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Volume 17, Number 2March/April 1966

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Lebanon's famous American University of Beirut celebrates its...

Proud Centennial

Written by Daniel Da Cruz
Photographed by Tor Eigeland

Onto the campus of the American University of Beirut this June will come a vanguard of returning alumni: Arabs, Americans, Europeans, Africans, Asians; cabinet ministers and nurses; authors and doctors; businessmen and engineers. Some will be famous, some unknown. Some will be old, some young; some successful, some not. But whatever their origins, whatever their professions, ages or achievements, in returning to A.U.B. their intentions will be similar: to take part in the ceremonies and projects planned for the 1966-1967 centennial year; to acknowledge their appreciation of an institution that has, in the last 100 years, put an indelible imprint on the Middle East.

The campus of A.U.B. is most impressive, as, indeed, founder Daniel Bliss intended it to be. "We saw the site where the college now stands and fell in love with it at sight," he wrote later. "We had found the finest site in all Beirut if not in all Syria." Or today's alumni might add, in the entire Middle East. A complex of stalwart sandstone buildings with red-tile roofs, it sprawls over 75 acres of lush hillside and slopes down toward the blue sea in a setting of quiet gardens, green lawns and gravel walks beneath rows of slim cypress trees. A more perfect place for learning and scholarship would be hard to envision.

It wasn't always like this. At the time Daniel Bliss purchased the site it was little more than a clearing in the cactus that flourished in red-sand hills above a deserted beach outside Beirut. But Daniel Bliss was a determined man and so the college grew—from an institution so small that its entire physical plant and student body were housed in one five-room house to a major university whose 70-odd buildings are straining the limits of the campus; from a curriculum of several purely basic subjects to a list of studies leading to 21 degrees in faculties of Arts and Sciences, Medical Sciences, Engineering and Agriculture; from a few shelves of reference materials to a memorial library housing 200,000 volumes. And it is still growing. A new $1.5 million chemistry building is on the drawing boards and scheduled for completion in 1968. Off-campus, the largest and most modern medical center in the Middle East has risen in a gaping excavation in the heart of modern Beirut. It will house not only a 450-bed hospital but the schools of Medicine, Public Health, Nursing and Pharmacy and will cost $24 million.

Nor has growth been restricted to physical structures. An initial enrollment of just 16 students has grown to 3,200 young men and women representing 61 nations and 22 religions. The faculty, just a handful of dedicated Americans in Dr. Bliss's day. now numbers 628, of whom nearly 400 are Arabs. The alumni have spread out through the entire Middle East to such an extent that today six out of the seven Arab ambassadors to the United Nations are A.U.B. graduates.

Changes of that magnitude are never accidents. At A.U.B. they came about as a result of the dedication, the drive, the faith of Daniel Bliss, a tough-minded, soft-hearted Vermonter who decided when very young to dedicate his life to the Arab world. To tell the story of A.U.B., in fact, is to tell the story of Daniel Bliss. And this, many years ago, is how the story began...

On the eve of the Battle of the Marne, French military legend has it that General Foch reported to Commander-in-Chief Joffre: "Hard pressed on my right. My center is yielding. Impossible to maneuver. Situation excellent. I am attacking."

Something of the same brave and reckless spirit must have seized Daniel Bliss when, on a spring day just one hundred years ago, he undertook to found a college in Lebanon, then a part of Syria. The Eastern Mediterranean had just exploded in the massacres of 1860 which claimed more than 11,000 dead and left Lebanon, a land in which literally every citizen belongs to a minority, trembling with hate and fear. But Daniel Bliss was not a man to be discouraged by adversity. He had rarely known anything else.

Born in 1823 in Vermont on a farm where labor was as scarce as work was plentiful, Daniel Bliss was set to fetching water, carrying wood and riding a plow horse almost as soon as he could walk. At 16 he began four years of back-breaking, brain-numbing drudgery as an apprentice in a tannery and then spent two years as a fruit-tree grafter before he was able to enroll in Ohio's Kingsville Academy. So apt a student was he that he was able to teach as he studied and in this way pay his expenses. In 1848 he entered Amherst, where he sold periodicals, weeded gardens and tended fruit trees to pay his way. He persevered, however, and got through not only Amherst College, but Andover Seminary as well where, in one climactic year, he was ordained, married and assigned to a mission in Syria.

