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Escape from Lebanon

Fall 2006 Vol. V, No. 1

Perspectives on the war

A Day on the Hill

Lynn Zovighian ’07 met Congressman Frank Wolf in January when he visited Lebanon on his Middle East tour. After lecturing to a group of AUB students, the congressman invited Lynn to intern at his Washington, DC office during the summer. Lynn plans on pursuing graduate studies in International Energy and Environmental Policy in the United States after completing her bachelor of arts in political studies at AUB.

The fax machine flashes. One neat paper exits. It’s an AIPAC Press Release: AIPAC Applauds Passage of Congressional Resolutions Backing Israel. Only a few days into the internship and I am already formally introduced to the power and eloquent lack of subtleness of the Israeli and Jewish lobby on Capitol Hill. The office of Congressman Frank Wolf would be receiving faxes from such groups on a daily basis throughout the Hezbollah-Israeli war—a constant reminder of AIPAC's omnipresence.

The office’s intern desk phone softly rings. An angry constituent is on the other end of the line. She shouts out curses and insults to the Bush administration and its continued support for the war in Iraq. The African-American grandmother is about to say goodbye to her eighteen-year-old granddaughter who has just been called up for service outside of Baghdad. She has called her congressman’s office to vent her anger and helplessness.

The mailman steps into the office with the daily mail. One constituent is asking for help in processing the immigration papers of her brother. Another letter is from the White House, another from the State Department. The last two are sealed and immediately placed in the congressman’s mailbox.

These scenarios set the tone of my six-week internship on the famous (or infamous) Capitol Hill. The Hill, Capitol Hill’s most popular publication, recently ranked the country’s most powerful representatives: Congressman Wolf was rated number fourteen. Working for such a prominent man was certainly a unique way of savoring the Hill Experience. Politics is not just about power; it’s about being in the right place at the right time; it’s about luck. It is also about results: a representative is judged every two years by the voters. Congressman Wolf has done well: thirteen terms is a very long time.

The American people feel close to their government. Every single American citizen believes in, and is proud of, the American system, its checks and balances, and its ability to bring justice. That phone call from the grandmother was testimony to this reality: in times of hardship and vulnerability, the American people turn to their leaders (they’re perceived as more than just politicians) for help.

That fax was a reminder of a status quo I was already aware of: the US-Israeli relationship is close. The Israeli message is simple: “You are against terror. We are against terror. Let us fight this terror together.” Their language is concrete, team-oriented, and politically sincere. They talk with the American government. Not to them and not at them. With them. Their concerns are therefore graciously embraced by the American government.

On July 16, Arab-American groups organized a protest in front of the White House. Their message was muddled: wrapped in complicated language, reeking with emotion, half-cooked in irrelevant and loop-holed arguments, in a sauce that had gone bad. Some protestors even wore shirts with the words, “Yes, I’m Arab-American,” written on the front. Standing among them, I almost forgot that the crowd had gathered to call for an end to the Israeli bombs in Lebanon.

Which do you choose? The Bush administration, like every other preceding American government, chooses to listen to the message that yields the smallest headache. No Tylenol needed. The lesson of that day is so plainly—and painfully—obvious. It is a reality Arabs have refused to change. It is also an example that does not hurt to be followed.

Reflections on a July War

Hiba Ali Krisht is a sophomore biology major from south Lebanon. She hopes to attend medical school after AUB.

I sit at my window during the long afternoons of July and listen to each sounding boom not so very far away. (I am, of course, safe, holed up in a quiet “no-land” just beyond Beirut.) My skin is taut, my eyes are hollow, my ears have closed like a chrysalis protecting something fragile inside. I hang over the highway that leads to the South. It is empty. Any rogue car drifting on that precious road looks forlorn. I feel like every spiral of smoke rising from my beloved Dahiyeh, the southern suburb of Beirut, is burning my home.

And it is July.

July, to me, has always been a gloriously carefree month of sparkle and sun and family visits galore: long afternoons in a courtyard in South Lebanon, heavily laden grape vines overhead, shifting shadows playing lazily on the ground. It’s such a nice, long, lazy month. It’s such a summer month.

Maybe, I reflect, Shakespeare was wrong. Maybe there’s more in a name than he allowed. Certainly this July, then, is not the July of my dreams. This July is parched earth and hot sun beating down mercilessly on cities, on people, on burning asphalt and the roofs of homes, wilting every vegetable garden in South Lebanon.

And my thoughts drift to that South. They float over Sür, Tyre, where I have family. Perhaps they too are sitting at windows, listening to the bombs not so very far away. And perhaps somewhere in that dreamland of a South, children sit huddled, reading their fates in the trembling hands that cover their faces. The air is so still and dry it burns their skins—but it does not burn the hurt that is buried beneath. Perhaps to the end of time, they will sit amidst ruins of an ancient town, already forgetful of the July they, and I, once knew.

