Thursday, December 18, 2008

Before Syria and Israel, Beirut's problems were Italy's fault

Thursday, December 18, 2008

On Wednesday the eminent historian Nina Jidejian was invited to speak on the theme of her book, "Beirut: A City of Contrast", by the Society of the Friends of the Museum of the American University of Beirut, the university from which Jidejian graduated in the early 1960s. In the museum's lecture hall, surrounded by glass-fronted cases of antiquities, Jidejian took her audience on a whistle-stop tour of Beirut's history...

Renowned among her readers for her ability to re-animate the dusty bones of history, Jidejian used revealing nuggets of information to give immediacy to the concerns of past figures. Her old professor's maxim, "Do not forget the footnotes of history," is a principle to which Jidejian has remained true throughout her career.

An anecdote that particularly tickled the audience on Wednesday concerned the origin of the phrase "All this is the fault of the Italians," still commonly used by Beirutis today. In February 1912, as part of their war against the Ottomans, the Italians bombarded Beirut. Then, at the beginning of World War I, there was a famine in Beirut, mostly due to the corrupt practices of the wali or governor. His response to his challengers on this issue was always the same: "All this is the fault of the Italians."

In 1952, when President Bechara al-Khoury resigned, an adviser to the British Embassy paid a visit to insist that his problems were nothing to do with the British. According to Jidejian, al-Khoury's sardonic response was, "I know, I know, it was the fault of the Italians."

Jidejian's message, however, was largely optimistic. She suggested that Beirut's regular status as a battleground is due to its geographical position as "the crossroads of the Middle East." Yet, despite being a victim of this geographical accident, Jidejian emphasized how Beirut has risen above the endless conflicts to become a multi-denominational capital city.
"Despite all its disasters and obstacles, Beirut is a city in which 18 religious communities live side-by-side," Jidejian said. "This is no small achievement." (Daily


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