en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 22, Number 4July/August 1971

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

A Talk With Philip Hitti

Written by John R. Starkey

It is the History of the Arabs and Princeton University, in that order, which one thinks of when Philip Hitti's name is mentioned. Although Professor Hitti has written numerous scholarly works, it is his now classic 30-year-old History that is most closely associated with his name. And although he has taught at such other universities as Columbia, Harvard, and the American University of Beirut, it is for his service in and to Princeton that he is most remembered.

History of the Arabs, first published in 1937 and now going into its tenth edition, is probably the single most important book ever published in America on the subject of Arabs. "There is no comparable book on the subject," an Arab historian in Beirut said recently. "On the Arabs alone, nothing in the West since 1937 has matched Hitti's contribution."

Although to some specialists, Hitti's sweeping survey of Arab history is less profound than historians prefer ("All the facts are there," said one, "but not much 'why'."), there is no disagreement on its value. "Scholarly debate and opinion aside, History of the Arabs is a very good book, and because it was chronologically ahead in the West it has become the book."

Doctor Hitti started his famous book in 1927, just one year after he had agreed to teach Semitic literature at Princeton, a move that would link him to Princeton thereafter. In 1936 he became a full professor and in the 1940's he established a department of Near Eastern studies. In 1945 he served as advisor to the Arab delegation to the San Francisco Conference which established the United Nations. In 1954 he retired as professor emeritus and in 1966 the university he served so long awarded him the degree of Doctor of Literature.

During these years, Hitti continued to write. His published works include The Arabs (1960), Lebanon in History (1967), and Makers of Arab History (1968), all published by St. Martins; The Near East in History, which includes Iran (1961), and Islam and the West (1962), published by Van Nostrand. Islam: A Way of Life (from which excerpts were run in Aramco World, November-December, 1970) was published last year by the University of Minnesota Press.

Important as his scholastic contributions are, however, Dr. Hitti's outstanding role at Princeton was the creation and nourishment of interest in Arab studiesan interest that has now spread to most major universities. "Professor Hitti's work at Princeton has been a significant contribution to the study of Arab history in the West," one Arab professor says. "He was the first of us to go and teach in America; he attracted students to the field; he built a strong program and an excellent library at his university; above all he helped dramatically to broaden academic interest in the Arab past while spreading a solid general knowledge of it among a substantial reading public."

Now an American citizen, Doctor Hitti still makes his home in the town of Princeton and combines an active life of research and writing with occasional trips to the Middle East and the village in Lebanon where he was born in 1886. —The Editors

Interviewer: You once mentioned that a broken arm when you were a boy may have been the key to your career. Could you give us the background on that?

—Hitti: I was born in a tiny village called Shemlan, about 2,500 feet above Beirut. We could see the ships coming into the harbor then and now we can see the planes arriving and departing.

My people were all farmers except my father, who managed a small silk factory in the village. He was considered highly educated because he could read and write. One day—I was about nine years old—my father told me and my younger brother—I was third eldest in a family of six boys and two girls—to take our neighbor's donkey and get a sack of flour from the next village. "Be sure you don't ride that donkey," he warned, but no sooner had we started than we did what any other boys would have done. We climbed on a boulder, then onto the donkey. The donkey began to buck and bray and threw us both off. My elbow bone was broken and jutted out through the skin. A passerby picked me up and, since there were no doctors in the village, the shepherds tried their hand on me. They were used to mending the broken limbs of sheep and goats.

For three months ... I lay on my back on the floor. I remember a woman from a nearby village—an amazon of a woman—arriving on a donkey, bringing weeds which she boiled in water. Then she applied them to my arm and tried to bend it at the elbow. I still have a taste of the pain.

Luckily, a doctor from what is now the American University of Beirut passed by one day. My fellow villagers told him about me and asked him to see me. I couldn't move, you see. The doctor took a knife out of his pocket, opened the blade and stuck it into the wound. He saw that the bone was still sticking out and there was gangrene in it, black. He said, "Unless you take this boy to the hospital, he'll be dead." So they carried me about 15 miles to the nearest hospital.

Dr. George Post, a university staff surgeon, operated on me. After three or four weeks, he operated again. I was in the hospital three more months. While I was there, a family council decided this boy couldn't make his living in the village as a farmer. So I was sent to school to become a teacher. This was now about 1895.

