Islands in Arabia

Lebanese refugees living in the camp of Seida southern Lebanon July 28, 2006. (MaanImages/Payam Borazjani)

Sitting on my balcony staring down at the Sea Gate of the American University of Beirut, and to the Mediterranean beyond, I am in no danger. The bombs are in the distance. The fighting is in the south. In Tel Aviv, Israeli citizens are staring at the same sea, in perfect safety. The missiles are landing in Haifa and farther north. And those following this war from living rooms around the world are in utter cocoons of safety. Most of us are separated from the violence that under girds our world and its order. But are we safe from fear? And does our fear make us wish for an order more and more strongly under girded?

AUB, like the State of Israel, is an implantation on the Levant from the West. Israel’s unilateral attempt to disengage and repair behind its enormous wall, as if it were an island in a sea of Arabs, reminds me of New Orleans dreaming of safety behind its levees. But New Orleans is an artificial island that is actually below sea level. Is Israel below sea level as well? AUB has evolved in a very different direction with regard to its surroundings. Might the Israelis learn something from its experience?

The American missionaries who first arrived in the eastern Mediterranean in 1820 were inspired by the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening. As historian Ussama Makdisi puts it, they sought “to evangelize the world in order to facilitate the Second Coming of Christ.” They also saw themselves as representatives of the most enlightened, most advanced, most modern of civilizations-the truth of their religion being the centerpiece of this superiority. They founded schools because Christians needed to read the Bible. They introduced western medical practices and what later became the standard Arabic script. When they founded Syrian Protestant College in 1866 (later AUB), they hoped to attract students by teaching them about medicine, agriculture and the arts. The entire enterprise was a failure in terms of its goal of gaining converts: there were hardly any. But their inadvertent philanthropy had a profound impact. Many Arabs embraced the modern notions they learned at the college. In 1882, a huge controversy erupted when the Presbyterian Board of Trustees in the US forbade the teaching of the theory of evolution, and eventually dismissed two promising Arab scientists who had dared embrace modernity more thoroughly than the university’s trustees. As years passed, the university’s mission became increasingly secular and its faculty and administration increasingly Arab. In 1920, it changed its name to the American University of Beirut. John Munro, who has written a history of the university, suggests that the word “of” in its name became more and more representative of reality. The university played an important role in the revival of Arabic literature and Arab nationalism. Partly because of AUB, most Arabs held favorable views of the US, at least until the 1967 War. Even during the horrors of Lebanon’s long Civil War, all sides spared the AUB campus and hospital. The University has walls and gates, but its guards do not carry guns. Its walls serve to designate it as a particular place where students from all of the region’s religions and ethnic groups can openly debate and pursue knowledge. As AUB student Randy Nahle put it in his prize-winning Founders’ Day essay in 2004, the university provided “an open forum where Occidental and Oriental streams of thought could meet and debate and reshape each other.” When AUB’s Center for American Studies and Research that I direct decided to offer a course called “The Holocaust in American Literature and Culture” last semester, we were aware that, though our decision was not without controversy, AUB was a free and open space where even this topic could be approached in a scholarly way. Instead of remaining an isolated island, AUB has continued to evolve. If it is an American institution, it is not because it slavishly serves the agenda of any presidential administration, but because it openly embraces ideals that have motivated the most admired of US achievements.

Can Israel evolve and become a country “of” its region rather than an island “in” it? A country where people of all religions have absolute equality? A country with “liberty and justice for all”? If so, both Israel and its neighbors have a great deal to gain.

In the Levant, endless empires have come and gone. Living here naturally turns one’s mind to the long view. In July of 2006, the American University of Beirut may seem vulnerable and Israel invincible, which is more likely to exist in 500 years? Perhaps now is a time to think about these most basic issues. What kind of island is likely to persist: one with open gates, or one with high walls? One that is a meeting place of cultures, or one that strives for cultural purity?

Patrick McGreevy heads up the American Studies Program at the American University of Beirut

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