Judging by the reaction of one apparently pessimistic colleague, the initial impression made by the young couple was somewhat less than sensational. "The Blisses have arrived," the colleague wrote. "Mrs. Bliss will not live a year and Mr. Bliss is not a practical man."

With probably no malice aforethought—for she was much loved for her consideration—Mrs. Bliss not only survived that year, but the next 55 as well. As for her husband, he amply demonstrated his practicality when, less than 10 years later, he succeeded in raising the then-remarkable sum of 1100,000 in the United States to found in Beirut the first college of its kind in the far-flung Ottoman Empire.

To Daniel Bliss, higher education in Syria was long overdue. Although in 1860 there were already 33 American schools in the area, graduates, however promising, faced an educational dead end simply because no college existed closer than Constantinople. After the 1860 massacres, moreover, the Western powers had forced the Turks to guarantee the Lebanese Christian minority relief from taxes and forced military service, plus freedom of worship and a certain small degree of self-government. Since there was no trained local leadership to profit from this development, Dr. Bliss felt that this was the perfect opportunity to create one by means of a college combining the best of Eastern traditions and Western education.

With the cordial concurrence of the Mission Board, Daniel Bliss returned to his native land in 1862 where, in the words of his eldest son, he "..made 279 public addresses ... covered 16,993 miles ... (and) attended two commencements of his Alma Mater, which made him a Doctor of Divinity." Two years later, on May 14, 1864, New York's Governor Seymour signed a bill incorporating the new "Syrian Protestant College" under the laws of New York State, which to this day recognizes and endorses degrees from this institution. Then, rather than spend immediately the depreciated greenbacks he had accumulated with so much effort, Dr. Bliss headed for England to spend yet another 18 months raising 4,000 additional pounds, in the expectation, later proved correct, that peace and deflation would restore the dollar's buying power. Finally, after a three-and-a-half years' absence, Daniel Bliss returned to Beirut to open his school.

Experience had led him and his colleagues to regard with little favor the plan to educate young men outside the country. At that time individuals who had been educated in England or on the Continent exerted very little influence, on their return, in elevating their countrymen. On the contrary, their education tended to unfit them for usefulness by making them out of sympathy with their own people. "We propose that the pupils should be educated with reference to the business which they might propose to follow, as ... lawyers, physicians, engineers, secretaries, interpreters, merchants, clerks, etc., thus avoiding the reproach of sending forth helpless and useless drones upon society. In the interests of the independence and self-respect of the student body, the principle of self-support should be fostered as far as possible..."

The college opened December 3, 1866, and Mr. Bliss wrote an account of its early years:

"There were present 16 students, ....... We were housed for two years in four or five rooms of an insignificant building, and for three years more in a house of larger dimensions, with two smaller buildings attached, in which we commenced a clinic and a hospital of three or four beds. We remained in a still larger building until 1863, when we removed to our present campus. During these seven years we scarcely had a name to live up to, although we were very much alive. A college on wheels does not impress the East with the idea of stability. We were not anxious to appear great, but we were anxious to lay foundations upon which greatness could be built."

Despite its humble beginnings, there was nothing ordinary about the college. Merely assembling the student body was an annual logistic marvel. Students from Baghdad, for example, had the choice of shipping down the Tigris River, around the Arabian Peninsula, through the Suez Canal, and up the coast to Beirut, or of making the dangerous journey by camel across the bandit-infested Syrian Desert with a heavily-armed merchant caravan. Either way it was five weeks of strenuous travel.

The newborn institution was singularly blessed with a faculty whose members, through long residence in the Arab world, not only understood the working of the Eastern mind, but were uniquely qualified to open it to the best the West had to offer. The appallingly low level of medical practice in the Ottoman Empire had prompted the Board of Managers to organize a Department of Medicine from the very beginning and, as the students were mostly monolingual, the American physician-professors taught in classical Arabic. In the absence of texts they had to write their own for the four-year course, which were laboriously hand-copied by the students.