Interviewer: There couldn't have been many schools nearby in those days.

—Hitti: No, the nearest one worthy of the name was an American Presbyterian mission school at Suq al-Gharb, a village a couple of miles away. The first two years I slept at school. My mother brought me my food. The other years I walked back and forth every day. I stayed there five years. I paid one Lebanese pound a year, about three dollars then, for my tuition. Five pounds in all.

When I graduated, the principal of the school, Mr. Oscar Hardin, called me and said, "Philip, what are you going to do next year?" I said I didn't know. He said he was going to send me to teach in a Druze village, halfway between Shemlan and Beirut. "I'll give you one pound a month. You save five pounds and at the end of the year, you'll go on to the college." Well, it sounded all right to me. I had no idea what was involved.

Interviewer: Your first teaching experience. It must have been quite an adventure.

—Hitti: It was. I began on a Monday morning. My mother put my food in a little bag and I started out. How was I going to find that little village? There were no highways between my home and the village where I was going to teach—nothing but vineyards and olive orchards. What I had to do was navigate from one vineyard to the next. I got there finally. There was a man in charge in the village, a grocer, who provided me with a room. His son was in America somewhere. His daughter-in-law had two or three children as old as I was, so they gave me a place to stay in their house.

There had never been a school in the village before. We had nothing to start with. We bought some benches and a few elementary books and started a one-room school on the outskirts of the village. There must have been about 25 boys, most of them about as old as I was. They came and went whenever they wanted. There were no set classes. We practiced what modern educational reformers recommend: an informal, personal approach.

I spent the weekdays in the village and went home every Friday evening. It took me about two or three hours to walk each way. Early one Monday morning, as I was coming down from Shemlan, I saw a woman coming toward me. I remember it clearly. We were on a little plateau. The woman looked naked to me, her hair falling all over her. Then I remembered that there was a crazy woman loose. My goodness, I was scared to death. I turned back and began to run. After that, I was afraid to go to the village. Because of that and the fact that I kept getting lost, I gave up teaching.

Interviewer: Had you enough to get into college?

—Hitti: No. At the end of the summer, my mother wrapped up four pounds, not five, about $12. I hadn't saved much; my father helped me, and my eldest brother, who was a carpenter, contributed. I went to Mr. Hardin and said, "Here are four pounds. I'm sorry I couldn't finish out the year." He put his hand into his pocket—I remember very clearly—took out one pound and put it on top of the four. He said, "All right, this is five pounds. I'll write to the college and they will accept you." So I went to Beirut to the American college.

One year's tuition was 18 pounds. I paid five. After the first year, I always won first honors and didn't have to pay for my tuition. So I got my B.A. degree for five pounds, one of which came from my high school principal. I got the degree in 1908 and the college asked me to be a teacher there. I taught Bible, Arabic, history, physiology—imagine, a course in physiology!

Interviewer: You didn't stay at AUB very long. Did the heavy teaching schedule have anything to do with your leaving?

—Hitti: Not at all. It was nothing more than chance—like breaking my arm. If I did not break my arm, or if Mr. Hardin did not help me with his one-pound gift—these are the if's in my history—I'd likely have remained in my village like anybody else. I don't mean to say I'm somebody now, but I mean I'd be different. Perhaps I would have remained as a teacher in some elementary school in Lebanon, or stayed on as professor at the American University in Beirut. But in 1911 I was sent as a delegate to an international student conference organized by a Dr. John R. Mott, secretary of the World Student Christian Federation. Two years later—1913—Mott sent a letter to Dr. Howard Bliss, president of the university, saying that the next student conference would be held at Lake Mohonk, New York. "If you send Philip Hitti," Mott said, "we'll pay his traveling expenses." Dr. Bliss called me in and said, "Philip, how about going to America?"

America? I had never even dreamed of that kind of thing. I said, "All right," but I couldn't believe my ears. Dr. Bliss said, "We'll give you your salary." My salary was three pounds a month, about nine dollars, and I was eating and sleeping at the university. "You take that and, since you are going, it may be well for you to take a year of graduate study." So I came to the United States.

