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A life in transit

By Sally Bland - Jan 06,2013 - Last updated at Jan 06,2013

An Unfinished Odyssey: Books I & II
Cecil Hourani
Beirut: Antoine S.A.L., 2012
Pp. 341

Titling his two-part memoir an odyssey is very apt, for the course of Cecile Hourani’s life has taken him from his birthplace in Manchester, England, to his ancestral home in Marjayoun, Lebanon, back and forth across Europe and the Arab World, and across the Atlantic to the US.

Sometimes he spent years in a single place, as when he taught at the AUB or served as Tunisian President Bourguiba’s adviser, but mainly this is a story of transit and transition, fuelled by Hourani’s search for his identity and roots, and his pursuit of his many passions — from politics to education, cuisine and culture.

For each of the places he visited or lived in, there are engaging descriptions and anecdotes to reveal the quality and flavour of the distinguished persons, landscapes and social life he encountered.

Hourani’s account of his parents’ adaptation to life in England gives a poignant taste of the dilemmas and successes of an immigrant community hailing from Ottoman territory that risked internment when Britain and Turkey lined up on opposite sides in World War I. Tracing family roots further back to the Hauran, Yemen and (on his wife’s side) Iran, the author conveys a sense of the pluralism and freedom of movement which prevailed in Ottoman times until the division of the region.

Hourani’s father actually met with Sir Mark Sykes, challenging the secret agreements made with France, and their clash with the promises of independent statehood made to the Arabs. Sykes had difficulty justifying Britain’s duplicity, and Hourani observes, “This was the first chink in my father’s hitherto solid belief in the integrity of the British word, later to be further widened by events in Palestine.” (Book II, p. 18)

Cecil shared his father’s commitment to Arab unity and independence. From early on, he was an enthusiastic supporter of the Hashemite vision of an Arab polity that would continue the Ottoman heritage of multi-ethnic and cultural pluralism. The book includes a rare account of how the Great Arab Revolt came to Marjayoun. Turkish forces left the town “before the withdrawal of the Turkish armies from Damascus and Beirut, and so it came about that the Arab Government was first proclaimed, and the Arab flag first raised, at the Turkish serial which stands outside our garden wall.” (Book I, p. 149)

With his Arab commitments matched by the acumen with which he moved in Western circles due to his English-language proficiency and schooling, Hourani sought and was thrust into many jobs advocating for Arab causes vis-à-vis Western governments and the public. As a result, the book contains eyewitness accounts of major turning points in the region’s 20th century history. In 1946, Hourani travelled to Washington, DC, to head the Arab Office charged with presenting a case for an independent, democratic Palestinian state wherein Jews would have equal rights.

He was present when the UN voted for partition which the Arab Office had worked to avoid. In May 1967, on his way to New York, Hourani by chance met Abba Eban, then Israel’s foreign minister, on the plane, and learned that his mission was to test US government reaction were Israel to attack Egypt. Armed with this inside information, Hourani rushed to share it with Arab UN delegations and embassies. He hoped “they would convey some idea of the gravity of the situation to their governments, but no one was prepared to listen.” (Book I, p. 91)

Over the years, he worked for conflict resolution that would bring justice to the Palestinians and other Arab peoples, like, more recently, when he was asked by HRH Prince Hassan to prepare a document for publication to explain Jordan’s position and efforts to prevent the 1991 war on Iraq.

The author’s broad perspective and astute observations are only marred by his unbalanced account of the Lebanese civil war: The Lebanese Front, particularly Beshir Gemayel, is portrayed as the true defender of Lebanon, while the Palestinian-Lebanese nationalist coalition is portrayed as little more than thugs. It is well-known that there were abuses on all sides in this prolonged conflict, but Hourani reports only those of the latter, while the former goes scot-free. This is all the more puzzling since, later on, Hourani advocates an end to political sectarianism in Lebanon, which was the main goal of the Palestinian-Lebanese nationalist coalition.

Reading this memoir is a fascinating way to revisit pivotal junctures in the political and cultural history of the region. The book reveals Hourani to be equally a doer and a thinker. Often, he appears as “a voice crying in the wilderness”, anguished by the consequences of the many wars and what he sees as self-destructive Arab policies, by the absence of justice for the Palestinians, by rising sectarianism and Arab decline. Yet, there are also many delightful passages about his family, about how he established a theatre at Hammamet in Tunisia, and introduced haloumi to France.

In retrospect, Hourani can be gratified that many ideas he advocated early on were later incorporated into mainstream thinking. In the epilogue, he takes heart from the recent Arab uprisings for freedom in Egypt and Tunisia.

“An Unfinished Odyssey” is available at Al Aydi Craft Shop.

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