Lebanon/ 1. Historical perspective: cultural policies and instruments  

Author: Watfaa Hamadi, Rita Azar

The cultural life in Lebanon is a product of diversity, immigration, conflicts and the aptitude of the Lebanese people for initiation, adaptation, openness, home economics and adjustment. It has always been characterized with a type of dynamism independent from official policies. The Lebanese cultural life, which walks side by side with the social and intellectual movement in Lebanon, is a product and sponsored by civilized diversity by the sectarian and ethnic groups.

Due to these differences, there will be diversity in the visions of cultural policies, as well as the cultural life. Some consider the National charter of 1943 represented the Arab aspects of Lebanon while others believe that Lebanon is a diverse and independent state with communal characteristics (Cultural Roots of Lebanese Wars, Reverend Kameel Mubarak and Dr. Jan Paul).

Undoubtedly, there is a difference in vision of cultural policies with regard to the aforementioned differences. Furthermore, the cultural life wasn’t established based on a cultural policy because the Ministry of Culture and the Higher Education ministry didn’t exist till 1993 and has not yet established on an integrated cultural policy. This is evident in the political thinking and the dispute concerning the education curricula as the main problem in this regard seems to be the agreement on the dimensions of the Lebanese civilization and its sources as well as the Lebanese history and its components. This stems from an objective disagreement about the essence of Lebanon between Christians and Muslims. On one hand, Christians believe in Lebanon; the permanent home on its own with free political directions. On the other hand, Muslims, especially the Sunnis, believe that Lebanon is part of the Arab World, from which Lebanon derived its culture and civilization and it should return to the Arab World in all cases and issues. Therefore, the dispute stands especially concerning the book of history; which history we want?

Moreover, culture in Lebanon is still the product of civil organizations while public organizations produce cultural activities distributed by different ministries such as Tourism, Education, Youth and Sport, Social Affairs, Interior and Municipalities. Most of Lebanon’s laws and legislations date back to the Ottoman era (before 1918) and have not experienced any update till now. 

Cultural policies in Lebanon were related to the following phases:

 - Establishment of the first manifestations of culture: 1820-1918

In the last century of Ottoman era (1258-1918) "Alamiat" appeared between (1820-1860) (The revolution of the commons and peasants) which was inspired by the French Revolution and led by intellectuals, lit the spark of change in political, cultural and structural levels. And despite of its failure, the outcomes of that revolution contributed in repositioning the feudal, political, cultural and social authority in the country. Foreign missionaries, local churches and central and local Ottoman governments competed to provide Beirut and Mount Lebanon with broad and fast-growing educational and cultural infrastructure, which will later be the foundation for the blossoming of a distinctive intellectual climate  (History of Modern Lebanon – Fawaz Trabulsi, adaptation.)

Armed with science and openness to various cultures and exploiting the growing city needs, the second generation of the new middle class became the pioneers of the cultural renaissance, entering into the intellectual and political battle fields.

Those pioneers established a large political, intellectual and cultural movement, represented in publishing, press and the cultural magazines, which has contributed in the establishment of a cultural industry (printing and publishing). It was the first in the Arab region, as well spreading the modern Arab theatre (1848) in Lebanon and the Arab World.

- Culture in the mandate era: 1918-1943

The French called their project "the civilizing mission" and declared the state of greater Lebanon, which triggered a political and intellectual struggle on the special identity of Lebanon and its Arab one.

As being the first official cultural foundation, the great Beirut library was established in 1921, to which Count Vicount De Tarazi donates his personal collection which exceeded 20000 books and 3000 valuable manuscripts, in addition to the first issues of the periodicals published in the area.

In 1924, the Legal Depositing Law (which obligates every publisher to deposit two copies of printed or reprinted works in the national library) was issued, and in 1935 the national library was annexed to the Ministry of Education. (Website of the Lebanese National Library Foundation: http://www.flbn.org)

Beirut and Mount Lebanon witnessed a transition toward the entertainment culture that imitated European techniques. Cinema and Bourgeoisie theatre entered the civil life and many Muslim intellectuals became attracted to the notion of social revival and progress. Prominent families called for the freeing of woman and social renewal in the Islamic World, including the removal of Hijab; something that was marketed by Egyptian cinema by spreading the image of bare-headed woman in the 1930s.

The establishment of Radio Orient had a deep and direct impact on the pattern of social life, which was reflected in the cultural arena; the favorite fertile ground of colonization (Samir Qassir – p.298)

Within this mission, the prevalent architectural mix led to a special engineering language in the city of Beirut, which reflected on the other cities and became a subject matter for pioneer artists such as Omar Al-Ounsi, Mustafa Farroukh, George Sir, Yussef Al-Hwaeik and many orientalists.  Beirut social life also became the subject of criticism for many artists, such as Omar Al- Zahni through his songs.

