In autumn 2020, several Jaafar clan notables in Lebanon’s Beqaa region awoke to commotion. They each found two or three women from the Jamal family in front of their houses. The doors to the clan’s homes were immediately opened, and the women were received in the main hall. They were lodged with the Jaafar women as honored guests, Ali Abdu Jaafar – one of the clan’s notables – tells the Legal Agenda.
Sending the Jamal family’s women in this manner averted the bloodshed that would have occurred had the Jaafar exacted revenge [th’ar] on the Jamal family after members of the latter allegedly killed Muhammad Shamil Jaafar in an ambush in Syria. That day, after the Jaafar attempted to avenge their clansman, all the Jamal family’s houses were vacated in the town of Qasr, where most of the Jaafar clan also live, and the Jaafar cordoned off the neighborhood with a gate. Although notables and political figures interceded and the Jamal family showed readiness to pay a large sum of blood money [diya], the victim’s branch of the Jaafar clan was not satisfied with reconciliation [sulh]. Of course, the clan cannot decide to reconcile against the will of the victim’s immediate family. Clashes between the two families preceded the final step. The Jaafar attacked Usfuriyya – the Jamal’s village inside Syria – and the Jamal’s settlement in the town of Zaita, also on the Syrian border. In the latter incident, conciliators intervened to extract the women and children before the homes were targeted.
One clan notable says that the person who came up with the idea of bringing the Jamal women to the Jaafar’s houses is a “smart fellow” because the tradition, which was common in clan history, managed to avert bloodshed even though the Jaafar had previously refused reconciliation. It has a strong psychological effect because of its connection to women’s “honor” [‘ird] (i.e. the Jamal women were left in the care of the Jaafar). Women’s honor is one of the three cornerstones of clan custom that researcher Suwaydan Nasir al-Din identified in his study on the clans of the western jord (barren hinterland), namely “blood, women’s honor, and land (living quarters)”. These cornerstones “fall under one concept that must be preserved, namely honor [sharaf]”.
After arranging the Jamal women’s accommodation, the Jaafar notables met, in keeping with the custom requiring a response to a reconciliation attempt. They sent for an answer from the victim’s branch within hours so that the clan could adopt a unified position. Subsequently, the victim’s immediate family took the Jamal women to their family’s neighborhood in Qasr, removed the gate themselves, placed the women in their homes, and asked them to call the men to return. The Jaafar accepted the reconciliation after banishing the seven people accused of killing their clansman and restricting the blood feud to them, excluding the Jamal family’s other males. In early June 2021, Jaafar youths shot at one of the seven accused inside Syrian territory, wounding him 14 times. He survived and remains under treatment in Syrian hospitals. The Legal Agenda learned that after this event, the Jaafar victim’s branch deemed that revenge had been exacted, and efforts began to turn the page once and for all.
The title that retired Lebanese University professor Fuad Khalil gave to his book – The Clan: The Local Community’s State [al-‘Ashira: Dawlat al-Mujtama’ al-Mahalliyy] – postulates that these clans possess an integrated system of customs, habits, traditions, and behaviors in their community and in relation to their milieu, including a system of authority within the clan and in relation to other clans. Today, many customs and behaviors are in decline, changing, or going extinct without being documented by anthropologists despite their importance. Moreover, the clans have become engaged (albeit minimally) in the public order of the Lebanese state (a state that is effectively absent from their areas). Nevertheless, many clan practices still exist.
While working on this article, we conducted 20 interviews with notables from several clans. The interviews addressed many aspects of life, including the sanctity of blood, the sanctity of the home, protecting outsiders (i.e. refugees), reconciliation procedures, al-jahiyya (a committee of people who conciliate between two clans), blood money, the sanctity of lineage and clan affiliation, and memorial services. While this article documents some customs and behaviors, “honor” crimes are covered by a special investigation on clanswomen.