I landed in New York and I attended the Lake Mohonk conference. Lake Mohonk remains in my mind as a bit of heaven on earth. The conference was held at a hotel, a hotel set on the shore of the lake, the first lake I had ever seen. I've never returned to that spot. I always wanted to keep that picture in my mind. The daughter of Woodrow Wilson was a delegate with us at the conference. Imagine—a boy from Lebanon meeting the daughter of the President of the United States! When we were in Constantinople, we had seen the Sultan going to prayer on Friday. The Sultan, wearing his fez, his carriage surrounded by eunuchs and slaves, passed by as we were standing on the side of the road. We all shouted in Turkish, "Long live the Sultan!" And we thought that was a great honor. Now here's the daughter of the President, a delegate with us, talking with us. It was incredible.

Interviewer: How did you decide where to do your graduate work?

—Hitti: After the conference, I went to New York with a letter of introduction to Mr. Cleveland Dodge from Dr. Bliss. Mr. Dodge's uncle was a member of the board of trustees of AUB and Dodge also was very interested in the college. His son, Bayard Dodge, later married Bliss's daughter and served as AUB president. Mr. Dodge advised me to attend other student conferences in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. On those trips I stopped to look around at Princeton, Harvard and Yale. Then I came back to New York and chose Columbia. Why? Perhaps because there was a Lebanese community in Washington Street in lower Manhattan, Lebanese food, a Maronite church. That's what may have influenced me. I don't know exactly.

My next worry was where to get the tuition. I looked for a job. Columbia gave me a position in Low Library, looking after the magazines in the evening. Then in June 1914, the war broke out. The chairman of my department at Columbia came to me and said, "The lecturer in Syriac has collapsed. Can you take his course?" You see, I am a Maronite and we learned Syriac for church purposes. But how was I going to teach it? Syriac is a sister of Aramaic, the language that Christ spoke. Syriac, Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, all are closely related, but the Lebanese had not spoken Syriac since the Muslim conquest. For a minute I was at a loss to know what to say, but in those days there were no possibilities for fellowships, especially for students from abroad, so I said to him, "I will. I think I can."

When I came to the States I had no intention of working for a Ph.D. because I thought I would be going back to Beirut after a year. But when I decided to stay, it occurred to me, "Why not work for a Ph.D.?" There were language requirements. One of them was French, which I knew, but they also wanted German. I had a classmate, a German who wanted a lift in Arabic. So I told him, "I'll give you a lift in Arabic; you give me a lift in German." I borrowed a book from the library and bought a secondhand grammar. At the end of the summer I went to the German professor and passed the examination.

In 1915, after two years, I finished my dissertation and received my degree. My thesis was on the history of the Arabs. I developed a lifelong interest in that history all by myself, even though I had never taken a course in the history of the Arabs. Arab history was not taught, even in Beirut. You see, the Arabs were under Turkish rule. There were no textbooks, no modern studies on the subject. At Columbia my minor was history and sociology. My major was Semitic languages—Hebrew, Assyrian, Babylonian. The day I received my doctorate, the chairman of the Semitic language department sent a cable to Beirut saying that if I could stay, they would offer me a lectureship here. Bliss cabled back, "Let Philip use his judgment." So I stayed. We all thought that the war would be over in a year, but the years passed, 1915, '16, '17, '18. I served as lecturer at Columbia during all those years.

Interviewer: Were those happy years?

—Hitti: They were. Summers I worked at the registrar's office. It was there I met my wife, Mary George. She came to register and she happened to be with a priest who knew that I was Lebanese. She's of Lebanese origin. She became my wife in 1918.

Interviewer: You finally did get back to Beirut after this period?

—Hitti: Yes, at the end of the war I went back to AUB as professor of oriental history and I held that position until 1926. We had our little daughter, Viola, with us. She is now married to Bayly Winder, a former student of mine who is Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at New York University. I introduced Arab history during that time. Not only that, I conducted some of my courses in Arabic. My students were very keen about this. The teaching at the university was all in English because we had students from all over. But I thought the history of the Arabs should be taught in Arabic.

Interviewer: Was it a difficult adjustment after teaching for so long in America?

—Hitti: I was both satisfied and dissatisfied to be back home. We had no textbooks, we had no research facilities, very few reference works in the library, and no special funds. I missed having colleagues with whom I could discuss mutual interests. But I was satisfied because I felt I was doing a worthwhile piece of work.

