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Volume 23, Number 4July/August 1972

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"We don't understand modern times or what to do with our children. So we’re entrusting them to you."


A Talk with Bayard Dodge

Written by Elizabeth Starkey
Photographed by Tor Eigeland
Additional reporting by John R. Starkey

Like Daniel Bliss, who founded the American University of Beirut, and Howard Bliss who carried on in his father’s place, the name of Bayard Dodge is woven into the history and fabric of A.U.B. which he served as teacher, administrator and president from 1913 to 1948, a span of 35 demanding and exciting years. But in some ways Dr. Dodge has worked harder, and served the Arab world as well, since he retired—or tried to retire—to Princeton, New Jersey. He has lectured on Arab affairs at Columbia and Princeton, written several books, one on the famous al-Azhar Mosque, and was attached to the American Embassy in Cairo. He also served on numerous boards and committees and has medals and awards from Lebanon, Syria, Greece, the United Kingdom and France.

Mr. Dodge, what led you to Beirut?

When I graduated from Princeton in 1909, I took a trip around the world. As a result of stops in India and Egypt, I became interested in Islam. By the time we reached Beirut I had done a lot of reading on the subject. I was much taken with Beirut that first visit. It was a very free, delightful place. Doctor Howard Bliss was president of the American College then. I hadn’t yet met his daughter, Mary, my future wife, but after meeting Doctor Bliss and seeing how progressive he was, I decided I would like to come back to Beirut for at least a year or two and then later go up-country and learn Arabic thoroughly. My idea was to see whether I couldn’t contribute to producing a better feeling with the Muslims, who in those days were still very conservative.

But first you returned to the U.S. for your post-graduate work?

Yes, I went to Columbia and to Union Seminary. Union was a radical place in those days and a good place to compare religions. It was easy to see we had a great deal to share with the Muslims—much more than we had to differ with them on. A really good Muslim and a very good Christian have a lot in common.

During this period I met Mary Bliss, then at Vassar, pursued her and persuaded her to marry me. Mary had been brought up as a young child in Beirut and liked it very much. So she was as pleased as I when, in 1913, I accepted an offer from her father to take charge of a beautiful building under construction at the college that was to be a student center.

What was Beirut like in those days?

In 1913 Beirut was a rather pretty, old-fashioned place with narrow streets and a few tram cars. You could see the Lebanese mountains more clearly than today because there were no tall buildings. The mosques with their minarets were taller than anything else. Of course, none of the streets were paved and the harbor wasn’t nearly so big as it is today. Most of the ships would anchor out and you had to go out in little boats to get to them.

Beirut was not in Lebanon in those days. It was in what they called the vilayat of Beirut (a vilayat was an administrative unit of the Ottoman Empire), which stretched all the way down to northern Palestine. So the Vali of Beirut, the Turkish governor, was an important person. He ran the city with his secretary, the Maktabji, and a few other Ottoman officials, as well as numerous Arabs. Actually, it was such a simple place that just a few men ran the whole government. They didn’t need much money and there were a lot of wealthy people who

paid their taxes so they got all they needed to keep the government going. Of course, there was, in those days, a good deal of crookedness. The officials all wanted to get their graft.

For instance, one of our friends sent us a beautiful chair for a wedding present and it never arrived. Finally the college steward went down and he saw the director of the custom house sitting in a very comfortable, handsome chair and he said, "By any chance, could that be the chair for Mr. Dodge?" He said, "Yes, yes, this is Mr. Dodge’s chair. I’ve been enjoying it very much." We still have it.

And even then Lebanon was a prosperous little country. The French had started a silkworm industry in Lebanon after the silk worms in France had been wiped out by a scourge. In practically every farm house they were raising silkworms. The young girls would take the cocoons down to the factories and pull off the silk threads in hot water. There were mechanical wheels to wind up the threads. So almost every family in the Lebanon was able to have quite a lot of pin money really, quite a nice little income from their silkworm industry, between what they got for the cocoons and what the girls were paid for unwinding them.

What was the college like when you arrived?

It was a big place even then, with a campus of about 40 acres to the west of the city overlooking the Mediterranean. There were about 20 buildings on the campus, including those belonging to the college hospital and the preparatory school. Although the college was operated by American missionaries, it didn’t differentiate at all between Muslims and Christians. Dr. Bliss had such a progressive point of view on religion that he really won the confidence of the Muslim boys. They trusted him and liked him and a good many started coming to the college.

What was Dr. Bliss’ secret? Why were the Muslims so receptive to him?