Approximately 35 years ago, when I was young, I heard that the Allaw clan was investigating the robbing (to the effect of LL10,000) and murder of one of its members. The clan identified the killer, who was also one of its members. Its council, composed of the leaders of the branches and sub-branches and the offender’s family, issued a judgment against him. I wondered a lot about what that judgment would be. I waited for my father to return at night and asked him, but his response was short and seemingly incomplete. “They banished him far away – nobody will see him anymore”, he said in a manner leaving no room for further questions. Later, I learned that the clan sentenced the offender to death, and it was his own family that carried out the execution. He was buried in the mountains, not in the clan’s cemetery, and no memorial service was held. This information was not in keeping with what I was learning in the civic education book about the authority of the judiciary and law within the framework of the state that was supposed to govern my area. It was all completely beyond public order.
On 5 January 2021, brothers Shadi and Ibrahim Jaafar were shot and killed by thieves in Naanaa (the clan’s jord). The victims had come to the area after their family’s home was robbed the day before. The thieves, returning to collect a transformer, shot the brothers when they tried to defend their property. The crime shook the public, especially as the two youths had a clean record and no connection to any illegal behavior.
The security forces came and opened an investigation. The Jaafar clan also investigated and identified the suspects from among people with criminal records. They told the relatives of each one to surrender him to the security agencies (Amy Intelligence in the area) or else be held responsible. The Legal Agenda learned that some of those surrendered to the security forces were already wanted in various cases. Nevertheless, they were questioned only about the murder of the two youths and then released. Evidentially, this was part of the agreed-upon compromise concerning their surrender. The clan investigation created more strain within the clan than the state’s investigation because it required that family loyalties be set aside. Following the incident, the clan circulated a charter – a copy of which the Legal Agenda obtained – stating the following:
“The Jaafar clan and all the noble have come together on a final charter to apply in this crime and similar future crimes. It contains the following clauses:
Clan notable Ali Abdu Jaafar verified the statement and says that the Jaafar family sent a copy to all the region’s clans, which endorsed it. Hence, it is now a shared code of honor. He told the Legal Agenda, “We helped the security forces uncover our children’s murderers; we did not supplant them”. Subsequently, Army Intelligence managed to uncover the perpetrators. A statement issued by the Lebanese Army’s Directorate of Orientation read,
“On 16 May 2021, a Directorate of Intelligence patrol arrested fugitive [A. A.] in the Bahsa-Deir Dalloum-Akkar area while raiding his home… During the raid, the patrol came under fire from the aforementioned home and its surroundings. The personnel were forced to return fire, killing the two deserting corporals who participated in the crime, in addition to killing [KH. A.] and wounding his wife [S. D.] and [M. A.]. The patrol seized a quantity of weapons and ammunition. The investigation was initiated under the oversight of the competent judiciary”.
After the perpetrators were exposed, a delegation from Akkar visited the Jaafar clan to offer condolences. The clan received the delegation, signaling that it was moving on from the crime and would not allow it to cause a crisis between Akkar and the clans of Hermel. The Akkar delegation included MP Walid Baarini, the heads and mayors of the area’s municipalities, a representative of the governorate’s mufti, and other actors. The clan received them in its houses in the presence of Amal Movement MP Ghazi Zaiter, Hezbollah MP Ihab Hamada, a Hezbollah delegation headed by Sheikh Faisal Shukr, Hermel mufti Sheikh Ali Taha, and municipal, clan, social, and political figures. With this step, the Jaafar clan finally handed the matter over to the state, represented by Army Intelligence, and hence to the judiciary to do justice. It thereby turned the page on any blood feud.
The two examples above, separated by approximately 35 years, are not identical. Nevertheless, the code of honor bears some commonalities with the earlier event, particularly the clan’s choice to do justice in murder cases by sentencing the offenders to death at the hands of their relatives (Clause 1).
Vengeance among tribes differs depending on the nature of the original bloodshed. If the matter only involved wounds, reconciliation is usually achieved via the payment of compensation after intercession by conciliators from among other clans’ notables. This is especially true when the incident was accidental, such as when a clansman is wounded but the target was a member of another clan. When the injury is intentional, achieving a reconciliation without retaliation is more difficult. The victim and his clan seek vengeance, even if only by wounding rather than killing the offender (“an eye for an eye”). A reconciliation is then reached on the basis that the scores have been settled. For example, last summer a non-clans person living with his family in his mother’s home shot and severely wounded a member of his mother’s clan who had shot him three months earlier. The second incident occurred even though a reconciliation had been reached following the first.