And another factor, to tell you the honest truth, my wife was not very happy. She was born and raised in Waterbury, Connecticut, and there weren't many Lebanese around, so she didn't know the language. She felt many American women in Beirut had the "holier-than-thou" missionary attitude.

Now, the entire situation in Lebanon is different. A large American colony flourishes in Beirut, and almost all Lebanese speak some English. In fact, today the hard thing for an American is leaving. They become so fond of Beirut that they find it difficult to leave.

Interviewer: What was the immediate occasion of your leaving and returning to America?

—Hitti: Again chance took a hand in my life. A professor of history from Princeton, Dana Munro, took a trip to Lebanon and came to the university asking for someone to go with him to visit the Crusader castles. You see, that was in my field, Arab history, so I accompanied him and his wife to Sidon, Byblos, Tripoli and other castles in the area. (Byblos, you recall, gave us the word "bible.")

Princeton had, by this time, become the depository of an interesting collection of Arabic manuscripts purchased by Robert Garrett. Garrett graduated from Princeton in 1897. At that time there was an archeologist at the university by the name of Howard Crosby Butler who took young Garrett along with him to Syria on an archeological expedition. Garrett went on to become a rich banker in Baltimore but he kept his interest in archeology and began to buy manuscripts and deposit them in the university, until he had assembled one of the richest collections of Arabic manuscripts in the world. It was a hobby. He didn't know the difference between Aleph and Ba'—between A and B.

The university felt that it might be well to have somebody give courses that would make use of these manuscripts, so a new chair—in Semitic literature—was established, funded by the William and Annie S. Paton-Foundation. Munro suggested the name of "that fellow in Beirut who took me around" and that's how I happened to come to Princeton. I began my work in February 1926, and I still hold that chair of Semitic literature.

Interviewer: What were your early days at Princeton like?

—Hitti: They were not without dissatisfaction. I was a full professor at AUB, but I came here as assistant professor of Semitic literature. And we started—my dear sir, you won't believe me—we started in the tower of the old library building. They gave me a desk and a chair in the stacks. Pages and readers were coming and going, picking up books, and I would be holding my classes. My work seemed very peripheral.

When I came to Princeton, there was a course being given in ancient oriental literature. Robert William Rogers came from Drew Seminary in Madison twice a week to give the lectures. When I met the dean, he said to me, "We have a course called Ancient Oriental Literature. As many as 90 upper classmen take it. There must be something wrong. See what you can do with it."

I found that Rogers had made the course so popular—popular in a bad sense—that even though it was only open to juniors and seniors, there were 90 students in it. I flunked half the class the first year. Later I took charge of the class and I began enriching it. I didn't call it "Ancient" Oriental Literature, just Oriental Literature. I brought in the Koran. I began introducing Arabic and other pieces of literature related to Islam. It was a little bit here, a little bit there. You can drag in a lot of things and that's what I did, one after the other.

Interviewer: How long did your dragnet operate?

—Hitti: Twenty years, from 1926 to 1946. It took me that long to establish a department of Near Eastern studies with emphasis on Arabic and Islam. Twenty years, and do you know what pulled the thing off? The Second World War.

I felt there was a need for Islamic studies in American education and I worked to make a place for them. But I was a voice in the desert. No one would listen. I had difficulties. First the university. "Where do we get the money? A university has no money for that kind of thing." Then I would go to the State Department and tell them "You will need people trained in Islam." They send you from one man to another. You get nowhere.

"Teach Arabic? Why should we teach Arabic? Harvard doesn't teach Arabic. Yale doesn't. Why should we?" "Because," I said, "there are 500 million Muslims and 100 million speak Arabic. We have to deal with them and understand them."

Interviewer: Did that situation change as soon as the war broke out?

—Hitti: No, the government didn't see the light until about the middle of the war. Then, as they found it necessary to send soldiers to North Africa and western Asia and to deal with Arabs, they decided they'd make up for the lost time.

The Army's Specialized Training Program said, "We are going to send you 150 boys. We want you to teach them Arabic, along with some Turkish in six months." "We can't teach them in six months. We want nine." We had to argue with them, but we said, "Yes, we'll teach them." We went ahead without books, without teachers. Our lessons were extemporaneous. We used to manufacture them from day to day as we went along. For teachers, we commandeered students from Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, and Persia, students who had been marooned by the war and were unable to return home. We brought them all here and made teachers of them.