Well, you see, the other missionaries, those around Beirut— in fact, those in the entire Near East, Far East, everywhere— all clung to old-fashioned fundamentalist doctrines, which, of course, the Muslims couldn’t stomach for a minute. Also I found that many of them around Beirut were a little bit afraid of the Muslims. They didn’t seem to warm up to them very much. They devoted themselves to their own churches and Protestant congregations. Dr. Bliss thought this kind of thing and proselytizing were entirely the wrong method.

How were relations with the French in those days?

Well, the French started their Université de St. Joseph some years after the American College, so there was a good deal of competition. The French, of course, were intensely Roman Catholic and naturally very anxious to have French influence expressed through the Church there. They didn’t at all like the Protestants butting in. So there was a lot of bad feeling. That changed, fortunately, after the First World War.

How were things in Beirut during the war? You weren’t there very long before World War I broke out.

That’s right. I got there just in time to organize a lot of social work for the students. And that was a very good thing because they needed everything they could get of that sort during the war. A lot of students were interned on the campus. The government wouldn’t let them go out. They were terribly discouraged and needed all the cheering up they could get. So I had all sorts of meetings, clubs and societies and lots of entertainments. I also tried to get all the older students to go over to the hospital and read to the blind people. They also used to teach in the evenings. Eventually there were about 150 students in the night schools. I also had to do more and more teaching as the war progressed because practically all the American teachers left. So any of us who could teach English courses, or any subject like that, had to just fall to and do what he could. My main concern, though, was to help the students have a good healthy social life—to get them to do something for other people and make themselves useful. That’s the greatest thing to do—to get people to do something for someone else, if you can.

Did the school remain open throughout the war?

Yes, except for a short period. The Turks were nervous about the school, but they allowed it to remain open because Jamal Pasha, who was head of the Turkish Fourth Army, found that the only place he could get doctors who would walk into the front lines and into his typhus wards was in our college. So he gave us military supplies when we couldn’t buy any thing in the market and he kept the school open. It was just a miracle. Of course, they put in a lot of new rules too. The students had to learn Turkish and the government was rather strict about the way people traveled around the country. There was a brief period when everyone thought America was going to enter the war against Turkey. We did close up then and burnt all the Armenian books and that kind of thing. Everybody got ready to go up into the interior, but the U.S. didn’t declare war against Turkey and the Turks were grateful and we didn’t have any more trouble.

What happened to you after the war?

Well, by that time, my great-uncle, Dr. David Stuart Dodge, was dying. Ever since the college at Beirut was founded, he had handled all of the college interests in America. So they sent for me to come to New York to help with the work there. Meanwhile, to make matters worse, President Bliss had become very ill and soon passed away also. So I stayed in America for over a year and, with Luther Fowl, who had come back from Istanbul, helped organize the Near East College Office. Later it would become the Near East College Association.

What schools originally made up the Near East College Association?

Originally there were Roberts College and the American Women’s College in Istanbul and International College in Izmir. Then there was a college in Sofia and one in Athens

and ours in Beirut. Sofia was swallowed up by the Communists, which is very sad because it was a beautiful institution. The school at Izmir had problems with the Turks, who didn’t like having an American institution there. So we persuaded the school to come down to Beirut. Today, besides AUB,Inter national College and the American Community School in Beirut, which has more or less joined the association, Roberts is still operating, though it will probably be on a modest scale as a lyceé, and the school over in Athens, which never tried to be a university, is getting on very well.

Did you come directly back to the school after your stint in America?

Not directly. For just a short time I was what they called Director of the Syrian and Palestine area of the Near East Relief. The Near East Relief helped the Ottoman regions as the Red Cross helped the Allies. There were about 9,000 orphans and someone had to step in and help them out. I couldn’t make much of a dent in the problem, but I did what I could.

There were some very dramatic, wonderful moments. The Turks at the time had a lot of Armenian children and had given them all Muslim names and put them in an orphanage. Some Turkish military officers were assigned to look after the children and they were not too gentle. However, after the war the children got back their Christian names and we had a Christmas celebration for these children, about 700 of them, I think. Each one of them got a present from under the Christmas tree. Suddenly they realized they were free and had a chance now to make their lives as they wanted. It really was a very moving occasion. We had the orphans learn handicrafts and trades so that every one of them was able to find a job and be self-supporting when he was old enough to leave the orphanage. I wish the same thing had been done with the Palestine refugees. They wouldn’t have all the troubles they have now.

You were appointed president in 1923?

Yes, and then, of course, the work got harder. In 1924, we started coeducation, which was a radical thing to do in those days. The admission of girls was part of a big change in the overall character of the school.