Recently, after youths from the Allaw clan beat up an Awwad clansman, the latter, with his relatives, attacked the youths’ car. They fired approximately 30 bullets, wounding the youths but killing an Allam clansman who was with them. Subsequently, the Allaw youths shot an engineer from the Awwad family who had no connection to the incident or the Awwad offenders besides belonging to the same clan, wounding him in the foot. A reconciliation was subsequently reached between the Allaw and Awwad clans.
Although the clan notables emphasize their attempts to limit retaliation to the offender, facts on the ground contradict them. As soon as an incident occurs between two people from different clans, all the clans’ members become involved in the blood feud, especially if there is a death. In fact, when an incident between two clans takes place, the clan immediately informs all its members not to move about or go near the other clan’s areas of influence in order to avoid being attacked, irrespective of whether they have any personal connection to the person involved in the incident.
Many years ago, clansmen would shame each other for failing to avenge a relative, especially a father, brother, or cousin. Today, this trend has declined, at least when the state does justice via a punishment commensurate with the crime. Nevertheless, the offender is barred from the area of his rival’s clan even after serving his sentence from the judiciary. Usually, his presence in the area is considered a challenge and affront to the clan, one that demands a response. Sometimes, a clansman will surrender himself to the state after killing another clansman only for the victim’s family to abstain from filing a personal action against him so that they can exact revenge once he completes his public right sentence and is released. In this regard, clan justice, unlike the state’s justice, differs among homicide cases.
One of the most prominent clan customs concerning revenge is “forgiveness when revenge could be taken” [al-‘afu ‘inda al-maqdira]. Stories are passed down between generations about men who caught their brother, father, or uncle’s killer by surprise only to warn him with the phrase “Don’t say I killed you treacherously”, pursuant to the custom of not acting treacherously [‘adam al-ghadr]. The target would raise his hands in surrender and say, “I’m your emancipee [‘atiq]”, i.e. “You are the one who emancipated my soul” from death. Usually, the pardoned man announces that he is so-and-so’s emancipee. Per the aforementioned principle, anyone who emancipates a soul is held in high esteem among the clans.
One such incident occurred recently. Clan notables brought two members of the al-Hiqq family to the grave of their victim, Husayn Asif Nassereddine, only for his brother to pardon them. The youth was killed when he was coincidentally present during a revenge incident between the two families. On 21 July 2021, the Nassereddine family issued a statement confirming the pardon with the phrase “the most honorable revenge is forgiveness”. The statement read,
“The Almighty said, ‘The punishment for a wrong is a similar wrong. But whoever forgives and amends shall have his reward with God. Surely, He does not love the unjust’. Our Sayyid Imam Ali (PBUH) said, forgive when [revenge] could be [taken].
Several months ago, the upright young man Husayn Asif Nassereddine was wrongfully killed while coincidentally present during a revenge incident between the Nassereddine and al-Hiqq families. Last night, clan notables brought the two killers to the victim’s grave. The response from the victim’s brother was, ‘We have never brought shame to the Nassereddine clan, and we won’t do so now by killing you on my brother’s grave. I have forgiven you’. It is well-known that in clan code, attending and kneeling before a grave carries much weight.
It was an act of great honor on the part of Hasan Asif Nassereddine. From the day his brother was murdered, he took no barbaric actions. He was patient and then, in keeping with his character, forgave and brought pride to his clan. We hope that the bloodshed in our area stops and implore others to learn to forgive of their own volition so that the criminal corrects his ways and learns that shedding innocent blood shames him before others.”
The statement concluded, “Note: We did not publish any video or image while the killers were at the victim’s grave”.
Clan notables attribute the persistence of the revenge custom to the absence of security and the state in the region. In most cases, the killer is not arrested and remains an outlaw in the jords. Consequently, the victim’s relatives say that it is up to them to “exact retribution and do justice”. They tell many stories in which they handed the matter over to the state only to find that the killer, by virtue of his connections, walks free a short time later without receiving the punishment he deserves
Within the clan, the people concerned with vengeance are the victim’s inner circle, i.e. the father and brothers followed by uncles and cousins. However, if a clan enters a battle after one of its members is killed, its youth and men find themselves together at the heart of the battle. Most, especially the militants, take up arms in support of their clan. Rarely do people with university degrees, who have public posts or practice professions like medicine, engineering, law, and teaching, participate in clan warfare. However, when a conflict between clans breaks out, a doctor belonging to one of them may be forced to close his clinic for fear of being targeted for revenge.
