Violence and destruction stem from an attempt to monopolize power in “L’empereur à pied” (“The Emperor on Foot”), a 2017 novel by Lebanese author Charif Majdalani. The novel begins with the mysterious appearance of Khanjar Jbeili and his three sons in the mountain village of Massiaf, where they are seeking land on which to sharecrop. After verifying that Khanjar is Christian, a local sheikh grants him a plot of land. This offer of land that appears particularly inhospitable strikes most of the villagers as a form of mockery; Jbeili nevertheless succeeds in cultivating it. This farmland grows into a small empire as the Jbeilis become first tax collectors and then investors in industry.
The hard-won nature of the gains of the Jbeili family might explain Khanjar’s devotion to keeping them together. He forbids all of his descendants from marrying except for the oldest in each generation, an interdiction that becomes known as “the Oath of the Dry Tree.” Any descendant who breaks this oath will be disinherited.
A mountain setting, an unequal distribution of power, and sectarian identification as a prerequisite for certain privileges: these aspects of the Jbeili family’s origin story echo the circumstances of their country’s founding.
Lebanon’s birth as a nation was motivated by Maronite Christians’ desire to forge a national identity that would be distinct from that of the surrounding Arab countries. Lebanon’s Maronite Christians had gained recognition for Mount Lebanon, in which they comprised the majority of the population, as a privileged administrative region under the Ottoman Empire. Following the Empire’s dissolution after World War I, the territory currently known as Lebanon became a French mandate.
The Maronites petitioned France for the expansion of their territory to what they considered its “national and historical boundaries,” a much larger area spanning from the coast to the Bekaa Valley. Their rationale was that this region, which they called “Greater Lebanon,” had a distinct culture from the surrounding Arab territories. The national identity of “Greater Lebanon,” as the Maronites envisioned it, would be based on Lebanon’s ancient Phoenician heritage, and culturally aligned with Western Europe rather than the country’s Arab neighbors.
The territorial gains for which the Maronites lobbied entailed a demographic loss. Mount Lebanon’s population was comprised primarily of Maronite Christians. In the proposed state of Greater Lebanon, however, Maronites would constitute a majority of the population only by a small margin, if at all.
The predominant nationalist sentiment in the formerly Ottoman Arab territories was one of pan-Arabism, but Britain and France were unwilling to recognize these territories as a unified nation. The Maronites’ demands for national sovereignty were, therefore, the only demands to which France was amenable. General Henri Gouraud, the French High Commissioner in Beirut, announced the creation of the State of Greater Lebanon in 1920; France granted Lebanon independence in 1943.
The unilateral declaration of Lebanon as a state distinct from its Arab neighbors created a rift between the Maronite Christians and the country’s Muslims. “Contrary to the claims of the national anthem, the concept of a natural and historical Lebanese nationality was meaningful to some people in the country, but not to others,” Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi writes in his book “A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered.”
“Thus in Lebanon, from the very beginning, a force called Arabism, acting from outside and inside the country, stood face to face with another exclusively parochial social force called Lebanism; and the two forces collided on every fundamental issue, impeding the normal development of the state and keeping its political legitimacy and ultimate viability continuously in question.”
Lebanon’s 1943 National Pact attempted to deal with this tension by laying out guidelines for the country’s confessional system. In this type of government, each sect’s population determines the number of political positions allocated to its members. Lebanon’s National Pact reserved specific seats in government for members of each religious group.
In “L’empereur à pied,” the story of the Jbeili family mirrors Lebanon’s genesis: both are based on a non-consensual restriction of power. Adhering to the Oath of the Dry Tree, the Jbeilis consolidate their wealth by limiting the number of heirs in the family. They disregard the wishes of the younger sons who are forbidden from getting married. The oath’s name is ominous in its evocation of stunted growth, but even more threatening in light of a certain tree’s role as an emblem of Lebanese national identity. The Lebanese flag features a cedar, a symbol of Lebanon’s prosperity as depicted in the Bible.
The restriction of inheritance in the Jbeili family has unintended consequences. Khanjar’s two younger sons, boasting about how many illegitimate children they have fathered in the village, incite a brawl with villagers that leads to their death.
In this chapter of the family history, trying to strip the younger brothers of their right to get married does not stop them from having children. The oath restricts who can benefit from the family fortune, but cannot force the disinherited brothers to accept their lot. This story illustrates the inevitability of violence in a system that controls the distribution of power.
The final generation of Jbeilis in the novel is the first to break the Oath of the Dry Tree. The younger brother in this generation, Raed, takes over the family business after his older brother betrays their father. After the death of his older brother, Raed remains in charge of the family land and business, even after his two nephews—the new heirs, according to the Oath of the Dry Tree—come of age.
“I don’t think any country exists in the world where war has engendered such a great quantity not of destruction but of construction,” Raed says in reference to the real estate boom that took place during the civil war.
Raed’s nephews are eager to join in this trend by developing the family land that has until now remained agricultural. Raed, however, refuses even though he knows the land will revert to them after his death. The conflict between Raed’s efforts toward environmental preservation and the looming threat of the land’s degradation remains unresolved at the end of the novel.
This conflict reflects the ongoing discrepancy in Lebanon between the ideal of transcending sectarian divisions and their persistence. The Taif Agreement, which brought an end to the Lebanese Civil War in 1990, expressed the goal of eliminating the confessional system without delineating a clear process or timeline for its abolition.
As a result, the same structure of governance continues to undermine the country’s unity now, almost thirty years later. It perpetuates a political system in which citizens seek out government services from the politicians representing their sects rather than from a centralized state.
Despite hopes for a more unified future, at the end of “L’empereur à pied,” tribalism remains a threat both to the Jbeili family and to the country it represents.