The Army was interested only in the spoken language and they insisted that we use Latin characters. I said no, I would use Arabic characters. I told them the language by itself doesn't stand on its own feet. We have to give them some idea of the religion and the literature and the culture, and tie the language to these fields. These were the ideas which guided us when we were organizing our department. Language was at the core of our studies. We had to fight hard to get this concept over.

Students complained that Arabic was very difficult. I would tell them a boy born into an Arabic-speaking family has no more difficulty learning to speak than a boy born into an English-speaking family. Arabic is not intrinsically more difficult. It's just different.

I used to tell my students, "This is the first foreign language you've studied." "But we've studied French," they'd reply. "French and English are both Indo-European languages," I said. "The vocabularies and the rules are somewhat similar. Spanish, German, Slavic, all these languages have common roots. Arabic is the first language you study which is really foreign, unless you know Hebrew. Arabic is different in its vocabulary, in its construction, its grammar. But the fact that it's different doesn't mean that it's more difficult. To you it may seem so at first. But it's a challenge to you and it's up to you to fight and take the bull by the horns." Many of them responded.

Interviewer: You were able to establish a department of Near Eastern studies at Princeton after the war. Who provided the money to help make it possible?

—Hitti: It should be said, to the credit of the oil companies, headed by Aramco, that they were the first people to help us financially. Mr. Terry Duce, vice president of Aramco in charge of public relations, I think, was" one of the first to give us about $10,000 a year. Then the Rockefeller Foundation began to give us funds, and the Carnegie Corporation followed.

Interviewer: In other words, you had to go outside the university for funds?

—Hitti: Yes, we went to outside sources, but that's not unusual. If you convince the president of a university that you need to do something, in the end he'll tell you, "Fine, you raise the money." The president has trouble staying out of debt without inviting new troubles. And if there is any loose money, the other departments in the university want it for themselves. They all have their problems. But these business people, at least those connected with oil companies, saw the value of Near Eastern studies and were ready to support it. Even before the government and the State Department. Even before the academicians themselves.

Interviewer: But these days the government is surely doing its part?

—Hitti: Yes, it began assuming more and more responsibility after Sputnik in 1957. Since then, I think, about half of Princeton's budget has come from the government, not only for oriental studies, but for other departments as well, especially in science. And I think that's only fair. Jacob Beam, who was awarded an honorary degree at Princeton last spring (1970) and who is now ambassador to Moscow, was one of my students. There are many alumni in the State Department. The government sent us a boy, Rodger Davies, to train in Arabic. He is the same Rodger Davies who is now deputy for Near Eastern and Southeast Asian affairs in the State Department. Other government agencies engage our former students as cultural attaches, advisors, translators, consultants. Princeton was the first to sense the need and to try to fill it.

Interviewer: Princeton now has a lot of company in the field of Near Eastern studies.

—Hitti: Yes, the number of universities offering Middle Eastern studies has been multiplying rapidly, but those which have what you would call a fully-developed program leading to a doctorate are still not more than ten, I think. My dream has been that every university or every college that want its students trained for the last part of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st century have on its faculty at least one man who can give the students a little sample, an hors-d'oeuvre as it were, an introduction to the Middle East. This professor need not be an orientalist. He may be a historian, he may be a political scientist, he may be an economist, he may be a linguist. He'll be in the department where he has a specialty. He'll have his citizenship there.

Let's say he's a historian. He could bring in the Muslim world and the Arab world at many points, He has many bridges between the two worlds. This approach gives the students the chance to widen their horizons and helps them to think of themselves as citizens of a larger world.

When I came here, the dean was Luther Eisenhart. He was a celebrated mathematician. I always had an image of the mathematician as a narrow man. When I went to Dean Eisenhart the first time, he surprised me. He said, "The average American student (you see, this was in 1926, 45 years ago) has an idea that our civilization stems from Europe. He may go back as far as Greece and Rome, but very rarely beyond that. It's your business to see that he realizes that our culture begins in the Near East."

Interviewer: Your book, "History of the Arabs," has had a great deal to do with increasing America's awareness of the cultural debt we owe to the Near East. How long did it take you to write such a magnum opus?