The ideologies in conflict in Europe from socialism to Nazism came to Lebanon and this struggle was reflected in the literature of intellectuals and journalists, the growing  ideological and Pan-Arab parties, labor movements and the sectarian disturbances that were considered as an indication of the rise of Fascist parties.

On the other hand, intellectual Christians declared their affiliation to the Arab identity and secularization ; thus creating the second rise, with the assistance of intellectual Muslims and tens of resident Arab journalists, intellectuals and artists who paved their way into the cultural life.

In this era, other nationalities (like Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians and Alachorwin), took refuge in Lebanon and brought their own cultures, which each interacted with the local culture in Lebanon (music, art) and this interaction remained active without relying on cultural policies in place in Lebanon at the time of independence and beyond. But the followed eras proceeded to the incorporation of some cultural sectors, annexed to Almaarif ministries (education) or tourism.

- Culture in the Post-independence era: 1943-1975

In 1943 the National Museum Law was founded, the Museum was later annexed to the Ministry of Education. Other notable accomplishments followed and during the reign of President Camille Chamoun (1952-1958) the Print Law was amended (Ministry of the Interior), a new law for parties and associations in Lebanon was issued, the Lebanese University was established (Ministry of Education), the International Baalbek International Festivals were launched, Casino Du Liban was inaugurated (Ministry of Tourism) and the milestone of the Lebanese radio was created (Ministry of Information). Hence the approach was to activate the tourism and services sectors at the expense of culture. President Fouad Shihab (1958-1960) promoted social development and decentralization. During his reign the National Council for Tourism was established, the Ministry of Information was organized, the National Council for Scientific Research was founded (by the Prime Ministry), the Directorate of Sport and Youth was established, the Social Welfare Office was created, a large number of schools were built in remote and rural areas and the cultural and youth clubs in rural areas were activated, which led later on to the birth to many cultural movements, such as the "Ash-shabie" Theatre and others. The two reigns put their mark on the official cultural sectors as activities of touristic or social purposes. However a wave of urban development and expansion schemes were launched and many roads were built at the expense at the cultural heritage of the former civilizations.

The years 1959-1960 witnessed the consolidation of theatrical movement and boosted the role of theatre in public life. Thanks to Baalbek International Festivals Committee and the French Cultural Center, which both played a key role in providing artists with the needed production requirements and acquainted them with the latest developments in the world's artistic and intellectual trends

This revival was associated with the foundation of TV in Lebanon (1959). In addition, the well-known artist "Shushu" established Ash-shaabie daily theatre (In Theatrical and Political, Roger Assa). It coincided with the renaissance of the performing arts renaissance of Fine Arts and music Rahbani brothers played a key role in its renaissance at the level of songs and musicals, and with the activity of Armenian citizens at the technical level and technical support.

The growing Arab unity movement, the transitions in the neighboring countries, the rising level of university education, the oil rush and the occupation of Palestine have played a key role in the establishment of a very active cultural and political movement, which contributed in raising the standards of culture and art in Lebanon and its neighbors, particularly the socially and politically conservative culture. The Lebanese theatre was thus born in the cradle of Bourgeoisie and flourished amid exceptional international and social conditions. Beirut became a main center for the exchange of goods and thoughts and a beating heart for a political and economic transitions. The 1970s witnessed a period of stalemate followed by a political and economic crisis and a cultural activity committed to national and Arab causes, which paved the way to the civil war.

- Culture in the civil war: 1975-1990

The intellectuals and artists managed to create a practical space for their utopian beliefs and worked with the public in a number of model experiments such as "the popular committees" to offer a sectarian coexistence formula in the light of total absence of state institutions. These experiments was later generalized in different Lebanese areas.

When the capital was split and Lebanon was divided between two warring sides and two different cultures:

In 1976, Amin Gemayel, created the "House of the future," a center for research, lectures, documentation and studies, and who worked on the documentation of the stage of the war. In 1983 the House of the future called a large number of intellectuals and artists to develop a policy and future plans for the endorsement of Lebanon's cultural and modernization face.

A large number of intellectuals committed themselves to national and Arab causes (Palestinian Cause) and social issues, which contributed in the growth of a cultural movement that played an important role in turning the public mood in the favor of the resistance, national or social culture. On the other hand, the official cultural sectors began to unravel, as a result of official neglect  and war, such as: official television and radio, the National Museum, National Library, Film Archive, architectural heritage ... The private and official  sectors start to play an active role in order to compensate for this shortfall.

This period also strengthened the role of individuals: intellectuals, artists, and their initiatives, due to the absence of the official sector, they founded their groups and their private cultural institutions (the cultural movement in Antelias, the Arab Cultural Club, and the Cultural Council of South Lebanon).

