A trip down memory lane

        - at the American University of Beirut

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Text and pictures by Salwa Ghaly

Let me share with you a few shots taken at the American University of Beirut
(AUB), which missionaries from Amherst founded in the mid 19th century as a
Protestant boys college.  Aided by its humanistic creed and
non-confessional, secular character, it has, since the early twentieth
century, been at the forefront of progressive institutions of higher
learning in the Arab world.  Not even the vicious civil war could compromise
its sound academic traditions and freedoms.  In addition to all its academic
attributes, it has one of the most beautiful campuses I have ever seen anywhere,
a fact that I hope my photographs capture albeit in small measure.  One of
its most illustrious graduates (and later philosophy professor there) has to
be Charles Malek, the Lebanese politician, academic and thinker who is
credited as one of the prime authors of the UN Universal Declaration of
Human Rights.  See http://secular.ws/celebrations/winter/hrday.html for more
information about him. 

On November 11, 1991, a car bomb blew up College Hall, AUB's main
administration building, toppling its famous clock tower, which, for a
century and a quarter, had been a symbol of the institution.  Disaster
struck as the University was preparing to celebrate its 125 anniversary.
Prior to that incident, the AUB had managed to escape, by and large, the
visible ravages of war.  However, as some may recall, during the early
eighties, several of its American professors were kidnapped and held hostage
by militias, an ordeal that, for some, was to last a very long time.  On
January 18, 1984, Malcolm Kerr, its president, was gunned down a few steps
away from his office.  A very simple but moving memorial, made up of an
authentic Roman corinthian capital surrounded by flowers, stands today in
honor of a man whose great love for Lebanon led him to accept the
danger-laden position of president of AUB at a very difficult time.  Kerr
died in the country where he had been born, sharing with 130,000 Lebanese
the tragic status of victim of violence and blind hate.

Jean Sutherland--one of the "hostage wives"--lived on campus in a grey and
white villa overlooking the Mediterranean sea awaiting her husband's
release.  A very gracious and courgeous lady, she would invite English
Department majors over and read them poetry.  Her voice reading Robert Burns
in an exaggerated Scottish accent still rings in my ears a decade and a half
later.  In one of the photographs, you can get a glimpse of that villa
behind the tennis courts. I myself lived on the eighth floor of one of three
towers in the on-campus housing complex, and had a breathtakingly beautiful
view of Mount Lebanon, snow-capped in the winter months, as well as a
panoramic command of the Lebanese coastline all the way to the north.  

As for College Hall, its new facade is a carbon copy of the original, which
dated back to the 1860s.  The interior, however, has been modernized and
rendered more space "efficient."  The building now boasts one of the most
advanced security systems used anywhere in the world.  I still remember how
ecstatic we all were the day it was announced that the cornerstone leaden
box the founders had buried under the original construction site had been
located.  The university community then had to decide the fate of that
treasured container.  After a long and heated debate, human curiosity won
over the romantic view that the box should be returned to earth untouched
and undisturbed.  The late-twentieth century box that now lies under the
building contains some CDs, a university catalogue and a few other tokens of
our time.   

In 1998, during a visit to AUB, Donna Shalallah, who at the time was
American Secretary of Health and Human Services and who has Lebanese roots,
gave a moving speech in which she spoke about the legacy and future of the
American University and Lebanon.  You can read her comments at:

http://www.hhs.gov/news/speeches/981208.html

A trip down memory lane, mine and other people's...


Six pictures             Beirut intro

 

To tell Salwa your thoughts and comments you can mail her on: sghaly@SHARJAH.AC.AE