Lebanese Clans: Fading Influence
By: Rameh Hamieh
Published Wednesday, September 5, 2012
Clan elders from the Bekaa Valley regret the way negative stereotypes were reinforced by the Mokdad family “intifada”, and strongly defend clan values and traditions. But they concede that the institution is no longer what it used to be.
In Ottoman times, when prisoner convoys travelled through the lands of the village of Taraya, the captives would be unshackled before approaching, and tied up again after they had passed. Local lore has it that this practice continued for 200 years under Ottoman rule, in line with an edict issued by the High Porte itself. The reason was that if the local Hamiyeh clan saw manacled strangers in their locality, they would feel bound to go to their aid and free them.
“Assisting the unfortunate and downtrodden, and protecting and honoring them, is one of the inherited traditions of the clans of the Baalbeck-Hermel region,” says clan elder Sabah Hamiyeh (Abu Ali). So are many other customs and values, “such as generosity, hospitality, courage, chivalry and reconciliation”, he affirms.
Abu Ali is dismayed by the negative portrayal of clans these days. They are depicted as “frightening monsters and outlaws, whose elders and youth are always carrying weapons and shooting at anyone who passes by their homes, villages or lands,” the octogenarian says. In reality, a clan is merely “a family which joins together, made up of descendants of a single ancestor. They inter-marry, and they stand together and support each other in their affairs and interests, and counter injustice against its members. All are for one and one is for all. It is the same in any family, even a small one.”
Kamel Zeaiter, an elder of the Zeaiter clan, agrees. The clan stands for “values and traditions”, he says, and amounts to “a mini-government, which has its president and ministers, who come together to take decisions aimed at protecting the interests of its members through mutual support, as well as resolving problems and disputes that arise within the clan or outside it.”
Although now in his nineties, he is himself still renowned as a mediator and conciliator, resolving disputes both among the Zeaiters and members of other families. He has many tales to tell of clan vendettas and reconciliations in the past, and other aspects of clan life with its joys and sorrows. He reminisces about the role played by the Bekaa tribes in resisting the Ottoman and French occupations. “The clansmen and fugitives performed heroic acts in those days throughout the region, from Baalbeck to Wadi Fisan in the Hermel hinterland,” he says.
Most clans claim to have existed since time immemorial, but what is left of them today, under the modern state and with the profusion of political parties? Do their leaders retain their stature?
A Jaafar clan elder concedes that clans are not what they used to be. “What was known as the sole authority has faded and no longer exists,” says Yaseen Ali Hamad Jaafar. ”There is no longer a clan leader or elder, who has the power to take decisions and the final say.” This is principally due to the dispersal of clans and their break-up into smaller family groups of varying sizes, undermining the collective management of clan affairs, he says.
Membership of political parties by clan members has also weakened the clans by creating divided loyalties, he says. “It compromises the clan’s independence, unsettles its balances, and causes a big split in it, especially when other members of the clan remain outside these parties, and have nowhere to turn to because there is no state providing development or services.”
This has all contributed to the erosion of the clan’s decision-making authority, which to Jaafar’s mind constitutes its very essence. A clan’s leadership is the “core which unites it”, he explains. “It takes the decisions on declaring or halting war on others, and on reconciliations between sides in dispute, and it also sponsors all the reconciliations in light of economic and living conditions and pays all compensations for killings.”
Mufleh Allaw says the dissipation of clan authority in the absence of a “leader, head or sheikh” has resulted in the creation of multiple decision-making centers within the same clan. This means that decisions taken at clan meetings “are no longer binding as in the past” but depend on the amount of respect or responsiveness they can command.
It also makes for decisions which are “wrong or unfair, because they are based at times on limited, insufficient or mistaken information,” and result in the clan and its traditions being discredited. He particularly objects to revenge killings, “carried out against people who have nothing to with the murderer, when clan law stresses that not even anyone from the murder’s family must be killed.” He also disapproves of clans paying blood-money when one of their members kills someone – “which only encourages them to commit more and other crimes” – or, in some cases, trying to pay off judges.
Zeaiter says many revenge killings are the fault of the Lebanese state because of its failure to apprehend the original murderers, enabling such crimes, which mainly target innocents, to persist. But despite the decline of clan authority, he notes that in most cases, reconciliations can only be effected by clan elders and notables.
Jaafar recalls that his father, the former MP Hamad Jaafar, concluded a “pact” with the clans and families of local villages which prohibited vendettas. This ushered in era of respect for the law in which only criminals were punished and not their families, and clans handed members accused of murder over to the security authorities. This stemmed from his belief that the clans had to work within the law state institutions, preserving their genuine traditions and values and abandoning practices that sullied their reputations.
Hamiyeh agrees that revenge killings are wrong and discredit the clans – in both respects he likens them to “the abuse of power by state officials.” Like other Bekaa clan leaders, he is keen to erase the negative image of clans which is reinforced with every violent incident, and to stress the positive values they embody.
But while clannishness is associated in the public mind with fanatical loyalty to the extended family, and is a derogatory term denoting narrow-mindedness, Hamiyeh argues that clan loyalty based on blood ties and kinship “is far less harmful than the sectarian, confessional and party-political loyalty we have in Lebanon.”
Lebanese of different communities tend to “champion their sects right or wrong”, he notes, “and no political party or group does anything other than put the interests of its partisans or supporters first, and seek to acquire a share of power and influence in order to distribute patronage, at the expense of non-partisan citizens.
Abu Ali – a pan-Arab nationalist since childhood – does not stop at this , but also takes issue with what he terms “Lebanese fanaticism” in pursuing personal or individual interests over the common or national good – which leads to “the disintegration of everything, from the clans to the sects to the parties”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.