Third World politics, religious bigotry, imperialist design, internal mutilation. To suffer these is bad enough, but not to have a citizenry able to act on its behalf is worse yet for this otherwise marvelous country.

Edward W. Said, "The Sorrows of Lebanon," Arab World Issues: Occasional Papers, Number 1., (Detroit: Association of Arab-American University Graduates, Inc., 1975).