—Hitti: I'll tell you the story of that book. Daniel Macmillan, the brother of Harold who was Prime Minister and is now head of the Macmillan publishing firm, wrote me a letter in 1927 asking me if I could prepare a history of the Arabs. Well, in my youthful enthusiasm, I said, "Sure. In three years I'll give it to you." It took me ten years to prepare the book. I gave it time and he was patient with me. Just before the book appeared in 1937, someone from Macmillan in New York called me and said, "How many copies do you think we should print of your book?"

Well, I was a greenhorn. I didn't know. I had enough trouble writing the book. How did I know how many copies? I said, "Well, I don't exactly know, but how about 100 copies?" What do you think he said? You'll never guess. "Who is going to read 100 copies?" My heart sank. I had spent ten years on this book and this guy is asking, "Who is going to read 100 copies?" That was in 1937. Look at the change in mentality in the American public. Now there is a real demand for information about the Middle East. I have just finished the preface to the tenth edition of "History of the Arabs."

Interviewer: In "History of the Arabs" you single out A.D. 750 to 850 as years of special significance in the history of Arab contributions to western culture. Why that period?

—Hitti: That's the period after Charles Martel had turned back the so-called Moors at Tours, in 732. First, let me say, I do not accept the popular theory that, had it not been for Martel's victory, there would have been no such thing as western civilization, and Europeans would be wearing fezzes instead of hats and there would be a mosque on the Seine where Notre Dame now stands. I don't accept that. I'll tell you why.

The Prophet Muhammad died in 632. One hundred years later, the Muslims had reached the northwestern part of France. The climate was too cold for them, they were hungry and miles away from their headquarters. The distance from Damascus to Tours in those days was almost equivalent to the distance from earth to the moon today. Those poor people from Arabia and North Africa were at the end of the road. They had reached the limit of their resources. It is not surprising that they were defeated. They were exhausted when they encountered the army of Charles Martel. Although the French did not know it, the Muslim leader, Abdul Rahman, was killed in a skirmish with the French, and so in the night, the Arabs packed up their tents and vanished. Even if they had won the Battle of Tours, they wouldn't have been able to hold onto a kingdom beyond the Pyrenees—too cold, too far away.

Now, as to the ensuing period, from 750 to 850, during those years, the Arabs were engaged in translation. By the end of that time, the Arabic reading world was in possession of the chief philosophical works of Aristotle and Plato, most of the medical writings of Galen, as well as the chief Persian and Indian scientific works.

The Arabs, in translating and adapting these works, preserved and enriched them. They then passed them on to European scholars. This transmission was a tremendously important contribution to western culture. Between the years 850 and 1150, a period of about 300 years, the Arabs were the most cultured people in the world. No doubt about it. And their own learning and culture, as well as Greek, Persian and Indian elements, they transmitted through books which were translated into Latin and used in European universities.

Arabic literature is among the richest in the world. Even today, very few people realize that. There was a professor at Yale who concluded after years of study that Arabic literature up until the year 1900 was far richer than even English literature.

You see, there was a time when the Arabs were masters of an empire which extended from the Pyrenees in Spain to the frontiers of China. North Africa, southwestern Europe, western and central Asia, Turkey, Persia, everywhere Arabic was the chief language of learning. Imagine the output in history, philosophy, science, literature! Of course, in each locality there were variations, influences from the native language and culture. But officially Arabic was the written language.

That is why you have a very rich Arabic literature, and it scares people. Not just because of the amount, but also because the backbone of this literature is poetry or elegant prose such as you find in the Koran. And that floors the American students. In addition, the quality of most translations puts people off.

Interviewer: What did you consider your most admirable trait as a student?

—Hitti: I wanted to excel, not for selfish purposes, but I had a drive to excel. When I study, I want to go to the bottom of the subject. I am not satisfied with the superficial. Pass, not pass, it wouldn't make any difference to me. And I think also that I wanted to be useful. I wanted to excel, not to get something for myself, but to use this knowledge for the benefit of others. I think these were the overwhelming urges which shaped my career.

Interviewer: Were you that way from the beginning, or was there someone who inspired you?

—Hitti: The person who inspired me most, I think, was the daughter of Mr. Hardin, the principal of the high school I attended. Effie Hardin, to whom I dedicated one of my books.

