Texas parents object to 'Lebanon' school

A map of the United States with towns with Middle Eastern names labelled.

Some parents in the Dallas, Texas, suburban town of Frisco aren't too keen on the proposed name of their newest school.

Lebanon High, the school board's choice, is just a bit too, shall we say, foreign.

School district officials picked the name because the building, currently under construction and set to open next year, sits in the middle of what was once an old farming town called Lebanon, before it was incorporated into modern-day Frisco.

"Memories of Lebanon may be found throughout Frisco," the school district writes in a publication explaining the name. There's a road and a Baptist church that still bear the name, and there even used to be a Lebanon school, although it closed in 1947.

The school will be "an acknowledgement to those who once lived and farmed in this community and who have contributed greatly to the Frisco and Frisco ISD of today."

Frisco parent Robert Mays, however, isn't buying it.

"For a high school name, it doesn't fit this community," he told a local television reporter.

During a 12 January district meeting, another parent said she appreciated the history of the name in the community, but it always troubled her.

"The present-tense name of a country that was in the news all the time with reference of war and battleground was always what was on my mind when I would say the name Lebanon," Liffey Skender told the school board.

"The word Lebanon still reminds me of all the sad and turmoil that goes on in the Middle East."

According to the Dallas Morning News, which covered the event, Ms Skender suggested "Freedom High" as an alternative - and provided the officials with emails supporting her pick.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Beirut, Lebanon's capital, has come a long way since the nation's civil war in the 1980s

Freedom High is a bit more in keeping with the town's other high schools, bearing names like Liberty, Heritage, Lone Star, Independence and Centennial. According to the Morning News, however, the school board is sticking with its original choice.

It turns out Lebanon isn't all that uncommon a name for US. There are at least 19 of them dotting the map, from Oregon to Maine.

According to University of California, Santa Cruz Prof Nathaniel Deutsch, there is a history of Middle Eastern named towns in the US - although it sometimes has little to do with the national origins of their founders.

"Such names should be seen as part of the broader flowering of romantic Orientalism in America's heartland during the second half of the nineteenth century," he writes in the 2009 book Inventing America's "Worst" Family: Eugenics, Islam, and the Fall and Rise of the Tribe of Ishmael.

"Residents of towns like Morocco and Mecca were attracted to these names for the same reason that they joined the Ancient Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, visited the simulated streets of Cairo at the Chicago's world's fair of 1893, and smoked cigarette brands called Camel, Mecca, and Medina."

At one point in time, it seems, Middle Eastern names represented the exotic - a "new frontier", Deutsch writes, to replace the rapidly shrinking American frontier.

Towns along the Mississippi - the "Nile of America", in the words of 20th Century historian George Stewart - received Egyptian names, such as Cairo in Illinois and Memphis in Tennessee.

Both the Nile and the Mississippi were "great and muddy rivers, given to inundations, highways for travel," Stewart wrote in his 1945 book Names on the Land. "The hope was also expressed that a new and greater civilisation, surpassing even that of ancient Egypt, might soon develop."

Now, however, Lebanon has entirely different connotations for some Americans - never mind the fact the nation is more than 40% Christian and its capital, Beirut, is considered one of the more cosmopolitan cities of the Middle East.

"All we're asking for is a voice to be heard and have an open mind," Ms Skender told a local reporter.

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