Cheikh Malek el-Khazen is heir to the House of Khazen, of the Lebanese nobility. He is also the founder of the Khazen Foundation and Khazen.org. He was kind enough to grant me an interview.
Could you tell us a little bit about your family’s history?
The Khazen can trace back their lineage to the 9th century, when they were mainly located in the Levant. They started acquiring lands from the Muslim Shi’a Tribes in Mount Lebanon during the 1400s and mainly focused their exodus in the Keserwan district. This caused the Shi’a to leave Keserwan and migrate to the South of Lebanon and the Maronites, including clergy, to move to the Keserwan district.
The Khazen families, who were now controlling the Kerserwan district, were very influential with the Catholic Maronite Church. Mainly, this is because of their financial support to the Church and also their help in expanding the Church by the construction of many monasteries. They also offered lands and, most importantly, supplied security to the Church and the Maronite community.
The common ancestor of most of the current members from the Khazen family is Sarkis el-Khazen. Sarkis el-Khazen was famous because he translated the Bible to “Karchouni”, which is an Arab dialect written using the Syriac (very close to Aramaic) alphabet. Sarkis el-Khazen died in 1570, leaving two children, Abou-Sakr and Abou-Safi Rabah, to which all the Khazen branches relate. In 1584, the sons of Sarkis el-Khazen were now very influential and powerful and were able to hide the princes Fakhreddine and Youness in a city of Ballouneh (part of Mount Lebanon). The father of the princes at the time was fighting the Ottoman Empire’s occupation. The young princes grew up under the care and safety of our family. In return, the princes’ father granted our head the title of Cheikh and complete political influence and control of Mount Lebanon.
Since then, our family has played leading roles in governing Mount Lebanon. French King Louis XIV elevated the family to the French nobility and referred to us with the title “Prince of the Maronites” in many letters due to the protection we provided to the Catholic Maronites in the region.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, under the guidance of Cheikh Abou Naufal el-Khazen (and, later on, his sons) the next consuls combined administrative responsibilities with the functions of French consul in all of the area of what was known as “great Lebanon”. The Khazen were successful in spreading the message of the Maronites in Lebanon, in return receiving many papal decorations. They played a unique role in supporting the clergy and strengthened the relationship of the Maronites with France.
There were three important and influential Maronite patriarchs from the Khazen family: Youssef Dargham (1733–1742), Toubia (1756–1766), and Youssef Ragi (1845–1854). There were also seven archbishops. In 1858, Tanios Chahine (a peasant) led a rebellion against the Khazen family, with the help of the Ottoman and English who wanted to increase their influence back in Lebanon. (My mother’s great-uncle, by the way, was the patriarch at the time.) This has caused a great loss of my family’s dominance over the Kerserwan district. Many of our lands were taken by his group.
In modern history, though, we have always represented Lebanon (and, more specifically, Keserwan) by one Parliament Member and, in some cases, two. We have also been represented in many recent governments, where we have held the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Tourism. My ancestors, also, were all consuls of France.
When did your family move from Lebanon to America?
In 1999. But there is still a large part of my family in Lebanon that is very active in government. My parents still own my childhood home, and I visit Lebanon yearly. Currently, my cousin is a Member of Parliament (equivalent to a senator in America). My father owns many lands and also many religious endowments that the Maronite clergy currently use, including Bkerke, the main residence of the Cardinal-Patriarch of the Catholic Maronite Church.
Why did they move?
Uncertainty in the region, especially for the minority of the Middle East. But it is important to note that we did not leave completely — we currently have strong ties and direct contact to Lebanon.
What has become of your family’s properties and the churches you patron there?
Like I said, during the 1858 revolution, the peasants took a part of the Khazen lands by force. But we currently control other large parts, around 200, that are divided between members of the family. These have not been damaged or destroyed.
What do you think of what is currently going on in the Middle East, with the Islamic State and massive unrest?
The rise of extremists in the region is causing most of the educated to leave the country. It is important to note that the Maronites are still extremely powerful in Lebanon, unlike with the other countries in the Middle East. Of course, with the current unrest, this causes a lot of uncertainty for the future.
I understand that Lebanon is experiencing some political turmoil right now, without a president. Do you have anything to say about that? It appears that all of the candidates are Catholics.
Excellent question. You know well the political situation. In the constitution, the Lebanese president is mandated to be a Catholic Maronite. The Prime Minister has to be a Sunni. And the president of the parliament has to be a Shi’a. The commander of the Lebanese army must also be a Maronite. The government in Lebanon is divided by religion. Half of the members are Christians and the other half are Muslims. Same for the Lebanese Parliament. The only powerful position that is left for Maronites is the presidency, with the ability to appoint a government. Without a president, we are undermining the role of the presidency and Christianity in the region. (I, actually, met the former president, Michel Suleiman, in 2012.)
Is your family officially recognized by the government of Lebanon?
Technically, after 1858, our titles were abolished. But in my identity card, driver’s license, and passport, I am still referred to as Cheikh Malek el-Khazen. Cheikh is, originally, a title equivalent to Duke or Count in French nobility. Most of my Lebanese friends, due to the respect for my family and their work, refer to me as Cheikh.