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Volume 50, Number 5September/October 1999

In This Issue

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Back to the New College Hall

"Here it will rise in commanding proportions...and, like a city set on a hill, or as the lighthouse at the entrance to your harbor, it will be one of the first objects which will meet the eye of the stranger entering your port."

William E. Dodge, AUB Board of Trustees, laying the cornerstone of College Hall on December 7, 1871

Written by May Farah
Photographed by Dick Doughty

It came on a quiet night, and West Beirut residents will never forget the blast. Though they were no strangers to the nocturnal crackle of gunfire and the chilling thuds of intra-urban shelling, this was November 8, 1991, and the Lebanese civil war lay more than a year in the past. Or did it?

The explosion rocked sea-view apartments and shattered glass throughout well-heeled West Beirut. Two buildings lay ruined—the library of the American University of Beirut (AUB), and College Hall, the venerable original edifice of the university, whose bell tower had tolled dependably throughout 15 years of war. The time on the crushed, fallen clock face read 3:45 a.m., the moment a truck loaded with an estimated 100 kilograms (220 lb) of explosives was detonated, for motives still unknown. One university employee, 49-year-old Munir Salha, an offset printer and father of four, was killed. Beyond this, the damage to the spirit of the university, and the city at large, was vast.

"For more than a hundred years people had looked up at that clock," says Denise Nasser, an AUB graduate who was visiting family in West Beirut at the time. "It was one of the only symbols of stability we had left. It told us the time throughout the war. When I heard that College Hall was gone I almost collapsed myself. We were crying, we were all crying, some of us even more than for things during the war itself. On the campus you could see professors, students, everybody was weeping, just stunned by this."

Hiba Darrous was just one block from the campus, asleep in her family's 11th-floor apartment. She remembers "being startled out of bed by the loudest boom I'd ever heard. I rushed to the living room to look out the bay windows but they weren't there. The explosion had shattered all the glass, which lay in heaps across the floor."

College Hall was not only the oldest building on the AUB campus. Located in front of the main gatehouse along Bliss Street, it was the foremost symbol of a university that had bravely kept its doors open throughout the war, even though nearly every other educational institution in Lebanon had shut down. The four-sided clock tower, rising from the hilltop campus to overlook the city's most popular promenade, the seaside Corniche, was very nearly a national symbol. Within days of the bombing, letters of outrage—and pledges to support reconstruction—began to pour in from alumni and friends.

As a result, says Naz-ih Zeidan, director of AUB's Office of development, "the decision to rebuild College Hall was taken almost immediately." Fundraising committees quickly coalesced in Beirut and around the world.

"The campaign 'Let's Rebuild College Hall' was successful because of people's sentimental attachment to both the building and the campus," Zeidan explains.

From London and other branches of the alumni association throughout the United Kingdom came the most generous collection of private donations from a single country—some $3 million—enough to cover about 15 percent of the new building's eventual $20 million price tag. Hisham Solh, chairman of the board of the London branch, explains that his group's fund raising began while it was planning a convention to celebrate AUB's 125th anniversary. The guest list for the November 30, 1991 extravaganza included AUB alumni and friends from around the world, among them Queen Noor of Jordan.

"When College Hall got blown up three weeks before the celebration, the committee quickly agreed that we would dedicate that evening to its rebuilding," says Solh. As a result, "on the first day we raised £120,000," and from then on, "it was a priority project."

In Ottawa, Canada, the secretary of that city's alumni association, Bassam Zarkout, says that feeling was no less strong there, where College Hall reconstruction was "a constant sentimental favorite" when it came to the college's overall fundraising effort.

"When former AUB President Robert Haddad gave an address here," he recalls, "raising funds for College Hall was close to the top of his agenda."

AUB's more than 30,000 living alumni and alumnae have long demonstrated more than an average loyalty to their alma mater. (See Aramco World, January/February 1991.) "AUB has graduated presidents, members of Parliament, academics, and international business leaders," explains Yasmine Karanouh, who herself graduated in 1981. "We need the sense of identity and leadership that AUB provides."