President Bliss, acutely conscious of the need to provide a campus where the college could function without periodic uprooting and removal to new quarters, spent many anxious months on horseback searching for the proper site. At last he found it and on January 22, 1870, made payment for it. Dr. Bliss was overjoyed at this initial success, but took another 29 years to complete the campus. A key piece of campus property, called "The Fig Orchard," was not acquired at the time because Mr. Bliss was determined not to pay an excessive price for it. After 29 years of good-natured haggling, legal maneuvering and stoutly-resisted pressure on the part of a succession of owners, who learned by hard experience that the educator from Vermont was nobody's easy mark, the college got the land. "In all our dealings," said Daniel Bliss, "we followed the command, 'Be ye wise as serpents and harmless as doves,'—harmless in not cheating others, wise in keeping others from cheating us."

Notwithstanding its natural beauty, the site of the college in Ras Beirut was remote from Beirut proper, connected to the city by a single mule path and surrounded by acres of cactus, robbers' nests and packs of jackals that howled in the night. The president lost no time in establishing on this raw, wild site a campus worthy of the reputation the college was already beginning to achieve as a serious institution of learning. With the help of his versatile faculty he himself designed the main building, College Hall, and superintended its construction from stone hewn on the spot.

"Years after, an English architect, on seeing the structures, asked the name of the architect. I mentioned the name of the one who drew the plans. 'But,' he said, 'who worked out the plans?' On my telling him that we did, and that we had made many mistakes but had managed to cover them up, he replied: 'That is perfection in art.'"

One after another, in those first fruitful years, new structures were added from the college's slender endowment. Labor costs then being quite modest, the chapel was built for $30,000 and the observatory for $15,000. A preparatory school cost $37,430, First Hall $20,000, Post Hall $40,213. Daniel Bliss Hall, built in 1900, became the first edifice in the country to be made of reinforced concrete. And even though costing little, the structures were sound, as engineers discovered a decade ago when they decided to replace a supposedly "weak" section of roof in West Hall: in the end, to their intense embarrassment, they almost had to blast it off, so strong did it prove to be, and the expenses of this minor reconstruction amounted to several times more than the original cost of the building.

Academic progress more than kept pace with the building program. From the original faculty of seven the school could boast a faculty of 15 in 1882, 53 in 1903. In 1882 there were but three departments: Preparatory, Collegiate and Medical; by 1903 they had added to these departments Commerce, Biblical Archeology and Philology, and a two-year course in pharmacy. The library outgrew its single room, which housed its original collection of 1,800 European and 500 Arabic books. By the turn of the century the library consisted of 13,800 European-language books, 1,000 in Arabic and Turkish, and 4,100 volumes in special collections.

The early history of the college was not one long, unbroken chain of successes, however. When only 16 years old, in fact, the institution was almost torn asunder by the storm that developed after a commencement address in 1882 by Prof. Edwin R. Lewis making favorable mention of the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin—just 43 years before the Scopes Trial in Tennessee on precisely the same issue. His words so upset the Board of Managers that Dr. Lewis proffered his resignation. It was immediately accepted, whereupon most of the medical faculty resigned in protest and the students struck in sympathy. The controversy was eventually smoothed over and classes resumed, minus Dr. Lewis, but one lasting effect was a sudden shortage of professors competent to teach in Arabic. As a result, in the mid-1880's the switch was reluctantly made to English as the language of instruction. It was a change in any case inevitable due to the torrent of new literature—especially medical and scientific literature—published in that language which could not be translated into Arabic until long after it became obsolete.

One feature of the institution in the first few decades that didn't change, though, was the cost of a student's education: college tuition was still $25 a year—$50 in the schools of pharmacy or medicine—and board and room of a rather Spartan variety was available at $60 a year. The very reasonable cost of education, indeed, led to the occasional impression that it cost nothing at all, as when a Bulgarian boy turned up at the main gate in the 1920's with nothing more weighty in his pockets than a letter to the president from his father. It read: "Honored Sir: ... I present my son Benjamin to your university." As a later A.U.B. president, Dr. Stephen Penrose, remarked: "It was with some difficulty that the father was made to understand that the university could not accept such unbounded generosity."

