Notes from an Interview in Exile:
By: Mordechai Nisan
July 26, 2004
"The best witness to the Mediterranean's age-old past," wrote Fernand Braudel, "is the sea itself." For ancient Lebanon, the mountain and the sea together - distinct from the Arabian desert - constituted frontiers of consciousness and culture, as the Phoenicians built ships from the mountain cedar trees and set sail for trade, discovery, and colonization. They landed in Cyprus, sought refuge in Malta, settled in Carthage and Kabylia in North Africa, stopping on the French coast and founding Marseilles, and established outposts in Spain. Further travel meanderings brought the hardy Lebanese in ancient times to distant Brazil and Newfoundland beyond the Atlantic Ocean.
The cedars of Lebanon were like "a beautiful temple…[an] altar closer to heaven," mused Lamartine in 1832. But looking out and not only up, the sea tempted the Lebanese to reach for unlimited liberty, extend to Europe, and carry their drive and dream across the world.
For Abu Arz, the dream has become a faint echo and a tragedy without end. His nom de guerre itself means 'father of the cedar'; fewer people call him by his name Etienne Sakr.
The Palestinian war against Lebanon in 1975, that led to Syrian military intervention, Saudi political involvement, and Iranian religious penetration, evoked in Abu-Arz a native drive to defend the homeland from foreign conquest. He founded the Guardians of the Cedars Party, won victory at the Tel el-Zaatar Palestinian camp, and initiated the Lebanese Forces coalition. He etched his mark for courage and patriotism in the annals of Lebanon. However, intra-Maronite tensions and violence undermined the struggle for liberation, and Abu Arz lost political ground in the turmoil of the 1980s.
Israel, to whom Abu-Arz and other Lebanese leaders turned, proved helpful but unreliable and inconsistent. Syria held to course, pounding the Christians and sometimes intimidating the Muslims, ultimately patronizing the Shiites, until Syrian occupation of the Land of the Cedars became the defining political reality.
Abu Arz, a prophet outcast, lives the tragedy of Lebanon across the sea. It is for him not the sea of discovery or the cultural venue to Europe, but rather the route of exile from his homeland. In early June, I set out to talk to the man I had first met in 1997, he then living without his family near Jezzine in south Lebanon, thereafter in Deir Mimas and his home village Ayn Ebel, and finally abandoned along with South Lebanese Army soldiers and their families and compelled to flee in the precipitous and shameful days of Israel’s military flight in May 2000.1
Beirut the capital had historically been home to French culture and Arab nationalism, revolutionary politics and the free traffic in ideas;2 today it is the home of Syria’s puppet regime. Subjugated to the dictates of Damascus, the Beirut collaborators have charged Abu Arz with a political crime of "contact with the Zionist enemy." With irony gone awry, Abu Arz left Israel from the sea, and took the path of his ancient Phoenician ancestors. Thus, his personal voyage symbolized his lack of freedom, rather than its fulfillment. Abu Arz loves the Mediterranean Sea which washes ashore in his land far away. For him to touch the sea is a step toward Beirut and home.
Europe itself, with whom the Lebanese have had contact since the time of the Crusaders, is a cultural landscape they know and enjoy. It was France after all which promoted the establishment of Le Grand Liban, separate from Syria in 1920; more recently, the Arabist strain in France's Middle East policy has demoted the idea of a free Lebanon in the eyes of Paris. Yet French voices have been raised now and then on behalf of Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon as a proper course of action.
Abu-Arz was forthright and unforgiving:
Everyone abandoned us. The United States tried to arrange for
our emigration in 1975; in 1989, they legitimized Syrian
control over Lebanon with the Taif Accord [which, moreover,
contributed to the Arabization machinations of Damascus
toward Lebanon.] The U.S. was against us because of the Saudis,
the Soviet Union was against us because they were friends with the
PLO, and Europe was against us because of the Arabs. Israel
abandoned us [in particular in 2000]. The Pope abandoned us too…
and then he went to Damascus and called Syria a 'holy land' because
the grave of St. Maron is near Aleppo - but Lebanon is holy land!
We had no one - so we fell.
Words of frustration and rage poured forth against Maronite Patriarch Sfeir who has failed to serve as a magnet for active political protest against Syria's hegemonic rule. Abu Arz explained:
In November [2004] a new president is to be "elected" in Lebanon, but of course the Syrians decide everything.
Lahoud is very unpopular, first-and-foremost among his Maronite Christian compatriots. But the Patriarch nonetheless said he would support Lahoud for another term, but on condition that he release Samir Geagea [head of the Lebanese Forces in the late 1980s] from detention that began in 1994.
But it was Geagea who caused the tragedy in Lebanon! He led the war against General Aoun and the Army in 1989-90 which sent the country and the Christian community into a bloodbath 'war of the brothers' which, then, made Syria's conquest of Lebanon inevitable and easy.
