Practicing Sectarianism
Archival and Ethnographic Interventions on Lebanon
Edited by Lara Deeb, Tsolin Nalbantian, and Nadya Sbaiti


Contents and Abstracts
Introduction: Practicing Sectarianism in Lebanon  Lara Deeb, Tsolin Nalbantian, and Nadya Sbaiti
chapter abstract

This introduction lays out the primary arguments of the volume, and makes a case for focusing on sectarianism as it is practiced in everyday life in order to better understand how it works. It locates the volume in relation to the ever-expanding field of sectarianism studies, and explains the methodological interventions made possible by juxtaposing anthropology and history. Finally, it suggests that the volume's approach not only demonstrates the flexibility of sectarianism across time and place in Lebanon but also, through its theoretical and methodological interventions, allows scholars and students both familiar and unfamiliar with the region to carry its arguments, case studies, and explorations to other contexts and geographies.

1 No Room for This Story: Education and the Limits of Sectarianism during the Mandate Era  Nadya Sbaiti
chapter abstract

This chapter reevaluates the constitutive relationship between education and community, exploring narratives of Lebanese history that cut against the grain of received wisdom about sectarian differences in the domain of education. Focusing on the Mandate era as a time of possibility, it attends to how students, teachers, and parents used schooling, and circuits of education more broadly, to transgress allegedly impermeable communal boundaries that revolved around sectarian affiliation. This involves a critical rereading of the archive in ways that posit schools as "communities of knowledge," open up new possibilities for research, and destabilize categories that reduce community formation to primarily sect or socioeconomic status situated within immutable bounds. Rereading archival sources in the domain of education allows us to focus on the active choices and strategic decisions that people have regularly exercised in seeking ways to "put sectarianism to work" while also dismissing it as a frame.

2 Negotiating Citizenship: Shi'i Families and the Ja'fari Shari'a Courts  Linda Sayed
chapter abstract

During French Mandate rule, Shi'i Muslims found themselves incorporated into the newly formed Lebanese nation-state as an officially recognized sect with, by 1926, distinct shari'a courts to litigate civil and personal disputes. Based on archival research at the Ja'fari shari'a courts from 1926 to 1943, this chapter argues that those courts became a place where Shi'i individuals pushed against the limitations of sectarian and national identities embedded in the formation of modern Lebanon. In making legal claims, Shi'i individuals—and Shi'i women in particular—asserted their subjectivity in ways that not only informed familial norms and gender roles, but went beyond the regulatory practices of the courts by negotiating and challenging legal categories of Shi'i sectarian and national belonging. This chapter investigates the ways in which Shi'i Muslims enacted, imagined, and challenged the sectarian identities that were set up as legal and political categories of the nation-state.

3 The Archive Is Burning: Law, Unknowability, and the Curation of History  Maya Mikdashi
chapter abstract

The Plenary Assembly at the Court of Cassation is the final arbiter of jurisdiction disputes in Lebanon. It is the highest court to which ordinary citizens can appeal. The Court of Cassation archive, and within it the archive of the Plenary Assembly, was burned in a fire that resulted from a mortar barrage that landed on the Beirut Courthouse in 1985. This fire has had structuring effects on the past, present, and future of the court. It has also consumed the archivists who work there. Almost forty years later, the fire is still burning in Lebanese jurisprudence—shaping decisions, engendering acts of sovereignty, influencing the working relations and lives of archivists, and affecting academic research. Drawing on archival work and ethnography of state institutions and civil servants, this chapter explores state power and history making through an emphasis on contingency, unknowability, and multiplicity.

4 Donating in the Name of the Nation: Charity, Sectarianism, and the Mahjar  Reem Bailony
chapter abstract

Literature on the Syrian Revolt of 1925–27 and on the mahjar (Syrian diaspora) have largely avoided analyzing the sectarian discourse that informs the histories of both. Reem Bailony argues that in the interwar period, confessional community and transnational philanthropy intersected to produce nationalist agency. She rereads publications such as al-Huda, al-Bayan, and Mir'at al Gharb—Arabic-language newspapers published in New York—for their unique archival vantage point into the ways in which Syrian-Lebanese émigrés deployed sectarian belonging and animosity during the 1925 Syrian Revolt. By looking at how sectarianism shaped transnational charitable activity, the chapter posits sect and sectarianism in the mahjar as key processes through which émigrés negotiated power vis-à-vis the homeland, one another, and French colonial authorities. When studied through the institutions of the diaspora, the 1925 revolt becomes as much a moment of practicing sectarianism as one of nationalist formation.

5 Along and beyond Sect? Olfactory Aesthetics and Rum Orthodox Identity  Roxana Maria Arãs
chapter abstract

Based on ethnographic work among the Rum Orthodox community in Beirut, this chapter examines sect at the nexus of embodiment, social networks, and lived religion. Using the example of incense (bakhur), it looks at how Rum negotiate their religious, communal, and sectarian identities through olfactory aesthetics that bring together the materiality of incense, sensorial sensibilities, and everyday social encounters. The chapter progresses from intersectarian exchanges mediated by the use of incense in the urban space of Beirut to olfactory liturgical practices within the Orthodox tradition. The chapter argues for the use of "sect" as a verb, underscoring features related to religion, class, and even race. At the same time, it affords an approach to Rum identity that goes beyond the sectarian paradigm. This approach pays attention to religious practice, and to communal interactions that present interlocutors as members of a community of faith.

6 From Murder in New York to Salvation from Beirut: Armenian Intrasectarianism  Tsolin Nalbantian
chapter abstract

This chapter analyzes the 1933 murder in New York of Leon Tourian, an Armenian archbishop, to demonstrate how various Armenian and non-Armenian actors adapted Lebanese sectarianism in the United States for use in an intrasectarian power struggle with political adversaries. As such, this case study pushes back against Armenian, Middle Eastern, and American historiographies that assume an internal homogeneity within the Armenian population, ignoring the fundamental heterogeneity of a particular sect. These historiographies understand Armenians as a cohesive unit, and thus do not consider intrasectarian power struggles that challenge Lebanese and Armenian nationalist histories. Moreover, they view sectarianism as an inherently "Lebanese" problem, failing to consider how it is used, produced, and moved in disparate environments by various actors. By showing how sectarianism traversed boundaries and was enacted by Armenian-Americans and made intrasectarian, this chapter also reframes Armenians as a local, rather than diasporic, component of the story.

7 Inequality and Identity: Social Class, Urban Space, and Sect  Joanne Randa Nucho
chapter abstract

This chapter builds on ethnographic insights from Bourj Hammoud, a working-class suburb of Beirut, to analyze how class and sect in Lebanon are co-constitutive categories. The meaning of sect, and the experiences of its everydayness (or its perceived absence in everyday life) is deeply connected to social class and geography. Viewing sect ethnographically as a process of differentiation connected to channels of resources, social geographies, and popular representations complicates the idea that class and sect are two distinct categories.

8 When Exposure Is Not Enough: Sectarianism as a Response to Mixed Marriage  Lara Deeb
chapter abstract

This chapter explores sectarianism as manifested in parental opposition to mixed marriage, and as the expressions of that opposition in turn produce it. It investigates the impact of exposure to a variety of people and places in Lebanon on practices of sectarian bias, and looks to mixed couples as potential exemplars for living antisectarianism. The chapter shows that exposure to diversity within Lebanon can lead either to greater open-mindedness about mixed marriage or to greater adherence to endogamy, depending on how the exposure takes place and its consequences. In addition, exposure alone, even if positive, is not sufficient for reducing sectarian bias; it must be accompanied by a sense of commonality or affinity.