Revenge for homicide occurs not only between rival clans. Rather, there are many examples of such incidents within a family and between branches and sub-branches. If a crime occurs within a clan, then the retaliation occurs between the victim and offender’s branches or sub-branches.
Conciliators play a large role in resolving clan issues. They intercede in many cases, including bride kidnapping, land ownership disputes, injury, homicide, and armed battles between clans. The conciliators are notables from clans not involved in the problem concerned. They seek to stop the cascade of blood, which may never end without their intervention as each retaliation leads to another. When a battle between two clans occurs, the conciliators form a large committee divided into two teams. They each simultaneously approach the barricades of one clan while raising white flags and bring the fighters down so that the reconciliation negotiations can begin. In the old days, the conciliators would not leave a clan’s homes or drink its coffee until its notables had handed the matter over to them and pledged to accept the solution that they deemed fit. The conciliators examine the issue and develop solutions that save the face of both clans based on the circumstances of the conflict. They only announce the solution they propose after consulting the people concerned and checking that it suits their demands, without diminishing the position of the other clan. The reconciliation agreement comes as part of an integrated package that even encompasses the legal cases of any fugitives or detainees. Often, the legal cases of the people concerned are settled as part of the reconciliation agreement itself. Recently, a blood feud arose between two branches of the Allaw clan and required the intercession of Nassereddine and Jaafar notables. At the time of writing, they are still trying to reach a settlement to prevent bloodshed among cousins.
When the reconciliation requires blood money, the entire clan helps to gather it, with each man expected to pay a portion. Those involved in the incident may pay all or the brunt of the blood money if their financial circumstances permit.
Customarily, some clansmen involved in incidents within their clan or with another clan would seek refuge in the homes of one of the clans. Initially, the asylum seeker is received in the home of the notable he sought out, and a home could be allocated to him and his family if he stays for a long time. Inevitably, the safety and dignity of the refugee become linked to the safety and dignity of the clan protecting him. This clan informs the clan involved in the refugee’s issue of his presence within their territory and living quarters. Hence, he is under its protection, and any attack on him would be akin to an attack on the clan. Nobody tries to exact revenge as long as he remains within the clan’s domain. The protecting clan begins contacting the other clan, forming a reconciliation committee composed of its notables, and looking for solutions. If it cannot do so alone, it collaborates with notables from other clans so that the committee carries more weight and the clan concerned feels that its position and desires are being appreciated. Every kind of problem has its own solutions, and clan customs dictate that no reception or asylum be granted to anyone who commits a disgraceful act related to honor [‘ird or sharaf], murder for the sake of theft, or theft itself.
The clan that received the asylum seeker may be unable to resolve his issue and reach a reconciliation with the family of the deceased victim. In that case, the asylum seeker continues living with the clan. For example, 30 years ago, a man from Akkar came to the Jaafar clan with his family after killing another man from his area. The Jaafar tried to resolve their guest’s problem and return him to his area, to no avail. The man remains among them to this day, living with all his descendants. They built their homes among those of the Jaafar, married locals, and have not returned to their area at the time of writing. Their rival never attempted to harm them or exact revenge as the clan’s protection is inviolable, and his safety and security have become linked to that of the Jaafar.
Despite everyone’s insistence that theft is today left to the judiciary, the matter is taken very seriously in the clans’ areas, especially if the thief is not a clansman. Thieves not belonging to the clans seldom dare to steal from the clans’ well-known areas unless they are strangers to the district. Usually, a clansman does not steal from another clan because the matter could result in death, whereas the same does not apply to a clan-affiliated thief who targets property not belonging to the clans. Theft may occur in a clan’s area if the thieves have accomplices from the targeted clan itself. Among the clans, the act of theft has customs that multiply the punishment. Besides being named and shamed among the clans, the punishment for theft is four times the value of the stolen goods if the thief is not from among the clan or relatives, eight times the value if he is a relative or neighbor, and 16 times if he is both a relative and a neighbor. The thief’s blood is considered fair- game, and no vengeance is sought for him if he is caught in the act and violently resists the property owner such that the latter has no choice but to kill him. Ideally, the thief is caught and handed over to his clan to be disciplined and warned. If he nevertheless reoffends, he is banished, and word of his banishment is spread. This means that his cover is lifted, and no revenge is sought nor any blood money demanded if he continues his wrongdoing. If the thief kills his victim, the blood money is doubled, revenge remains on the table, and his blood may be freely spilled.
