Inspiring men revered in Lebanon, overshadowed in Egypt
In Egypt, migrant literature reached its zenith with the poet Khalil Mutran (1872-1949). Pioneering a ‘romantic school', he drew his themes from Arab history and literature while being open to European – notably French – culture. Dubbed the ‘Poet of the two countries' after the death of the ‘Prince of Arab poets' Ahmad Shawqi, he would, in his footsteps, make history the backcloth of his struggle. Both in the press and in his poems, he championed the major issues confronting Egyptian society at the time, namely nationalism, independence, democracy, women's rights. He compared Egypt to a garden, a corner of paradise where it is possible to savour peace and freedom. He celebrated his love of the Nile and the nature on its banks, echoing Hafez Ibrahim, ‘Poet of the Nile and Poet of the People'. He protested his love of Lebanon with poems like Wada wa-salam (Goodbye and farewell) or indeed Ode to Lebanon
« My love to both countries! I am the middle link in this chain. I take up my position not out of pride but out of firm loyalty and in observance of compacts. » Mutran had left Lebanon in 1890 after an attempt had been made on his life because of his criticism of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. Steadfast in his fight for freedom of speech, he answered the Egyptian Prime Minister Muhammad Said Pasha who was threatening him with expulsion that he would not bow to threats. He supported his friends' mobilisation against the British, notably Mustafa Kamil for whom he would write a funeral oration.
In the wake of Khalil Mutran whose poem Misr is another token of his attachment to Egypt, Antoun Gemayel (1887-1948) would contribute his multiple talents to his adoptive country. Official translator, editor-in-chief of the most important Egyptian daily, Al-Ahram, from 1933 to 1948, editor of several periodicals, he also held political posts. He was elected as a senator for a decade, was involved in several national or international organisations and was conferred the title of Pasha by king Farouk. He had previously served as secretary general of the Lebanese Alliance created for the promotion of an independent Lebanon, from its foundation to its dissolution (1909-1921). Before the British authorities, he stood as Egypt's champion and fought her corner. Presenting independence as inescapable, he proposed a plan of negotiations aimed at preventing Egyptian opinion from erupting on the streets into a cycle of violence and repression. However he felt that his and other Sahwam's loyalty towards their host country did not get the appreciation it deserved. Before poet Muhammad al-Asmar's bile at the appointment of Khalil Mutran as head of the Egyptian National Theatre, he observed :
« A shami leading a national company, that is too much, yes indeed, that is too much. Never mind that history will say that the golden age of Egyptian theatre would not have come about without Mutran's leadership and management – much as the golden age of Al Ahram only came about in the days of its owner Gabriel Takla Pasha and his editor in chief Antoun Pasha Gemayel ». The slight had brought out the precarious position of the Lebanese in Egypt where the shami moniker could ring as an insult. The feeling was fuelled by the pronouncements and attitude of the British occupier, for Lord Cromer made no secret of his views that these Christians from elsewhere were the finest element in society, a more intelligent and less corruptible group.
What with some of its members feeling superior and the others jealous, society was riven by a range of conflicts of interest and sectarianisms reflected in the views expressed at the time ; they too must be remembered alongside the common engagements in favour of Egypt. The 26 January 1952 riots, the subsequent 23 July revolution leading to the king's abdication, the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and the ensuing Suez crisis (1956) created a situation that caused a large majority of Shawam to leave. Thereafter, the relations take on a new complexion : representations retained in Egypt tend to diminish or ignore the role of these Arabic speaking migrants ; those perpetuated in Lebanon's Christian society tend to make much of their action. This is the context in which the exceptional figure of film director Youssef Chahine rises to fame. Born in 1926 of a Lebanese father and an Egyptian mother with a Greek ancestry, he dwells, in some of his films, on his migrant experience, his bond with Egypt and specifically his home town of Alexandria:
« I am an Egyptian, an Arab and a humanist. I hail from Alexandria, capital of the world, crossroads of the faiths. I am an Egyptian and I want to work in Egypt, and nobody will stop me ». In his film The Migrant (1994), he draws on the Biblical story of Joseph, son of Jacob to stress the fact that individuals' fate is not predetermined, that they have a share of freedom allowing them to grow and to forgive. In Destiny, he portrays a 12th century Andalusia where Muslims, Jews and Christians live in good intelligence. These films attract contrasting responses ranging from high praise to condemnation that bear out contemporary societies' conflicting interpretations of the past.
There is a long way from unmediated representations to history. The sources towards devising the latter are diverse. They have to rely on apparently innocuous data : take the term massan the meaning of which is ‘money' in Lebanese dialect but which refers to the ‘hay day' of emigration, a period when Egyptian currency circulated in Lebanon, brought in, specifically, by the Shawam come to spend the summer in their Mount Lebanon villas. They must also be founded on the cultural and artistic output which accounts for aspirations as much as for lived experience. Egyptian, Lebanese, Syrian and Turkish historians have not to date compared notes on this specific issue that still needles national, social, religious sensitivities. Needless to say, there is little more than fleeting references to this history in the textbooks intended for students of the Arab and Turkish speaking worlds.