The Lebanese Childhood


Lebanese Children at School in 1930

According to Mintz, childhood is far from being stable, timeless, and universal category of life; it is more of a historical invention whose meaning and social force have changed over time. This is also the case when we are to compare American childhood to other cultures. The reality of childhood varies from one culture to another. Similar to the African and Korean childhoods, the Lebanese childhood has undergone several conceptual changes over time. The idea of childhood was molded and remolded in French Mandate Lebanon (1920- 1942) upon which the Euro-American modernity was projected.

The Ottoman era focused on religion to be the basis of the way they reared children. Although Christian, Muslim, Druze, and Jewish adults resided in the Ottoman territories which were to become modern Lebanon, they all shared the same idea of childhood. A child was expected to live by the morals depicted by the Ottoman law; boys were expected to work as porters or farmers and help their parents with financial support. Education was basically studying religion. When the British and French troops entered Beirut in 1918, the first step towards social reform was through education. Education provided foreigners with inroads into home and family life, and the school building was identified as one of the most utilitarian sites for social reform.

Similar to how “‘Friends of Indians’ launched an ambitious campaign to ‘Americanize’ Indian children and obliterate their tribal identity,” the French issued an act proclaiming the maintenance and rehabilitation of the educational system and the replacement of Turkish with French as the official language of instruction, along with Arabic (p.171). Missionary schools started opening all around Lebanon with high enrollment; the High Commission reported a total of 1,307 schools by 1933. This revealed a strong and serious determination on behalf of the Lebanese to develop and educate themselves and their children. The educational reform became a site of contestation between French Jesuits and American protestants, both of whom “sought to recast Lebanese youth in their own image” (p. 328). Lebanese critic of the 1960s and 70s, Hassan Hamdan explains that rather than promote a Lebanese national culture, the “colonists instead sought to craft children, especially the children of the bourgeoisie, into second-class citizens of their own empires, with social, cultural, and economical allegiances to the West that trumped their native ones” (p. 329). 

By the 17th Century, the Jesuits had become an accepted educational presence in the region. By early 1830s, the crusade to spread the “Good News” of the Second Great Awakening had been taken up by American missionaries dispatched to the East, hoping to convert Muslims, Maronites, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Catholics to Protestantism. Ideologies of the West were engrained in the children who carried along that legacy when Lebanon became independent–a democratic country operating on its own.

After independence, Lebanese childhood was remolded to merge the European-American ideals with non-Western national culture. It might be said that the Lebanese nationalist child-ideal combined “European and existing gender, religious, and aesthetic norms” in order to represent Lebanon as both modern but also possessing its own distinctive history and culture (p. 86). In that sense, Lebanon, unlike Syria or other countries of the Middle East that were also colonized–carried that Western culture through education of childhood that was eventually manifested in all aspects of society along with their national patriotism. Thus, until now, Lebanese’s culture can easily be detected to be similar in many ways to that of Europe: Their everyday dialect is a combination of Arabic, French, and English words all together; their perspectives advocate Western ideologies, their societal interactions merge traditional Lebanese customs with that of the West in all aspects of life. And all of that was produced by the change in the history of Lebanese childhood through education that was socially and politically molded to in itself transform a nation!


‘Amil, “Nizam al-ta’lim fi Lubnan,” 28; abu Rabi’, Contemporary Arab Thought, 329.

LeVine, “Ethnographic Studies of Childhood,” 86.

Asher Kaufman, Reviving Phoenicia: In Search of Identity in Lebanon (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004), 328.

Steven, Mintz, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (Cambridge: Belknap Harvard,2004), 171.


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