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Volume 42, Number 1January/February 1991

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The Family Looks Ahead

Written by Aileen Vincent-Barwood
Illustrated by Norman MacDonald

"We are the AUB family"

Over and over during the fifth annual reunion of the American University of Beirut's Alumni Association of North America (AANA), the words were heard: "We're the AUB family." And the alumnae and alumni who gathered in Boston that May weekend acted the way relatives always act at any family reunion: they hugged, kissed, cried, gossiped, laughed, partied, argued, reminisced, mourned, showed photographs, and talked, talked, talked - late into the night.

"We are the AUB family," they said, bridging the gaps created by time and distance and war, introducing new family members, drawing strength and pride and satisfaction from each other, and rededicating themselves to their alma mater's principle of service to all regardless of creed, gender or nationality.

In speeches, in private conversations and public discussions, over breakfast, lunch and dinner, the theme was repeated: "We are the AUB family. We believe in the students, the traditions, the mission, the survival and the future of AUB."

And, as Ann Kerr, university trustee and widow of slain AUB president Malcolm Kerr, opined, "In the last, dreadful, 15 years we have done more than survive. Inch by inch we have moved ahead." Despite dashed hopes and shattered dreams and the agonies of civil war, the AUB family never abandoned plans for the reconstruction of their university, and of Lebanon.

Looking forward with determined optimism, the graduates discussed not the wages of war but the ways AUB's influence and its quality education might be extended to the students of the 21st century; they talked of improvements, salaries, academic standards and the pursuit of excellence.

Though the AUB community has had to cope with Lebanon's intercommunal conflict for the past decade and a half, difficulties are nothing new in the annals of the university. Almost since its foundation on December 3,1866, AUB and its family have faced a variety of trials and tribulations, from the bloody aftermath of the massacres in 1860, which claimed more than 11,000 dead, to the cholera epidemic of 1865, when the entire Middle East was swept by the dread disease. Panic reigned in Beirut and in one week 20,000 people fled to the safety of the mountain villages. In a population of 60,000 people, fully 3000 perished.

In 1874 there was an epidemic of fevers, and cholera hit again in 1875 and 1890. Five years later there was a typhoid epidemic, followed by scarlet fever in 1896, and another plague of cholera in 1903. All these epidemics claimed many among AUB students and faculty.

During World War I, Beirut became a German submarine base, AUB's hospital treated war casualties, and so many AUB students were called to military service that only 29 degrees were granted at the 1918 commencement. The ceremony was held early, in May, because supplies had given out and there was no more food in the city. That same year, 300,000 people in Lebanon died of disease, famine and starvation. Only 20 years later, the Middle East was plunged into World War II, with new deprivations and shortages.

All this, AUB survived. Through all this, the university continued to grow and blossom and extend its influence - until the spring of 1989. Then came its most severe trial yet, as internecine fighting increased in March of that year. In what Dr. Frederic Herter, the university's president, called a "heroic" effort, the American University Hospital treated 12,419 war wounded as out-patients, admitted 5733 casualties, and received 2570 more dead on arrival - more than 20,000 casualties in all. The AUB campus, virtually untouched through the past 14 years of civil strife, received 30 direct hits in a bombardment of 85 shells. They caused over a million dollars worth of damage and killed medical librarian Alice Haddad.

Throughout the artillery battles, and in the best tradition of its non-partisan ideals, the hospital served the wounded from all sides despite shelling, a nursing shortage, water rationing - or no water at all - breakdown of electricity and communications systems, and lack of fuel, food, oxygen, medicine and supplies. At one point in the fighting, the emergency room treated 60 casualties in one hour. Nurses worked 16-hour stretches, doctors around the clock, and with the help of the Lebanese Red Cross, they provided uninterrupted service to the people of Beirut.

Even while its hospital was treating Lebanon's greatest-ever number of war casualties, the AUB Medical Center never ceased to function, nor was its purpose lost. The medical school's 268 students continued to attend classes and take on their assignments. The baccalaureat technique nursing program continued, as did all the Center's other programs - and in June 127 general and specialized physicians graduated.