Up to that period, practically all the students came from missionary schools and the place was like a Christian college with chapel service and that sort of thing, not obligatory, of course, but it was there. Suddenly, however, many of our students were coming from some

of the really good British-type schools where there was a high level of teaching and good laboratories for chemistry, physics and biology. So we were getting a better prepared student with scientific interests, and that changed the whole makeup of the college.

In your first years as president, were you mainly concerned with expansion?

Yes, and not only in terms of additional students, faculty and a broader curriculum. We also needed property, and getting land was becoming something of a problem. The Turks had not encouraged industry, and when they left Beirut began to attract new industry, more trade and lots more tourists. The city became very prosperous and began to build up rapidly. Before the First World War, our college was really way out in the country. After the war it was quickly inside the city and we had to work out our expansion while land values were soaring.

With all influences, American, French and Arab, how did you resolve the language problem at the university?

Well, the first eight or ten years, everything was in Arabic, even the medical school, but they found out that it just wasn’t practical. It was difficult to get textbooks and the students who graduated really couldn’t get very far. So they started putting things into English. Then, when we brought the International College to Beirut from Izmir, we divided our school into two sections: one a French lycée with a Frenchman in charge; the other an American high school and junior college with Americans in charge and a New York State diploma equivalency. And that arrangement lasted until last year.

It was a very interesting experiment in education. The schools existed side by side in a large building. Very often an Arab father would come in and say, "I’d better put one son in each side. In my business they will be able to answer letters in both languages." On the French side, there tended to be a great number of Maronites and on the English side, more Greek Orthodox and Muslims, but they were all together in one building, all friends. So it broke down a lot of existing walls of trouble and made for a very nice feeling.

What about Arabic? Was that lost under this arrangement?

Oh, no. Every student who comes to AUB, unless he’s a European, has to learn Arabic thoroughly. There’s no escaping. We always had a great number of Arab professors and some of them in very important positions, so that the university seemed like an indigenous institution. I remember once being with a group of Lebanese gentlemen, ten or so of them sitting around, when one of them made a very disagreeable remark about "foreign institutions." Then they looked at me and laughed and said, "You know we don’t think of your institution as foreign." And we didn’t display American pictures or American flags around at all. The only time while I was there that we put out the American flag was when President Harding died. We put it up at half-mast.

Did you find yourself as president devoting more of your time to any one particular school of the university, perhaps the medical school?

No, I’ll tell you, I thought to myself, "If a professor goes six thousand miles, leaving behind family, friends and other opportunities, he ought to be able to get his teeth into some thing." So I appointed a dean over each school in the university and let him really take charge of all the educational work, the students, and the curriculum. My only interference with their responsibility came when I held them down to their budget. The result was that the deans felt very important—they were very important—and took great interest in their job.

What brought these men out to Lebanon?

I think most of them came out as very young teachers, in much the same way as young people now go abroad with the Peace Corps—for the experience of living abroad and doing a little teaching. Then they could go home and get a higher degree in medicine or in some academic subject and they would be very happy to come back to Beirut. It was an attractive place to live and although the salaries were very small, the money went far and there were many benefits not included in the salary.

What type of benefits?

Well, of course, doctors were allowed to have their private clinics and they supplemented their small salaries in that way. But for the men in the arts and sciences, their income when I first came out to Beirut was about $2,000 to $2,200 per year. That later rose to about $3,000. However, for that rather small amount they were able to have a house in town, a house in the country, two servants and a horse to ride. Then they were given furloughs every five to seven years, free medical care and extra help for their children’s education.

The Arab professors would get free instruction for their children in the university. We wanted to pay the Arab faculty on exactly the same basis as the Americans, which we did except for the education insurance and an allowance for a furlough.

I remember one very touching incident in 1933. That was the year of the Bank Holiday. The Depression was a very frustrating time. It is extremely difficult to run a university if your securities are stopping payment and that sort of thing. We called a meeting of the faculty to discuss our financial state and in a spontaneous gesture of support, they voted to cut their salaries, even though, as I have just mentioned, their salaries were very low already. They voted larger cuts for the head people and only nominal cuts for the very young chaps, the assistants. The gesture eased our difficulty a great deal.

Ordinarily did you find yourself devoting a lot of time to fund raising?

We had a fund raising office in conjunction with the Near East College Association and I used to do a tremendous amount of speaking for them. This didn’t leave me with much time to approach people directly for money. Only once did I have to raise the money myself. This was in 1938 when we received a promise of another $ 1 million from the Rockefeller Foundation, on condition that we could raise $500,000 ourselves. That year I didn’t do any speaking. I just went after the money. Through individual benefactors, and a $50,000 gift from the alumni, this way and that way, we fortunately were able to meet the condition of the Rockefeller Foundation. This made a vast difference to the university—it was the beginning of a great deal of expansion.