Running the college was a relatively uncomplicated task in those days before professional administrators came on the scene. As president, Daniel Bliss was paid $1,500, and as his duties called for the teaching load of a full professor, he wasted little time on reports, committees and meetings. When the Board of the Managers met:

"All questions before us we quickly disposed of; Dr. van Dyck would make a motion and Dr. Wortabet would second it, and I would call for a vote which was always carried unanimously."

This seemingly off-hand method of administering a college would have been disastrous had not the president known every student, professor and staff member so well that rarely did any contingency surprise him. Dr. Bliss was equally knowledgeable in his management of the student body which, coming from a closely-regulated life where father and family were often inhibitions to initiative, found the relative freedom of campus life strange and disquieting. The president had no magic formula, unless it was to follow the principles he himself believed in.

"We were more ready to commend the good qualities of our students than to denounce their faults. I trusted the boys. Sometimes I treated one as if he was telling me the truth when I knew he was lying to me. I cannot explain the philosophy of it, but trusting a boy makes him trustworthy."

The president's eldest son, describing his father's unique methods of discipline recalled that "In later years, when no one was supposed to smoke anywhere on the campus, a student was enjoying a cigarette behind the Chapel. Presently he heard the firm step of the president advancing. He hastily thrust his right hand, burning cigarette and all, into his side coat pocket. Instead of passing by with a salute, as usual, the President extended his hand. The student was obliged to extend his. 'How is your father in Damascus?' asked Dr. Bliss. 'And your mother and (still shaking the hand) your dear old grandmother? Give them my salaams when you write.' At this juncture the cigarette dropped from the burnt pocket to the ground. The president saluted and passed on with no further word."

Students treated to the blend of scholarship and humane consideration they received were bound to make the best of their natural capabilities. The first graduating class of five, in 1870, furnished by their subsequent careers an omen of the impact the college was to have on the Middle East. Two became officials in the Egyptian Government; two others became successful physicians, and the fifth man, Yacoub Sarrouf, founded in Cairo what was to become the Arab world's largest newspaper, Al-Mukattam.

The zeal of students in arousing the interest of the Arabs in their own illustrious heritage, submerged for so many centuries beneath the dead hand of Turkish rule, had an even more decisive effect on the history of the Middle East. In 1834 a mission press was brought to Beirut from Malta and with a newly-designed Arabic font began to publish works which stimulated a renaissance of Arab language and letters. The college likewise encouraged freedom of inquiry and, as the historian of the Arab National Movement, George Antonius, points out in The Arab Awakening, "When account is taken of its contribution to the diffusion of knowledge, of the impetus it gave to literature and science and of the achievements of its graduates, it may justly be said that its influence on the Arab revival, at any rate in its earlier stage, was greater than that of any other institution."

Such activity, however, came only after graduation, for political activity on the campus itself was severely proscribed. Had it not been, the college would have been a seething hotbed of strife through the years, for, from the very beginning, it has been host to a staggering number of religious sects and nationalities, each with its strong political affinities and antipathies. Though it had been founded as a frankly Protestant Christian institution, the college had wisely refrained from any attempt to convert students. Thus, while the first graduates were predominantly Christian, the very natural suspicion of Muslims and other sects gradually evaporated as the nonproselytizing nature of the college became known, and within a short time all the major religions of the world were represented. Indeed, in a part of the world where religious friction posed a constant problem, the college was an island of calm and tolerance. President Penrose has written that one year, "during the celebration of the Prophet's birthday by the Muslim Society, the Greek Orthodox students, then the dominant religious group on campus, played a surprise role. Quite unexpectedly, toward the close of the program, a Greek Orthodox leader mounted the rostrum and presented to the Muslim Society a beautifully ornamented copy of the Koran, together with a flag of green silk on which appeared, side by side, the Cross and Crescent. The impression made on the student body was profound."

If its reputation for tolerance took years to build, its academic prestige was established with its very first graduating class of medical students. Having successfully passed all their courses the nine young men took for granted that, in accordance with long-established Turkish tradition, the final oral and written examinations would be an ornate but meaningless ritual, after which they would be immediately admitted to practice. Imagine their consternation when three of the nine were found to be lacking in the qualities the college required of physicians and refused their degrees. This unheard-of blow at one of education's cherished but empty conventions at one stroke established the school as a courageous, reliable institution. Its graduates have added luster to that reputation by leading the medical profession in the Middle East down to the present day.