Now, thanks to efforts of devoted alumni worldwide, the dream of rebuilding College Hall has come true. On another quiet night earlier this year, attention turned again to the clock tower as the spotlights that illuminate its new face—a replica of the old—were turned on. There was applause, and a few more tears—this time tears of relief and hope.

With its red-tiled roof, its light yellow limestone façade and colonnades with peaked arches; with its small windows and classical proportions, the new College Hall resembles the old. The library, which was also partly destroyed by the bombing, has been renovated and is now open beside College Hall, separated from it by a new fountain that splashes in a small plaza almost exactly where the bomb detonated.

"The alumni and the friends of AUB wanted the new College Hall to look like the old one, to have the same character," says Zeidan.

True enough outside, most agree, but inside, there was little attempt to replicate the old: Airy, high-ceil-inged classrooms, the rambling library and the suite-like former dormitory of the 19th-century building have all yielded to the demands of present-day efficiency. The new building is 20 percent wider and taller, and it has one extra floor above ground and two new basement levels, giving it nearly three times the floor space of the original. Artistic and design touches are modest and tasteful: indirectly lit, vaulted hallways; a mosaic-floored entry foyer and, set in the interstices of the grillwork along the stairway, intaglio brass medallions featuring a cedar tree, symbol of both the university and Lebanon. Plaques at the entrance recognize the alumni and friends who made reconstruction possible, and several rooms will be named for major donors.

AUB's vice president of administration, George Tomey, who oversaw the moving of academic and administrative offices into the new College Hall, calls it "a modern building with all the modern facilities," with Internet connections in every room, ID-card-controlled access and a new audio-visual presentation room. Most important, it offers space sufficient for the university's present-day administration. "It took a lot of effort and a lot of tedious work, but it has been built to what we think are the highest standards of construction," Tomey says.

Although AUB officially opened on December 3, 1866 as Syrian Protestant College, it was with the hoisting of the bell into College Hall's clock tower eight years later that the institution became, in the words of founder Daniel Bliss, "a real college community." The bell had been cast in Troy, New York, and it tolled faithfully until 1962, when a crack forced its replacement. The 450-kilogram (990-lb) replacement was designed and cast by students in AUB's own engineering school.

They did their work well: Incredibly, the bell survived its fall from the tower during the 1991 bombing. Today, it still reverberates hourly throughout the campus and surrounding neighborhoods.

Some of today's students were as young as 11 years old when College Hall was bombed, and so the emotion of reconstruction often runs deeper among the university's faculty and staff.

Annie Kasbarian, a secretary to the president who has been with AUB since 1977, says she is "both happy and anxious" about her recent move back into the building. "The last few years, we have been working from here and there and it was like having no home," she says. But College Hall, old or new, "gives you a sense that you belong there."

On June 22, AUB celebrated that sense of belonging with a formal inauguration. Candles in hand, the 65-strong AUB choir led a crowd of some 500 alumni, students, faculty and friends in the university's song.

"We salute this evening all those, great and small, who contributed to the reconstruction," said AUB President John Waterbury. In a highlight of the ceremony, he invited onto the stage the family of Munir Salha, the employee killed by the explosion, to unveil a plaque that commemorates his death.

The ceremony closed with the replacing of the original cornerstone box, a shoebox-sized, lead-lined vessel first laid in the northeast corner of College Hall in 1871, but forgotten until it was rediscovered during excavation work in 1992. Now it contains both the newspapers, pamphlets and speeches from 1871 as well as memorabilia from 1999: a CD-rom recording AUB's website and roster of students, faculty and staff; a current curriculum bulletin and, perhaps most fittingly, a printed program from that evening's ceremony reopening the building that Waterbury called "a beacon to all Beirut."

May Farah is a reporter for the Beirut Daily Star. She grew up in Canada and holds a master's degree in sociology from AUB. Dick Doughty is the assistant editor of Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 30-33 of the September/October 1999 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1999 images.