The Rockefeller grant came in 1938 and, just as your expansion was getting underway, the Second World War broke out in 1939. How did the university fare during the war years?

Of course, until 1941, when America entered the war, we were neutral and no one could touch us. In fact, they treated us very nicely. The French Vichy troops were more or less holding the country for the Germans and there was an Italian commission in charge of Beirut and a good many German officers around, but they stayed in the background. When America did enter the war, we sent all our foreign students, the Syrians, Iraqis, Egyptians, etcetera, back to their own countries. We were preparing to close down the university because we knew if the Germans came it would be shut down.

We expected the Germans to continue on from Greece and Crete. As a matter of fact, they sent over 40 planes and they got one of the Iraqi leaders to start a revolution in Iraq. It looked as though they would arrive momentarily. I deeded over the management of the university to a local committee, effective the minute I left the country. Of course, we learned only later that the Germans had suffered such losses in Greece that they were unable to continue into Cyprus, Lebanon and Syria, which were to have been their next goals. About six weeks later the British troops came up the seacoast and drove out the Vichy troops, and from then on, we had no trouble.

It must have been about this time that you began to think about retirement?

Yes, I had worked out a time schedule and I told the board of trustees five years in advance that I would retire in 1948. I felt very strongly that nobody should be president of an institution for more than 25 years—it becomes too much of a one-man show and it isn’t right. Also, I was 60, which is a good time to retire. I am glad that I stayed for 25 years out there. It took us through the two wars and the Depression. The university was strong and could really get going after the Second World War. When it was time for me to leave, I went six thousand miles away and kept my own counsel. I’ve seen too many older men connected with an institution trying to browbeat the younger ones.

Has AUB grown much since your time?

It has mushroomed. The growth began just as I was retiring with Harold Hoskins, who became chairman of the board of trustees. He had been a Middle Eastern advisor to Standard Oil of New Jersey and that put him in a strategic position to approach the oil companies for donations. Then the Ford Foundation and others began to take an interest. Then in the early fifties, it was as though the foundations got together and appealed to the American Government for help. "This institution is getting too expensive for us. You’ve got to take it on." And so the American Government’s been supporting the university for some time now, with large annual subsidies, a number of really beautiful buildings, for biology, physics and chemistry, and, most spectacular, an 18-million-dollar medical center. The American Government also sends about 650 scholarship students, with all their fees paid, from places like Pakistan, Nepal and other countries, you see.

Why is the American Government taking such an interest in the university?

I think they have several reasons. One very definite thing is they want to have a first-class medical center for the Americans in the government service in this part of the world.

The other thing is trying to maintain American good will and prestige. They’ve found that the university does more than anything else to keep up good will for the people of the country towards America. It’s a counter-irritant to some of the things the Arabs don’t like. The Arabs don’t like U.S. Government policy, but they really do like Americans.

Has Beirut turned out to be an advantageous location for the university?

Actually, the university is fortunate to be located in Lebanon. Lebanon is a unique country and the Lebanese are very broad-minded and independent. They are not fanatics or chauvinists. They also recognize that the university brings in an enormous amount of money, with nearly four thousand students every year and a great deal of trade.

How would you have felt about accepting such large subsidies from the American Government?

If you ask me what I would have done had I been president during this period, I think I could only say that I’m very glad that my time of service had come to an end before the question came up.

Would you tell us about your work with the Palestinian refugees?

I was out in Chicago when I received a page-and-a-half telegram from Trygve Lie asking me to go to Palestine and take charge of the Palestinian relief program. I went overseas the following Monday morning to begin organizing the program with the Quakers, the International Red Cross and the League of Red Cross Societies. The League would later become UNRWA, United Nations Relief and Works Agency, part of the new United Nations.

After I had gotten as far as Paris I found out that Washington didn’t want anyone who was as friendly with the Arabs as I was—Mr. Truman, you know, had an entourage that was not very pro-Arab—so they got Mr. Stanton Griffis, ambassador to Egypt and the Paramount movie man, to be head of the program. But I helped until Ambassador Griffis was free to begin.

So we all got working, trying to get the program going and that was when I first saw them. In those days there were about 580,000 who had actually left their homes. Then there were at least half that many again who were impoverished by the troubles in Palestine. We provided food for them and looked after them as best we could. But it’s always been very, very bad, you see, because there were these poor people living in tents or small cement houses, with no work, no self-respect, nothing to do. The population is growing all the time—the trouble is they have had nothing to do but produce children. The number of refugees is increasing at the rate of 2½ percent a year—some say 3 percent a year—and at the present time there are perhaps a million and a quarter refugees.

