Travel literature presents the reader with singular challenges, foremost among them the need to discern the limitations of the genre. When an accomplished writer such as V. S. Naipaul, for instance, journeys through Islamic lands and writes anecdotally about their culture and attitudes, his accounts, while highly readable and stimulating, do not escape the stigma of prejudice. When a journalist travels and records impressions gathered usually in haste, the problem of fair representation is compounded by the fact that journalists by trade tend to seek “the scoop” and have little time for in–depth analysis or a balanced airing of perspectives. Reporters often read up hurriedly on a region before covering it, and what they read mostly boils down to the popularized narratives of other reporters who have done the same thing before them. Soon a literature accumulates that is superficial in its evaluations, sensationalist in its emphases, and incestuous in its biases. There is nothing wrong with the first impressions or immediate impacts served up in unpretentious travel chronicles that aim mainly to entertain. But these ought not to be confused with serious scholarship offering responsible and measured assessments of complex issues with long, convoluted histories.
The predicament of the Middle East’s native Christian communities is not a subject to be treated glibly, nor one to be left solely to the devices of foreign correspondents. There is, to be sure, room for empirical investigation through interviews conducted by careful and discriminating reporters. Charles M. Sennott, former Middle East bureau chief for the Boston Globe, is the latest in a series of journalists to traverse the Levant in search of a prism through which to view the morass of the Arab–Israeli conflict. His chosen focus in The Body and the Blood is the region’s indigenous Christians, and his “journalistic pilgrimage,” as he calls it, recapitulates the stations of Jesus’ earthly life and aims “to document the dramatically diminishing Christian presence in this land where the faith began.”
Sennott concentrates on Palestinian Christians, since the path of Jesus’ life, which he says he uses as “a narrative theme and an organizational device,” moves mainly west of the Jordan River, with occasional excursions into Egypt and Lebanon. Already here there is a problem of misfocus. Palestinian Christians receive disproportionate attention, given their actual importance in the overall tapestry of Middle Eastern Christianity. The two largest and most significant Christian communities are those of Egypt and Lebanon, and neither interprets its history or its existential anxieties in the region the way the Palestinian Christians do. By highlighting the Christian Palestinians with their highly politicized faith, Sennott ends up legitimizing the view that confrontation with Israel is the overriding theme of Christian life in the Middle East. But this is an error, the result of a misplaced emphasis. Sennott should have been more cautious about accepting the preoccupations of Palestinian Christianity, which is hardly representative of the Christian communities of the wider region.
For Palestinian Christians, Palestinian nationalism, not religious identity and faith, is their ultimate allegiance. Many in fact relish cultivating a secularist outlook that they feel strengthens the bonds of unity with their fellow Palestinian Muslim nationalists. The myth circulating in Palestinian intellectual circles is that sectarian hatreds and interconfessional bloodletting is happily absent from their land, where Muslims and Christians find themselves united as Palestinians against the Zionist usurper and occupier. With the recent resurgence of militant Islamism among the Palestinians, this bluff has been called. Palestinian Christians, including the self–styled secularists in their ranks, have found themselves increasingly sidelined and rendered largely irrelevant.
The fact is that if the Islamists ever fulfilled their dream of defeating the Israelis and hurling the Jews into the sea, they would hardly be predisposed to share power with Palestinian Christians, secular or otherwise. Instead, they would proceed to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state that would be guaranteed to suppress all its non–Muslim inhabitants without exception. In other words, Israel or no Israel, the mirage of Palestinian nationalism will not save the Christians from the oppression that awaits them at the hands of the radical Islamists who are increasingly calling the shots in Palestinian society.