Compliance with customs and behaviors is linked to the system of authority within the clan, the extent of its solidarity, and the strength of its kinship. Authority within the clan was based on the presence of a main leader and leaders or notables for each of its branches and sub-branches. There could be multiple leaders if multiple branches were equally strong in terms of lineage, numbers, and capacities. All the clan’s members would follow their advice and abide by their decisions. In turn, the leader of each branch or sub-branch held sway over the people belonging to it. The clan would make its general decisions following a meeting convened by what could be called a “clan council” composed of the primary leader and the leaders of the branches and sub-branches. Its decisions would be binding on everyone in situations concerning the whole clan, such as the battles that were occurring with other clans and the state.
During our research, we met a number of clan notables who today lament over the old days when the clan’s unity was its primary capital and its means to a high standing both with the other clans and with society and the state.
Ali Abdu Jaafar, one of his clan’s notables, says, “Today we have two new clans, namely Hezbollah and the Amal Movement”, in reference to these parties’ influence on the loyalties of the clansmen among their ranks. Jaafar is one of the conciliators to whose houses people head to resolve problems. Nevertheless, he believes that, “The clan’s authority over its people today isn’t what it was before”. He adds, “Hardly anyone holds sway over his close relatives”.
Ghazi Mahmud Nassereddine, a clan notable, summarizes the situation by saying, “We were clans, and now we’re farms”. He says that today, a father “barely holds sway over his son” because of “the politicization of young people, and the distribution of their loyalties to the current parties, especially the Amal Movement and Hezbollah, rather than the clan”.
Rakan Dandash, a Dandash clan leader and former president of the Beirut Water Administration Council, attributes the fragmentation of leadership within each clan to the Chehabist era too: “The clan leaders were contaminated by conditioning them to benefits and free money to ensure each one’s loyalty, as well as hatching new leaderships within each clan and maintaining a grip over them”. In his opinion – one shared bywith other clan notables – this was the first wedge in the unity of the leadership within each clan.
Besides Chehabism, Muflih Allaw – a notable of his clan – argues that, “The clan is disappearing because it fell outside the historical path of development”. He says, “Today, we lack solidarity even within the clan”. He adds “the many fugitives and outlaws amidst the lawlessness” to the causes of the collapse of authority within the clan: “Every armed person now believes he can do whatever he likes without serious punishment”. He continues, “Here, I’m not talking about people wanted for planting their land with hashish but about the major smugglers and drug dealers who have exploited the state’s absence and built fortunes. Each one presents himself as a notable or leader to a group that follows him because of benefits and shared interests. This applies to all the clans”. In the late 70s, Allaw was among the first to try to create a framework for authority within the clan by establishing a clan council, though he prefers to call it a “popular committee for the clan that combines skills and reflects the factions within it in terms of branches and sub-branches”. The council made its decisions via a majority vote, and Allaw sees it as “a democratic experiment within the clan”. Today, “nothing of it remains”.
All our interviewees insisted on explaining the clans’ positive customs – including generosity, gallantry, supporting the weak, honoring guests, and accepting asylum seekers. Yet when confronted with the many practices and incidents not in line with these values, they deem them “individual practices of crooks from the clans, practices of which no clan approves”. They hold the political parties, particularly Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, responsible for creating loyalties among clansmen that remove them from the clan’s overarching authority: “They have created ‘big shots’ who respond to nobody”. Clansmen who belong to parties, particularly Hezbollah, deny this claim and criticize the performance of some of those considered notables in their clans: “Some notables’ behaviors displease us and do not match our ideas and faith. Hence, we do not submit to [these behaviors], and they do not concern us. The party has nothing to do with this”.