What about other Arab countries? Can’t they absorb the refugees?

People don’t know very much about the Arab countries. You see, Egypt is terribly overpopulated. She can’t take very many refugees, in fact, she can’t take any. And little Lebanon already has over 100,000 Arab refugees down there around Tyre and Sidon. They really don’t have room for any more. Jordan, of course, has most of the refugees, but Jordan can barely support her own population. So the only country where some of them might do something is up in Syria. But Syria has its own problems. When the French left, they didn’t leave a good civil service and poor Syria has been going through one coup d’etat after another. So, although Syria could perhaps be a fertile, rich country, they haven’t been able to develop the country so as to be able to take in refugees.

If land is not available for these refugees, is there an adequate rehabilitation program which will enable them to take up a trade?

No. It’s been impossible for the United Nations to give them enough education to get jobs. I think the very sad thing is that the United Nations didn’t get America to put up a good deal more money than it did, to give a decent trade education to these children. You can’t expect a whole population of boys, full of life, to grow up without enough education to find work and then to behave themselves. It’s really not possible. Of course, the American point of view was that they didn’t want to give more than their share to the United Nations. However, they might have, I think, said, "Well, we won’t give any more for the political things, but we would like to help with the education." Very few people in the United States really understand the Arab problem.

Did this lack of understanding surprise you when you returned to this country?

Yes, it did. For example, when I returned, back in 1948, 1949, it was astonishing that at Princeton they didn’t have a single thing about the contemporary Middle East. So they asked me to conduct a seminar on that topic. A great many of the students who came were not taking it for credit. They were just interested because they wanted to learn something about the Middle East.

The most ambitious project, though, was an Islamic conference, they called it a "Colloquium on Islamic Culture," which the State Department and the Library of Congress asked Princeton to run. Of course, it was exceedingly difficult in those days with Senator McCarthy’s boys questioning everyone we wanted to invite to the conference. The most gentle lambs were changed into dangerous wolves. But we managed to overcome all the obstacles. I was running the show and I took this point of view: "Now, we Americans are not going to tell these foreigners anything about what’s what or what they’re supposed to do or what they’re supposed to know. We’ll spend our time asking them to tell us." I think that sort of psychology is what we need very much in our relations with foreign people. A little modesty and humility increases a person’s size rather than diminishing it.

Did this conference lead to your work in Egypt?

Yes, after the conference was over, the State Department, or really the USIS, asked me to go out to Cairo on a special kind of assignment as a sort of free-lance cultural attaché. The idea was to make friends with some of the Muslim scholars. I worked with the embassy for a year, but this was in 1955 and the Americans were in hot water over the Suez trouble and I decided that as long as I was connected with the embassy, I could not accomplish very much.

So my wife and I just stayed on in Cairo on our own for three more years and I devoted myself to two things. I decided that the best way to establish a friendship with Muslim scholars was to write a book about their big mosque. So I started to research the history of the famous al-Azhar Mosque and I would invite them over to our apartment to have tea for a couple of hours and give us information on the mosque. They were tickled to death to have someone so interested in their mosque and I made lots of friends.

Are the Arabs still interested in maintaining their contacts with the United States?

Well, yes, because, after all, America leads the world in science and technology in a rather astonishing way. The Arabs want to keep in with it and they will be glad to have some American professors bringing to them the latest technical knowledge from the United States and helping them prepare themselves for post-graduate study in the United States, that sort of thing.

Do you feel that American influence is as strong today among the Arabs as in the past?

Well, there is certainly a difference in the ways in which we are influencing them. Our earliest effort was the Protestant missionary one. The trouble, of course, with the whole mission system was that its aim was to convert people and to make them change their points of view and make them members of an entirely different cultural unit. And, of course, in the long run, the people resented that attitude and the Protestant effort met with limited success.

Hollywood came along and, while it hasn’t always been a good influence, there’s no question that in its heyday it was a strong influence. Boys and girls would go to these Hollywood films and be enamored with and want to dress and act like Hollywood people. In fact Hollywood made such a big impression in those years that many Arab parents used to come and say to me, "We don’t understand modern times or what to do with our children. So we’re entrusting them to you." Rather tragic in a way, but even these things were changing too fast.

That is where our influence has been important—helping the young people adapt to change. Through the good schools we founded we got to many people when they were young and trained not only minds but characters.

John Richard Starkey, former reporter and TV news writer, now produces TV documentaries. Elizabeth Starkey studied political science at the Sorbonne and does free-lance writing.

This article appeared on pages 11-17 of the July/August 1972 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

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