Much of this escapes Sennott, who, like the very Christian Palestinians he observes, turns a blind eye to the endemically subordinate status that has always defined that community. Palestinian Christians are no different from 90 percent of the Middle East’s Christians in being essentially dhimmis—namely, second–class citizens who are denied many of their basic rights and freedoms. Unsurprisingly, sensitivity to the reality of dhimmitude is almost entirely lacking in Sennott’s account, as he wanders through one Palestinian village after another attempting to tease out the story of the Christians there. Without probing the subtle and insidious effects of prolonged subjugation under dhimmitude, very little can be understood about the plight of Palestinian or Middle Eastern Christians generally, and one is ultimately unable to fathom the roots of the Christian anguish that prevails in cultures in which Islam predominates.
Although Sennott gets it more or less right when discussing Hanan Ashrawi, the most eloquent spokes person for the Palestinians, he stops short of drawing the necessary conclusions. An academic, a woman, and a Christian, Ashrawi represents the highest and most influential level a non–Muslim has attained in Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. Her articulate television soundbites in English defending Palestinian aspirations have become a staple for Western audiences.
Yet Ashrawi, as Sennott indicates, has privately displayed increasing unease about the growing control that Palestinian Islamists have been exercising among her people, as evidenced by the overtly religious character of the latest intifada. Sennott relates how she correctly warned that the disappearance of the Christians would adversely affect the standing of women in Palestinian society. Still, Sennott does not see that Ashrawi’s reluctance to dwell upon her Christian identity, an attitude long predating the current wave of violence and motivated by her desire to emphasize a shared Palestinian nationalism with the Muslims, is an expression of a deep–running and symptomatic dhimmitude. Downplaying her religious affiliation has done Ashrawi and others like her little good when Islamism reared its head on Palestinian streets. Today, Ashrawi can be seen to be moan the sad state to which she and her fellow secular nationalists have been reduced. In the end, dhimmitude inevitably leads to the fate of another high–profile Palestinian woman, Suha Arafat: conversion.
Turning to the Coptic Christians of Egypt, Sennott describes in some detail a series of disturbing incidents experienced firsthand. They mainly involved punitive measures taken against the Copts, both by the authorities and vigilante Islamists, following a double murder in a small town that was pinned on a local member of the Coptic community. The entire sequence of events represents a template of recurring persecutions directed at the Copts, the Middle East’s most typical dhimmis. For the past 1,400 years, the Copts haven’t known what it means to lead a free and dignified existence. Although they are the largest native Christian community in the Arab world, numerical size is really irrelevant here since chronic dhimmitude renders its victims incapable of making a positive contribution to their surroundings. Any accurate account of this tragic community would have to focus on the persistent abuse and repression that has afflicted it. It is thus unfortunate that Sennott expresses such deep skepticism about the horror stories published by the Coptic associations of America—especially when Sennott himself provides graphic accounts of their mistreatment in Egypt.
It is when he comes to the Maronite Christians of Lebanon that Sennott displays the worst side of journalistic travel literature. Not only does he choose the occasion of Israel’s chaotic withdrawal from south Lebanon in May 2000 to pronounce solemnly, and disdainfully, on Maronite history and on the community as a whole; he also traffics in the quasi–racist jargon of earlier journalistic gurus, Robert Fisk and Jonathan Randall, who have written about the Maronites.
As the last remaining free, though embattled, Christian community in the Arab world, the Maronites long ago made the historic decision to resist dhimmitude, and their destiny ever since has been to pay a high price in blood and treasure. Sennott views the entire community and its tenacious struggles against oppression through the lens of the collapse of Israel’s proxy, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), and especially through the eyes of SLA leader Akl Hachem, who was assassinated by Hezbollah. For Sennott, Maronite rejection of external Syrian occupation and internal Islamization, along with their battles in the 1970s against Arafat’s armed state–within–a–state, are all signs of “cultural arrogance,” and their thirst for a free existence in dignity merely an expression of “megalomaniacal imagination.”
The primary accomplishment of Sennott’s book is to underscore the well–known fact of steady Christian demographic decline throughout the Middle East. On the real danger afflicting these Christians—the spread of dhimmitude—it has precious little to offer.
Habib C. Malik teaches history and cultural studies at the Lebanese American University (Byblos campus) in Lebanon.