Across Rue Bliss, elsewhere on what had once been arguably one of the most beautiful campuses in the world, there were equally brave feats of perseverance and survival. Shellfire hit Post Hall, the Archaeological Museum and the Geology Department. Shells struck near the Post Office, Dodge Hall, College Hall and the Saab Medical Library, and others landed in the engineering, architecture and laundry areas. The Chemistry Building, the Agriculture Building, Green Field, the indoor courts and one of the faculty apartment blocks were hit.

Throughout it all, many AUB employees continued to work, sometimes taking up the assignments of their absent colleagues so that campus life could go on. AUB's maintenance crews - "those brave unsung heroes of the physical plant" - risked their lives to put out fires, defuse shells, fix gas leaks. And no sooner had the shelling stopped than they began campus reconstruction. They repaired and restored boilers, electricity, pumps, water supplies, broken windows - almost every pane on the campus was shattered - roofs, grounds, and buildings. Yet despite these brave efforts, the university, in the summer of '89, closed for the first time in its history.

By October of that year, however, AUB had weathered the latest storm, too. The 400-member faculty, and the students, returned. Many wore mourning and told stories of long nights in shelters, of food shortages, of fractured families and lives shattered by violence. Nonetheless, they brought with them the essential commodity for restoring the university: the hope that characterizes many of today's Lebanese who, despite everything, retain a stubborn belief in tomorrow, and the conviction that it will be better than today.

Returning faculty and students bravely resumed college life. Students did homework by candlelight on an unkempt, shell-torn campus where, in happier days, dozens of flower beds had bloomed and splendid cypress trees spiked the sky. Now roads, lawns, flowerbeds, and trees were scarred and blackened. Classrooms, labs, lecture halls and offices were shabby, battered or wrecked altogether, and services were intermittent. Extracurricular life, once so rich and varied a part of AUB, slowed. The old patterns, according to Dr. Jean-Marie Cook, AUB trustee and chair of the English Department, were slipping away.

But the spirit of the university was intact and morale was high when, in January of 1990, commencement took place and 1059 students graduated in the fields of medicine, engineering, agriculture, and arts and sciences. "The Commencement exercises were the most poignant and moving I have ever witnessed," Cook wrote. "The ceremony, abbreviated, was nevertheless a reaffirmation of the University's meaning of mission, the medieval gowns in stately procession a celebration of ceremony and tradition so necessary and so lacking in the lives of our students today."

Though the Lebanese crisis is in remission, the university still faces numerous problems, not the least of which is financial. Yet an amazing number of its activities continue. An AUB base on Cyprus was established in two adjacent apartments in Larnaca. Here, non-degree extension courses of existing academic programs are held, the advantage being that international faculty who cannot travel to Lebanon can participate nonetheless, and students and teachers from Beirut can attend without difficulty. In the summer of 1989, 20 teachers from Lebanon gathered for a week's instruction in teaching English as a second language; later 10 AUB faculty spent a week in a seminar on conflict resolution - the first such program in the Middle East. Plans are to link this program to the new University of Cyprus once the university is operational.

But, President Herter and others have emphasized, AUB is not about to leave West Beirut, or change its nature, or its academic role. Instead, on the 30-hectare (73-acre) main campus, life has already resumed its near-normal pace. Students study and stage parades and parties; the business office prints reports, memos and a new 206-page telephone directory; faculty, staff and students hold seminars, do research, attend panel discussions, lecture, write and publish everything from bulletins to books, perform musicals and hold rock concerts, honor poets and artists, make archeological discoveries, keep the physical plant operating, pursue a whole range of sports, and above all, in the long tradition of the university, prepare students for life and a career.

Consistent with its charter, the university remains open to all civilizations and cultures. Before the civil war, nearly half of AUB's students were from other parts of the Arab world. Though Lebanese now make up the large majority of today's 5269-person student body, the proportion of non-Lebanese has begun to rise from its low of 10 percent. In 1990, the university received nearly 12,000 applications for its 1000 vacancies; several dozen new specialist faculty members have been appointed and others who had left for security or financial reasons have returned.

