Monday, November 22, 2010

Bahibak ya Libnan

The first Lebanese flag signed by the seven MPs
A chain of circumstances led me to the mountain village of Bshamoun, some 17 kilometers from Beirut, on the eve of Lebanon’s 67th Independence Day

Independence House shaded  by the 160-year-old oak tree
I had the privilege to be received in the house where Lebanon’s Independence was declared on November 22, 1943, by freeing the country from a 23-year-old French Mandate.

It all started when I was talking to my friend Bahaa Fakhreddeen earlier this week. In our conversation, I asked him if he lived far from Beirut’s Hamra area. He surprised me when he said he comes from Ain Anoub, a village in the Aley region, and still lives there. I was taken aback because my mom, Vicky, née Abu Fadel, is from Ain Anoub! Bahaa promised he would take me up to the village sometime during my current holiday in Beirut. And sure enough, he called on Thursday to say that a group of us would head there on Sunday (November 21).

Another common friend I met on Twitter, Jennifer Haddad, called on Saturday to say we would set off to Sidon for breakfast and then head to Ain Anoub to visit Bahaa. The Sidon breakfast and walk around the southern port city will feature in another post.

It was thus in the early afternoon that we arrived at Bahaa’s place, in Vicky’s village, on the eve of Independence Day.

Bahaa took us around Ain Anoub, which is 450 meters above sea level, through narrow and steep little streets, bounded on both sides by olive trees, pine (snoubar) trees, oak (sindyan) trees, pomegranate trees and many more. The whole mountain village, which overlooks Beirut, is covered in oaks and pines and the weather was so much cooler than Beirut and Sidon.

We visited the former residence of the Arslan family (the Medan), and the Bourkit al Medan, a pond that still waters the village fields and St. Georges (Mar Jeries) Church, which is being renovated.

We then headed to Bshamoun, on the spur of the moment, in the search for Independence House.

Jihad, Jennifer and Bahaa in front of  Independence House
The historic stone-built house built in 1890 belonged to the late Sheikh Hussein Halabi, who joined in the events that took place there 67 years ago. The house has three rooms, the more sizable of which, dubbed the serail, gives on a terrace shaded by a 160-year-old oak tree.

Independence House, now an official tourist site, will predictably be declared a conservation building. It is currently occupied and kept by Sheikh Hussein’s grandson, Jihad Halabi, who received us with open arms and was all too happy to share the stories of that momentous point in time.

It is in 1918, on the close of World War I, that France established control over Lebanon by virtue of a League of Nations Mandate.

Jihad recalled how in 1943, the country’s leaders and ministers held a national convention and drew up a National Pact de facto abolishing the Mandate. It stated that:
-- Lebanon is an independent country with an Arab facet
-- Lebanon is to be lead by neither East nor West
-- No to Colonialism
-- Religious sects are to be represented in ministries and all governmental posts
-- The Lebanese government should bring under its control customs, railways and the Regie (tobacco monopoly), and
-- The Lebanese government should supervise and control its borders.
On November 10, 1943, the French hit back by arresting then president Beshara el-Khoury, premier Riad el-Solh, ministers Camille Chamoun, Adel Osseiran and Selim Takla and Tripoli MP Abdelhamid Karami. The French moved their political prisoners to Rashaya Fort in the Bekaa. Ministers Emir Majid Arslan andHabib Abi-Shahla and House speaker Sabri Hamadeh escaped arrest because they were not at home that night. The arrests mobilized Christian and Moslem public opinion, triggered street protests against the Mandate, led to an international outcry demanding the Lebanese leaders' release.

The living room decorated with historic photos and firearms
On 11 November 1943, Arslan and Abi-Shahla created the “Government of Free Lebanon” with Abi-Shahla as prime minister and Arslan as head of the National Guard. Their headquarters were in Bshamoun. Jihad says Emir Majid organized an armed rebellion ready to fight the French troops while riots raged across the country. Seven MPs – speaker Hamadeh, Saeb Salam, Saadi el-Munla, Henry Pharaon, Rashid Beydoun, Mohammed el-Fadl and Maroun Kenaan -- met in secret and drew and signed on a new flag that they handed over to the cabinet of Bshamoun.

Jihad also recounts how MP Pharaon first drew this flag at the home of MP Salam’s home in Musaitbeh.

Historic photo of Emir Majid Arslan kneeling and kissing the flag
 The riots, strikes, Arslan’s armed rebellion and the intervention of Arab and Western states, chiefly Britain, led to the political prisoners’ release on 21 November 1943. Once set free, they drove to Bshamoun to thank the rebels before continuing to Beirut. It is in Bshamoun that they sang the Lebanese National Anthem and that Arslan knelt in front of the Lebanese flag and kissed it. This flag still exists in Halabi’s home and takes place of pride in Independence House -- though not properly preserved, remarks Jihad. But he is delighted the first government document to be issued still hangs on his wall.

Lebanon was proclaimed an independent state on November 22, 1943.

After taking leave from the Halabi family, keepers of Independence House, we headed back to Ain Anoub for coffee at Bahaa’s place. There, we also viewed his father’s rooftop garden and savored his mother’s traditional Eid sweets (she even filled a Tupperware for me to take home!).

Thank you Bahaa and Jennifer for giving me such a captivating treat. Happy Independence Day everyone!

(You can join me on my visit to Independence House and Ain Anoub by viewing the pictures here. And I will leave you with Fairouz’s Bahibak ya Libnan that you might enjoy listening to while reading the post by going to this link)