In Lebanon, your family name goes beyond identification. There’s usually history hidden behind a family name, that unfortunately most of us lose track of, or which fails to get passed down from generation to generation. And in some cases, it’s your grandmother’s maiden name (like in my case) that comes with an interesting story to tell.
I come from a mixed faith marriage, most people who know me know this about me already. (One of the first things you learn about people when you meet them in Lebanon is what faith they are). For most of my life, that was it; the story ended there. And that kind of attitude also translated into school where I never really cared about history because to me it was all about a bunch of names that I didn’t relate to anyway.
Come to find that my great grandfather (maternal side) was a Sheikh and a Shi’a scholar who establish one of the first printing presses in south Lebanon. He also founded Al-Irfan (a monthly review), opposed the French mandate, and was a reformist who fought for the rights of the underprivileged, including women’s rights. (There’s even a small Wikipedia article about him)
Had I known all of this from the beginning, I might have paid more attention in history class.
Now why am I sharing this? The other day, I walked into one of the bookshops just off Hamra main street. The bookshop had vintage publications on display and one of them was a copy of a 1962 edition of Al-Irfan..the publication my great grandfather founded.
Al-Irfan, (the name comes from the Arabic word for knowledge) is
an Arabic-language monthly “Scientific, Historical, Literary and Sociological Review” that brought the world to the Shi’a community in Lebanon and farther afield to Iraq and Iran, and debated issues of concern to Shi’a and Arabs. The magazine was printed in Beirut for the first two years. In 1910 El-Zein commissioned his own printing press in Sidon where Al-Irfan was printed until the 1960s. The magazine was published 10 times a year until the death of the founder’s son, Nizar Al-Zein, in 1981. Afterwards, it was published quarterly until 1987 and then from 1992–1996.
What I know of the history of the magazine is limited. What I know of the man behind the magazine – my great grandfather – is just as limited. What I do know is that the Zein house in Saida was where people came to have coffee and to discuss social affairs (that era’s version of a cafe) and that it fostered open mindedness, solidarity, and tolerance. Pretty impressive for that era: 1910 – 1960.
The interesting part is the way I found out about all of this. It wasn’t through the usual way where one of my parents (or grandparents) sat me down and told me about our family history. No, I found this out during one of the many random conversations I had with my aunt’s American husband in Virginia, probably sometime during either Thanksgiving or Xmas dinner, during my university days in the US. Afterwards, it took me many emails to try to get the information out of my mother or either one of her siblings. All I got was the little bit of information you see in the Wikipedia article, which was written by one of my mom’s cousins during her PhD years at AUB, and which was stored in film and was hard to recover. Unfortunately, there is no one I can ask who can clarify some of this information for me. Those with first hand information have since passed away, or aren’t able to communicate what they know. So, all of this to say, if you still have a grandparent who’s alive, have a heart to heart with them, you never know what you will find out about yourself..your history.
Lebanon’s history isn’t necessarily bright, but it is nice to know that that some parts of our culture is maintained, especially when we have been thought leaders and pioneers on some issues in the region and the rest of the world.
“If you don’t know [your family's] history, then you don’t know anything” – Michael Crichton