"AUB will remain a place where East and West, Christian and Muslim, meet, mingle and exchange ideas," said President Herter. "Dialogue and free inquiry, not hatred and dogma, are the order of the day. In a time of sectarian and partisan divisions, AUB's nonsectarian, nonpolitical education is that greatest of rarities - something everybody can trust."

The American University of Beirut was founded in 1866 by Daniel Bliss, a Vermont farmer and graduate of Amherst College and the Andover Seminary. Assigned to a mission in Syria, he had, within ten years, raised the then remarkable sum of $100,000 to found in Beirut the first college of its kind in the Ottoman Empire. He hoped it would combine the best of Eastern traditions and Western education.

"We are not here as rivals," he said. "We are here to share with the people of the East the best things we have in the West, in exchange for the best the East has received. For the whole world needs the whole world...."

Starting in 1866 with a student body of 16 and a faculty of eight, AUB has grown in the last 124 years to harbor more than 5000 students of 50 nationalities, and a faculty of 400, in 81 buildings. And ever since the first graduating class of five men, in 1870, AUB graduates have done their alma mater proud. Two of those first graduates became officials in the Egyptian government, two became successful physicians, and the fifth, Yacoub Sar-rouf, founded in Cairo what was to become, in its day, the Arab world's largest-circulation newspaper, Al-Mukattam.

Today there are over 31,000 living men and women graduates, a large number of whom hold positions of responsibility and influence. In the Arab world the AUB roll call of presidents, prime ministers, cabinet ministers, ambassadors, administrators, journalists, businessmen, scholars and scientists reads like a Who's Who. It is one of AUB's proudest claims that at the 1945 signing of the United Nations charter in San Francisco, no fewer than 19 of the delegates were AUB graduates.

In Europe and North and South American, for their part, doctors, lawyers, teachers, clergy and scientists of both sexes have brought kudos to Lebanon. A good cross-section of them were at the Boston reunion, ready to credit AUB for their success. They include people like Nuha Abudabbeh, clinical psychologist and founder of the Nairn Foundation for Social Healthcare in Washington, D.C., which serves the psychological, social and medical needs of Arabic-speaking minorities, especially children and the elderly; and Munir and Naila Jirmanus, physicists in industry and at Tufts University respectively. "Everything we do now depends on AUB," Naila Jirmanus says. "That's where it all started."

Added Randa Khuri, who earned an AUB nursing degree in 1967, "Without AUB I would have had to go abroad for my education and lose my identity and my culture. AUB helped me keep that."

To electrical engineer Roger Tarazi, whose AUB degree dates from 1976, AUB is an important part of his youth and "the focus of all the affection I have left in Lebanon." To Rima Nashashibi, a producer and director of Middle Eastern fashion shows in Los Angeles, AUB was the major influence of her life. "It is an emotional tie so strong that all factions disappear and we're all one family," she says.

And in the view of poet Mariam Qassem El-Saad, "AUB students have built the Middle East. I love AUB," she declares teary-eyed, "and I believe it will survive."

Nimr Ibrahim, organizer of the reunion, treasures his memories of campus life. "AUB is an experience that opens your outlook on life," he says. "I doubt there are many places like AUB, where you could have 20 students in a class who represent 14 nationalities. It is a very special kind of place and I'm grateful to be able to help keep that feeling alive among our alumni."

Newly-elected president of the 3500-member Alumni Association of North America is Dr. Jack Tohme of Ridgewood, New Jersey. Now on the faculty of Columbia University after four years of practicing and teaching medicine at American University Hospital, he is optimistic about AUB's future. "AUB will weather the present storms as it has others," he says, "and, believe me, it has many friends who will help rebuild its prominent position in the Middle East."

Those friends include not only the active alumnae and alumni in Boston and around the world, but also those Arab governments who view the university as a valuable training ground for Arab-world leaders. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, as well as the American government, have made significant contributions to the university.

Even more significant that reunion weekend was the announcement of a five-year, nine-million-dollar collaboration between AUB and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in research and education, with the reconstruction of Lebanon and of aub as goals.