- Ministry of Culture

The post-civil war Lebanese governments made several structural changes in their formations. In 1993 the Ministry of Culture and Education was created after annexing the cultural sectors that were under the authority of the other ministries such as tourism, youth & sport and social affairs. The higher education was also annexed to the Ministry of Culture (previously under the authority of the Ministry of Education) by the first Culture Minister Michel Iddeh and the features of a new ministry began to take shape that deals with archeology, heritage, historic property, Arts & Literatures, intellectual productions, cultural industries and cultural management.

The "Ministry of Culture & Higher Education" has been founded by the virtue of the Law No. 215 in 241993 and later amended to "The Ministry of Culture" by the virtue of the Law No. 247 in 782000, where the Higher Education was separated and annexed to the National Ministry of Education, later known as "Ministry of Culture"

The current organizational structure of the Ministry of Culture was approved under Law No. 35 in 16102008.

The Ministry consists of the following:

  • General Directorate of Cultural affairs
  • General Directorate of Antiquities.
  • Joint Administrative Department.

In addition to the mentioned, the National Library, General Authority of Museums, the Higher National Institute of Music shall be under the direct authority of the Minister of Culture.

The purpose from establishing the Ministry of Culture is to have one  authority capable of assuming the care about cultural life in terms of education, appproach and creativity and also capable of gathering all the administrations involved in cultural issues after these administrations were distributed on different unconnected official bodies, which led to weakening the ability of the state to adopt a harmonious cultural policy on administrative and institutional levels. Such organizational structure is still pending the relevant regulatory decrees[1].

The successive governments left culture without proper policies and sufficient funds, which forced civil societies and institutions, the private sector, intellectuals and artists to compensate this shortage and activate the country's cultural activities through individual initiatives occasionally financed by private, Arab or foreign funds. The financial support policies provided by the Ministry are limited and the long-term mechanisms to take the money do not encourage intellectuals and artists to apply for. Also, the support was suspended due to the chaos and the absence of a clear policy of support which ensure the eligibility of beneficiaries. This Ministry suffers a meager budget which is reflected as a weakness in its bodies and working groups as well as ineffectuality in movement. Employees, on the other hand, are merely contractors with the exceptions of very few who were formerly employees in the higher education field. The continuity of those employers` work is not guaranteed since each newly-appointed minister would change the staff as well as working policies.  

In 2000 the higher education sector was returned to the Ministry of Education and thus the Ministry of Culture regained its independent status. Minister Ghassan Salamah focused on transforming culture into a producing sector. He started by restructuring the Ministry, its sectors and advisory councils. However, the government collapsed because of a political crisis.

The Ministry attempted to adapt to the needs and pressures and assigned certain civil societies and institutions to obtain funds and assume the tasks of the Ministry's offices that are unable to perform their duties due to the lack of qualified employees, also to restructure and formulate a cultural policy on national level and the absence of funds. In 2000, the government assigned to "the Lebanese Foundation of the National Library," the task of collecting the necessary funds, and encourage donations to the National Library. The "broken hand policy" adopted in Lebanon after the war contributed in particularly paralyzing the official cultural sectors, such as the National Library which was regarded by the Ministry of Culture as a priority that must be revived, and was – until 2009- frozen pending the necessary funds. The National Library was consequently allocated the building of Faculty of Law & Political Sciences located in Al-sanayeh district after many years of negligence. The Ministry now seeks to rehabilitate the Library making use of two grants from the European Community and Qatar, having completed the process of cleaning, sorting out and cataloguing the largest number of the books.

The establishment of public libraries that spare readers the high-cost of books is one of the most important projects that correspond to the human right to culture. In this regard, the Ministry of Culture has developed a policy to support public reading through providing support, development and establishment of public libraries, reading centers and cultural activities (CLAC) in different parts of Lebanon.

This behavior had its impacts on the associations that many of them waited for external funding to resume their activities.  As we already know, the Ministry of Culture itself receives financial support from several international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in order to carry out some of its activities. It is worth mentioning here that the Ministry has taken the initiative to develop a policy to support authorship and publishing books in order to promote reading among citizens, encourage writing and publishing more books, and help publishing houses overcome interim economic hardships. To achieve such a purpose, the Ministry has resorted to purchasing some books and publications. Laws have been drawn for this purpose including: purchasing general public-oriented books to be distributed to Ministry-associate public libraries.

The Ministry of Culture is classified as "One of the weakest ministries" in practicing culture in Lebanon, in the same time where there is an active movement of the cultural industry and civil society, intellectuals and artists. As can be seen a number of major cultural institutions founded by few initiatives of intellectuals and citizens to support cultural institutions in the public sector (National Museum, National Library, and the Conservatory).

Formulating cultural policies in Lebanon is complicated since the impacting factors are numerous such as the sectarian mosaic, cultural plurality and the diverse viewpoints and visions of the country's intellectuals. It takes two separate way, the first is the "plans and programs" of the State (which will be taken in details later) and the second is the initiatives of intellectuals and cult

[1] http://jo.pcm.gov.lb/j2014/j41/default.htm 

Chapter published: 07-04-2016