In time, the needs of the area forced the college to expand in new directions. A dental school, the first in the Ottoman Empire, was founded in 1910, typically on a shoestring: the capital set aside for equipment was $1,000, plus $1,500 to bring from the United States an eminent dentist to head the school. Before a student could qualify for admission to the Dental School he had to be a qualified physician. The graduate dentists were easily the best in the Middle East, so superior that their experience as a group proved that there is such a thing as being too good. They found that the time and expense to gain both M.D. and D.D.S. degrees were not rewarded proportionately in practice, in competition with mere tooth-pullers who provided services commensurate with their low fees. With considerable reluctance, the Board of Trustees closed the doors of the Dental School just before World War II, until the day when first-class dental care could become a self-supporting profession in the Middle East.

The fortunes of the School of Agriculture and the School of Nursing were more felicitous. A pioneer in both fields, the college faced formidable handicaps. Toward manual labor of any kind, save wielding the sword and the pen, the educated Middle Easterner has often been contemptuous. The story of the wealthy landowner who visited his son at a Lebanese mission school and found him playing tennis exemplifies the prevailing attitude. Turning to the principal, he said, "Does my son have to do this work?" "No," the principal replied, "he likes to do it." "Very well, then," said the father, "but remember that he doesn't need to do it. I could perfectly well hire a servant to take care of it for him."

The School of Agriculture gradually displaced this attitude with one which finds that human dignity and sweat-producing labor are not, after all, mutually exclusive. Today every student of agriculture not only attends classes in the theory of agriculture but gets his hands dirty applying it on the big university-owned-and-operated farm in the Beka'a plain of central Lebanon. That they dig hard and deep has been beyond dispute ever since they uncovered the ancient lost city of Tel al-Ghasseel; that they master their calling is shown by the rapidity with which their less fortunate neighbors imitate their methods, once they are on their own.

With the School of Nursing, the college drove the first wedge into the twin Middle Eastern beliefs that the care of the sick was the work of servants and that women were neither to be seen nor heard. In a sense, the extreme social pressures against women entering this new profession were a tonic for the infant school, for it insured that only the mentally resilient and morally dedicated would apply for admission. The caliber of young women who made nursing an honored profession in the Middle East is implicit in an amusing recollection of President Bayard Dodge:

"One evening, the nurses were late in returning home as they had been seeing patients all day. A drunken refugee held them up on the road. They blew the horn of the Ford and flashed the lights but he refused to let them pass. Miss Hakim got out of the car and asked him to let them pass by, but he refused and pushed a revolver into her face. She hit him an uppercut which laid him flat. Then she arranged him neatly on the side of the road, folded his arms and put the revolver on his chest. Finally she returned to the car and drove her companions home to supper."

Some years later, women having proved themselves intellectually capable of absorbing a university education, the first women students were accepted in the School of Arts and Sciences. The same year—1924—the first woman to receive a degree was graduated from the School of Pharmacy and within the next decade female education became so respectable that even Muslim girls, including the daughters of a Prime Minister of Iraq and the former Sherif of Mecca, were attending the university. It was at the college, too, that Muslim women in Syria first appeared unveiled publicly, during a fund-raising drive to assist starving Muslim girls during World War I.

It was during this terrible international conflict, which engulfed the Middle East along with Europe, that Daniel Bliss died, at the age of 93. He had spent four years planning and raising funds for the college, then 36 years in its active direction, and finally 14 years as its patriarchal president-emeritus. His ramrod-straight figure mounted on horseback—he rode well into his ninetieth year—was familiar to generations of students, as were his kindly counsel and gentle inspiration. With a fortuitous inevitability, the post of president was filled by his son, Howard Sweetzer Bliss.