A large part of the funds for that program were donated by the Hariri Foundation, founded by Lebanese-born Saudi citizen Rafic Hariri, whose generosity in the name of his family seemed to echo the reunion's own family theme. At the reunion banquet, three of Hariri's adult sons stood beside AUB President Frederic Herter to receive the University's first medal of honor on their father's behalf. Bahaa, Saad and Houssam stood proudly as Herter paid homage to their father:

"We are pleased to bestow this first University Medal of Honor on Rafic Hariri," Herter announced. "It is given in recognition of his generous support of AUB and of Lebanon,... for his dedication to education as the basis of Lebanon's future,... and for his ceaseless pursuit of peace."

Administered at AUB by Nassir Sabah, dean of the faculty of engineering and architecture, and at MIT by Fred Movenzadeh, director of technology and development, the program "will ensure that, once political stability is reestablished, AUB will be a principal contributor to the rebuilding of Lebanon," Sabah said.

The collaboration in research and education between AUB's younger faculty members - most of them hired since the Lebanese crisis began in the mid-70's - and MIT's senior faculty will strengthen AUB, Sabah said, and have a further threefold effect: It will help the reconstruction and development of Lebanon; improve cooperation between AUB and industry, government and other educational institutions in Lebanon; and it will enhance AUB's ability to deliver professional and technical assistance to other Arab countries through its office of Research, External Programs and Planning.

Today AUB is surviving, but the university is under great pressure. Lectures, lab work, seminars and study move forward, but there are considerable backlogs to overcome. Students must often take exams on weekends to make up for lost time. Even dedicated faculty members, said Dr. Ibrahim Salti, AUB's deputy president, must sometimes ask themselves why they remain. They do so, he said, because they believe in the traditions, survival and future of the university; because they believe there is important work to be done; and because they fervently believe AUB still has an important role to play in Lebanon and the Middle East.

Salti foresees a massive university program of rebuilding in science, technology, research and graduate programs.

"Our academic systems are intact," he maintains. "We have retained our independence and openness and we are still strong. The danger would come if we get skeptical, or lose hope. Arab leaders elsewhere have said, 'When will you start an AUB for us in our region?' So our future role may well be to help similar universities in other countries."

AUB's dedication to learning, tolerance, and service to the community continues unabated. The maintenance crews continue to work long hours with meager supplies. The hospital staff treats the wounded of all faiths and persuasions. The faculty teaches, advises and shows its traditional determination and perseverance in the face of adversity. And in Boston, the North American branch of the AUB family rededicated itself to the belief that education will, ultimately, bring together people of good will.

In the words of President Herter, "AUB remains the only major institution in Lebanon where people of all convictions and faiths can work, and learn, side by side in harmony. If this unity can exist at AUB there is hope that it can be realized, in time, in Lebanon itself. What makes a great university is the creation of students with vision and social responsibility, and AUB continues to do this. Let us then not be overly despairing of the chaos and the bloodshed, tragic as they are. Let us rather concentrate our efforts on keeping alive the essential significance of our university, a university unique in the Arab world."

Aileen Vincent-Barwood, former Middle East correspondent for the CBC in Beirut, now freelances from upstate New York.

The Cambridge-Beirut Link
Illustrated by Norman MacDonald

Dean Nassir Sabah, AUB's man in charge oft collaboration on the reconstruction of Lebanon and the university, is a man of high hopes.

"Our recovery is inevitable and will be robust" he predicts. "However, if it's to succeed, reconstruction must be planned now. The AUB-MIT collaboration will do that."

The areas of collaboration include reconstruction and development of power-generation, transportation and communications systems; urban planning, housing and resettlement; and the introduction of new building forms, methods, materials, and techniques. The joint effort will also help restore water sources and supplies, protect traditional architecture, develop renewable energy sources and new methods for recycling wastes, give technical assistance to industry, assist in health-care development, and bring in new educational technology.

Sabah believes the physical reconstruction will be the easiest feat. Far more difficult, he says, will be the abstract work: rehabilitation of the social, cultural, health, education and financial resources of the country.

He describes the restoration of the university as a top priority. "Aub always shared the life of Lebanon," he says, "and so we have an obligation to our host country to once again provide quality education, research, and leadership."

"We are entrepreneurs," Sabah says, "talented, vibrant, and capable people. It will be hard work, but we can do it."

This article appeared on pages 20-33 of the January/February 1991 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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