Emile Lahoud, collaborating in the enslavement of Lebanon, and Geagea having directly or indirectly caused the enslavement, evoke consideration while Abu Arz - the conscience of Lebanon - is disdained as a foreign agent when, in fact, he is the consummate patriot since the descent into the abyss began in 1975.
Two days before I visited Abu Arz, the Israeli Air Force attacked a Palestinian base at Naemee south of Beirut, in response to Hizbullah shooting at the Shebaa Farms on Israel's northern border. Unrepentant and belligerent, Hizbullah refused to let the border issue die. For Abu Arz, Hizbullah has always been and remains a terrorist gang serving Iranian and fundamentalist Islamic interests. Most Shiites in Lebanon, he avers, oppose Hizbullah because it is a foreign import unrepresentative of the tolerant, moderate, and pluralistic character of the country's social and religious mosaic. Abu Arz is a stalwart believer in the pan-Lebanese identity that bonds the various and diverse communities.
But the fighting on the border, localized and contained thus far, is part of the emerging political scenario that gives Abu Arz hope in the "snowball effect." U.S. military action in Iraq in particular is for him a ray of hope that Washington will deal with Syria in due course. The congressional Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, and President Bush's decision to impose economic sanctions on Syria in 2004, are at the heart of the snowball effect. Supporting terrorism and acquiring WMD have made Syria a veteran member on the U.S. list of rogue states.
Abu Arz recalled instances when, in fact, foreigners brought freedom and not repression to Lebanon:
French forces arrived in 1861 to protect the Christians from Turkish Muslim savagery. American Marines swept ashore
in 1958 to offer a hand against radical Nasserite Arab Nationalism. Israeli troops drove through the country in
1982 and chased the Palestinians from the south and out of Beirut. But would the angel of salvation come again?
Sweeping Israeli military action in Lebanon is not easily foreseen, though circumstances may soon catalyze it. Abu Arz, who championed the friendship and alliance with Israel, recalled the Israeli Coordinator for Lebanon within the Defense Ministry, Uri Lubrani, who once said to him that ‘Israel should build a wall on its northern border to cut itself off from Lebanon’. Abu Arz was dreaming of a bridge, not a wall, between the two countries. Yet "the common cause" of Lebanon and Israel remains a conviction, though perhaps no longer a dream.
In the days I spent with Abu Arz across the sea, the Arabs were held up in Tunis trying to manufacture unity from political fragmentation. Since the Lebanese are not Arabs according to Abu Arz' understanding of nationality and identity, Lebanon will - when free - leave the Arab League. In one of his communiqués that appear on the Guardians of the Cedars web site (, Abu Arz disdained the Arabs for their squabbling and disunity, charging their feuding and factionalism to be "as old as the desert." The Lebanese can unite their communities, but the Arabs cannot unite their tribes. Fouad Ajami, like Abu Arz a native of south Lebanon, had declared Pan-Arabism dead in a vanguard and persuasive article back in 1978.3
Abu Arz had this to say regarding the multitudinous Lebanese communities:
I'm not worried about the Shi'a, the Druze, or the Sunnis, but I worry about theMaronites. The others will come around…
but the Maronites will disrupt everything as they did in the past.
But when free and united, then Lebanon will soar. "We can control the whole Middle East, for the Arab world is in disarray. Now we have nothing in terms of leadership in Lebanon: Lahoud,4 Hariri,5 Berri6…Meanwhile, Syria has problems: American pressure, Kurdish agitation…" If free, Lebanon will undoubtedly be as in the past (and to a degree even today) a shining beacon of culture and civility in comparison with the repression and fanaticism rife in the Arab world.
While the G-8 met in Georgia, calling upon the Arab leaders to adopt reform and democracy in their countries, I sat and chatted with 'the father of the cedars' in exile. Under his leadership of a liberated Lebanon, the indigenous culture of reform and democracy would flourish. He carries the country in his heart and his heart cherishes the entire country.
Abu Arz added: "Even after I go home, I'll come back to visit this country in gratitude for the years they let me stay here." This is the measure of the man and his humanity in small ways.
****Mordechai Nisan authored The Conscience of Lebanon: A Political Biography of Etienne Sakr (Abu-Arz), London: Cass (later Taylor & Francis), 2003.
Footnote 1: "Did Israel Betray its Lebanese Allies?" Middle East Quarterly, VII, 4, December 2000, pp. 31-39.
Footnote 2: Samir Khalaf, Lebanon's Predicament, NY: Columbia University Press, 1987, pp. 261-292.
Footnote 3: Fouad Ajami, "The End of Pan-Arabism," Foreign Affairs, 57, 2, 1978/9, pp. 355-373.
Footnote 4: Emil Lahoud, Maronite president, "elected" in 1998.
Footnote 5: Rafiq Haririr, Sunni Prime Minister.
Footnote 6: Nabih Berri, Shiite Chairman of the Chamber of Deputies.