The younger Bliss was born in the Lebanese village of Suk-el-Gharb in 1860, and in a very real sense grew up with the college. Like his father, he graduated from Amherst, and then he studied a year each at the universities of Oxford, Gottingen and Berlin. As a native son of the Levant, he knew the strengths and weaknesses of his students, and unfailingly interviewed each prospective student personally. He inclined toward his father's humane, indirect methods of discipline: one afternoon he found two students at the point of entering his chicken yard, larceny in their hearts. He saluted them politely and to their great relief made no mention of their errand. Two days later they were invited to lunch with the president and Mrs. Bliss. The principal course was chicken.

The mettle of the man and his college was severely tested during the years of the Great War when, first as uneasy neutrals, then as active belligerents, Americans in the Turkish Empire were subjected to systematic harassment and persecution. For a time it seemed that the college must close. That it did not was in part due to the medical teams it sent out to help the sick and wounded at Constantinople and in Palestine. The doctors and nurses were received with such wonder and gratitude that the whole college won respect and help.

Nevertheless, the institution survived only with difficulty the privation that afflicted all of Syria, where disease and starvation claimed more than 300,000 lives by war's end. In the final months before liberation by British troops, the most common sound was the crying of hungry children, the sobbing of bereaved women, and the tolling of church bells for the dead. Many mountain houses became deserted, their occupants dead and their doors used to make coffins. Commencement of 1918 was held in May because supplies had given out and students could no longer be fed. The college suffered one final casualty when President Howard Bliss, due to his exertions during the war and as an adviser at the Versailles Peace Conference, where he spoke as a defender of Arab independence, died on May 2, 1920. The Blisses, father and son, had served their college for more than half a century.

After the First World War the need to change the name of the institution became apparent, for the Syrian Protestant College was now neither Syrian, nor Protestant, nor a College. Lebanon had become, under the peace treaty, an independent state under French mandate. The college, meanwhile, had far outgrown its original modest purpose, and encompassed faculties which in other countries were themselves distinguished by the name "college." As for the school's denomination, Dr. Bayard Dodge, successor to Howard Bliss, echoed the guiding principles of the founder when he said: "To develop the spiritual natures of our students, we do not propose to proselytize, or to emphasize names and forms. To us Protestantism means religious freedom. It is for the mosque, synagogue, or church to provide the practical formalities of organized religion, but the school should join with them in fostering a consciousness of God, and a desire to live in accordance with God's moral purpose."

Accordingly, on November 8, 1920, the name was changed to the American University of Beirut, which more accurately described its true status. Its mission, while unchanged through the years, now however assumed new proportions, for the newly-independent Arab nations cried for the administrators, industrialists, professional men and teachers which the American University of Beirut was uniquely equipped to provide. Howard Bliss himself had foreseen this during the early days of the war, when he told the Turkish director of the still-born Saladin University at Jerusalem:

"We are not here as rivals; we are here to share with the people of the East the best things that we have in the West, or rather to exchange the best things that East and West have received. For the whole world needs the whole world. We wish, moreover, to promote and not retard the native educational enterprises in the Near East. In fact, it is our purpose to render ourselves, not indispensable, but, as soon as possible, dispensable, and we shall go elsewhere just as soon as the ideals of education and of life cherished by us are adopted here."

That day was still far in the future. Meanwhile, the university answered the call to send to the far corners of the Middle East young men trained to deal with the problems of the modern world. The roll call of government administrators, businessmen, professional men, scholars and scientists who have streamed out from the main gate of the American University of Beirut thenceforth would read like a Who's Who of the Arab world. Since the Great War buildings and departments have been added, the student body and the faculty have inexorably swelled, and the emphasis in education has insensibly changed to meet the exigencies of the moment. And yet, try as they might, succeeding generations of teachers have been unable to improve upon the credo, embodied in the address of founder Daniel Bliss when he laid the cornerstone of College Hall nearly a century ago:

"This college is for all conditions and classes of men without regard to color, nationality, race or religion. A man, white, black or yellow; Christian, Jew, Mohammedan or heathen, may enter and enjoy all the advantages of this institution for three, four, or eight years; and go out believing in one God, in many gods, or in no God. But it will be impossible for anyone to continue with us long without knowing what we believe to be the truth and our reasons for that belief."

Daniel da Cruz, a free lance writer, is a former instructor of English at the American University of Beirut.

This article appeared on pages 1-11 of the March/April 1966 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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