Zuqaq al-Blat, symbol of one man’s quest for an Arab renaissance
Beirut - Adjoining Beirut’s downtown, the quarter of Zuqaq al-Blat is a maze of crumbling old buildings, noisy thoroughfares and alleyways. Hezbollah and Amal posters reflect a Shia population that arrived from south Lebanon in the 1980s, fleeing Israeli invaders to take up unofficial residence in an area depopulated early in the civil war due to the proximity of the Green Line dividing mainly Christian east Beirut and mainly Muslim west.
The streets are busiest up to 9am and again after 3pm, reflecting the number of schools. This is a clue to Zuqaq al-Blat’s place in the history of Lebanon and the Arab world.
Barely 200 metres from downtown is a yellow, ramshackle building that once housed Al-Madrasa Al-Wataniyya (the National School), which Boutros Boustani opened in 1863 to foster citizenship regardless of sect. No plaque marks this, nor recalls that Zuqaq al-Blat was in the late 19th century a centre of the nahda, or Arab cultural renaissance.
Boustani was part of a movement to revive the Arabs through knowledge, equality and freedom. He “laid down the fundamental tropes… found in virtually all Arab reform discourses in later decades,” wrote Stephen Sheehi, associate professor at the University of South Carolina, in 2004.
In a 1993 paper for UNESCO, Khalil Abou Rjeili stressed Boustani’s conviction that education could overcome the ignorance he believed opened citizens to both sectarianism and undue foreign influence. Born in 1819 to a Maronite family in Al Dibbiyah, a village in the Chouf south of Beirut, Boustani was horrified by communal massacres in Mount Lebanon between 1840 and 1860, when 20,000 died.
He took up journalism, publishing Nafir Suriyya (“The Horn of Syria”) under the pen-name Muhibb al- Watan (“he who loves his country”). At a time when many Christians in Mount Lebanon spoke Syriac as a mother tongue, Boustani saw Arabic as a means to bring together everyone in the Levant.
Boustani wrote a dictionary, Al- Muhit, and an encyclopedia, Dairat al-Maarif. He published a periodical al-Jinan. All used an Arabic he revised to express modern scientific and literary concepts.
The National School was short-lived, closing during or shortly after the 1875 cholera pandemic and Boustani died in 1883 but others were inspired. Madrasa al-Sultaniyya, the Sultanic High School, opened in 1883.
Abd al-Qadir al-Qabbani in 1878 founded in Zuqaq al-Blat the Makassed (Islamic Benevolence) society, which pioneered education for Muslim girls. In Zuqaq al-Blat today, some older residents still call the Hariri Foundation School “the English school” because it once housed British mission schools.
But 19th-century Zuqaq al-Blat was not just about educating children. It buzzed with literary and political salons. It was home to intellectuals like poet-cum-politician Hussein Beyhum. Among teachers in Boustani’s school was Nasif al- Yaziji, a Greek Catholic who helped Boustani found the Syrian Association for the Sciences and Arts, and whose son Ibrahim simplified the Arabic font for typescript.
Interest in Zuqaq al-Blat revived in 2005 when the German Orient Institut, based in a refurbished local mansion, published History, Space and Social Conflict in Beirut: The Quarter of Zukak el-Blat. The book detailed history, demographics and surviving old buildings.
The Zuqaq al-Blat story starts at its north end, today’s Riad Al Solh Square in downtown. In 1830, this was the site of Bab Yacoub, a gate in Beirut’s city wall. Here began the first paved road (zuqaq al-blat) outside the wall and this named a quarter soon stretching a kilometre south, past Zuqaq al-Blat’s Sunni mosque, built around 1860 and now next to “the Ring” highway.
As Zuqaq al-Blat developed, leading Beirutis — mainly Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims, reflecting the city’s make-up of the time — built mansions with views of the sea, city and port. To the west (now Hamra, Verdun and Sanayeh) were sand dunes.
Still today some alleyways lead to overgrown gardens recalling Zuqaq al-Blat’s heyday. But most villas are dilapidated, including the home of poet Bechara el-Khoury (1885-1968), entered by dual curved staircases from a garden and with both storeys ringed by a gallery.
Perhaps neglecting Boustani’s ideas is more serious than neglecting buildings. “Forgetting” his school may reflect later suspicion of someone who converted to Protestantism and was “close” to Westerners. But in reality Boustani was ahead of any missionaries in calling for educating women, a clear separation of the judiciary from the executive and equitable tax collection.
Nora Boustani, a descendant and former Washington Post correspondent, told The Arab Weekly that Boustani’s message is more vital in 2016 than ever.
“Plurality of beliefs and religious diversity are threatened in our part of the world, where to varying degrees the struggle for a secular kind of citizenship and the freedom to worship freely without dictates or constraints is coming into sharp focus,” she said.
“Boutros Boustani articulated his ideas at a specific point in time. Had his advice and recommendations been heeded, we wouldn’t be in such a mess.”