Effie Hardin had studied in Northfield Seminary for Girls in Northfield, Massachusetts. She came to teach at her father's school during my second year there. She taught me English. I had begun English under a Lebanese who didn't know much English himself. She also introduced me to French. She was not pretty at all. She was shy and tall and she carried herself in a clumsy way. But she impressed me. A noble lady. She was not much older than myself. She must have been 19 or 20 and I was 13 or 14.

When she used to write on my exercise book in French "Je suis fiere de vous"—I am proud of you—oh boy! no Nobel Prize winner could have been more proud. She inspired me always to do my best. To tell you the honest truth, as I look back, I can't think of a single other teacher, either in Beirut or at Columbia—and I took courses under James Harvey Robinson, the historian, and Franklin Giddings in sociology, and John Dewey, the philosopher—who had more of an effect on me. From Effie Hardin I got the idea that you should excel. Don't be satisfied with anything less.

Interviewer: Is it exasperating for someone with that approach to have to deal with students, many of whom don't have this attitude?

—Hitti: It is a challenge. I often felt that many of the undergraduate students who came to me said "Educate me if you can." They put their feet up on the table and said "Educate me."

On the other hand, you have no idea how much the students, especially the graduate students, taught me, by raising questions, by challenging me, by keeping me on my toes. When I retired, I lost that contact with the students. Being a professor emeritus means retreating to an ivory tower, losing the human touch. In science it may be different. When you are working in physics and chemistry, it may be different. I'm a humanist. I like to deal with people. My students are part of my tools, part of my life.

Interviewer: Wasn't it possible for you to continue teaching after retirement while stepping down as department chairman?

—Hitti: Not at Princeton. When the time for my retirement came, the members of my department, without my knowledge, asked the president of the university in a letter, "Let this man retire from the chairmanship of the department, but let him continue to teach." The president said no. "If we let him do that, we have to let others do it." Once you give permission to one man, you cannot refuse it to others. There's much to be said on both sides of the question. Students like younger men. There are younger men in your department who want to be promoted. It is an interesting question, I think. Where does the greatest measure of good lie?

Interviewer: But you were able to continue teaching elsewhere?

—Hitti: Oh, yes. When I retired, I had four offers to teach—one from Cambridge, England, one from India, another from Libya, and the one that I accepted from Harvard. Later I accepted an invitation from the University of Utah to be a lecturer in their summer school and another similar offer from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Three years ago I went to the University of Minnesota. As a retired professor, I continued to lecture and I have a chance to do my research, but I miss my students.

Interviewer: As an historian, how do you view the present situation in which the Arabs find themselves?

—Hitti: I see it as a continuation of a period of renaissance that began in the 18th century, with an injection from the West in the wake of the Napoleonic invasion. The Arabs were on their way when the Israeli conflict diverted so much of their energy from progress to the destruction of fighting and war. But time is on the side of the Arabs ... The Crusaders came and conquered Palestine. They set up the Latin Kingdom of Palestine in 1099. They had a principality in Tripoli, another one in Antioch and still another in Edessa. But ... the Latin Kingdom depended for its existence upon recruits from abroad, people coming from all over, supplies being shipped in. It was artificial, like living on blood transfusions, and it lasted only 88 years. The land was restored to the Muslims and now we read about the Latin Kingdom only in history books.

Interviewer: Do you rule out the possibility of peace?

—Hitti: No ... A new generation will come and, hopefully, they will realize that cordial relations . . . will do more good than support from outside. An accommodation might be worked out.

Interviewer: What role do you think Islam will play in the hoped-for reconciliation?

—Hitti: Remember that Islam, Christianity and Judaism are closely related historically, ideologically and theologically. Remember that the Muslims are heirs to the Hellenic philosophical traditions of Aristotle and Plato, and to a certain extent they are heirs to Roman law and culture. Islam and its rivals should be able to play a constructive, cooperative role, if they will keep in mind their common heritage. Of all the peoples in the world, Muslims are closest to Christians and Jews.

John Richard Starkey, reporter, writer and producer, graduated from the Columbia School of Journalism, wrote for Stars and Stripes, the Herald-Tribune in Paris and NBC-TV. He is now an independent producer specializing in television documentaries on current affairs.

This article appeared on pages 23-31 of the July/August 1971 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1971 images.