And almost inevitably there is the why. Why am I here, and why are they there, those people, those children? What is it that spans this Mediterranean land and somehow connects us, forming an invisible bridge? What is the message of such July moments?

Well, I know that it’s more—it has to be more than wizened old children with brows furrowed like wrinkled date-skin. It’s more than fighter planes swooping down over their heads in this hell of a July War. It is a legacy found amidst moments of loss, despite images of brown-skinned children sitting hollow-eyed each on a rung of a ladder propped up against a pomegranate tree, watching the dust settle amidst the rubble of a now sky-roofed house.

The connection that bridges us is one of shared despair.

It is strange. I am not panic-stricken. This is no adrenaline fear. It is instead a dull, deep, alien feeling of someone far, far away, watching from the outside. And those children, what do they feel? Is it terror? And I speak of the children—those who are still children—never mind those our own age newly forced into the adult world by this July. I sit at my window, and some frantic part of the kaleidoscope within me turns to my peers, and I wonder. I wonder how many young, carefree men and women will never again be seen glorying so comfortably at their university, lying on the Green Oval, basking in the sun. I sit at my window, and I wonder how many dreams and fragile foundations for the future have been swept away by a wind gone south.

And I sit and sit and sit at this window. I sit looking at the pallor cast over my own younger siblings. My heart cries out for the children of July.

And I think, what is hopelessness compared to the enveloping insanity of rage? What is this weak, parasitic feeling of despair in face of the trembling force of full-blown anger?

I find myself looking at my small hands—I decide that I will dig deeper into the hotness of my blood, and find that invincible legacy—the same legacy that rises deep-throated from every crater and mass-burial somewhere in the South…

And I walk.

I walk through a tattered, ragged Dahiyeh, registering the surgical masks covering the faces around me. I see only the dark determination in their eyes, and I walk slowly, deliberately, through the mountains of concrete-rubble-broken-furniture-tattered-books-and-broken-homes. People drift by in throngs and more throngs, circling rubble, stretching their limbs, rejoicing that they are free to walk this path. And the glorious road to the shining South is dotted with cars, running with the force of the coolest, thirst-quenching river.

Has Lebanon ever been so great as it is this glorious day? The tautness in my skin will never leave me, but now it is taut with fierce strength and pride, as everywhere I turn the nation and its great, great people rise up to help each other, bursting through the outrageously thick heat-choked atmosphere of these days. A July is needed to bring forth the best that is buried deep in patriotism-struck bosoms. The air rings with the strength of their hands.

My Jewish Friends

September 10, 2006 | Patrick McGreevy is the Director of the Center for American Studies and Research (CASAR) at AUB.

In the heart of Beirut stands an abandoned synagogue. There used to be one more sect in Lebanon, its members not so different from everyone else—eating, speaking, and living like other Arabs, but Jewish by faith. Every time I walk by the windowless structure, I see the faces of my Jewish-American friends, and can’t help but think of other Beiruts—not just the Beiruts of the past, but the Beiruts that might have been or might yet be.

I have many Jewish friends. It seems strange to be living in Lebanon where Jews are almost entirely absent, and where the public image of Jews is so powerfully shaped bythe actions of the State of Israel. The ferocity of this summer’s bombing spurred some Lebanese to ask: Do the Israelis recognize us as human? At times like these, I wish my Arab friends could meet my Jewish friends.

The Jewish-Americans I have known are a diverse lot, but what distinguishes most of them is a relentless ethical impulse. They have been among the leaders of movements against racism. They have been proponents of justice for every group excluded and demonized, including Palestinians. Hence, it seems entirely appropriate that the word “mensch” entered the American vocabulary via Jewish immigrants; to be a mensch (a good person) should be the ordinary human pursuit: one need not be a saint.

Hussein Ibiesh, an important public opponent of discrimination against Arabs in the United States, explains that the very images now used to demonize Arabs, were onceused against Jews. The Arab sheikh, wielding power by manipulating the global petroleum market is none other than Shylock himself—the proverbial Jewish cut-throat banker. And the crazed “terrorist” is none other than the Bolshevik, anarchist, street-fighting Jewish revolutionary.

At some point in the future, most people will look back at what is happening in the greater Middle East today, they will measure the tons of blood spilled into the sand, they will notice the tons of oil carted away, they will see the impunity with which the United States, Britain, and Israel have acted in their own interests. They will see the asymmetry of power. They will see that the justifications amount to a self-serving superiority that has always accompanied imperialism. And in spite of the fact that the region’s leaders have exhibited ineptitude, and in spite of the sometimes cruel and misguided nature of the resistance to empire, it will judge that a vast crime has indeed been perpetrated. 

What stories will we tell then? That some Israelis, some Jewish-Americans, some other Americans, worked endlessly to protest, condemn, and demand an end to this violence? They will be true stories. But look around today: what is the central story? How many care or notice? Our great-grandchildren will be rummaging through old electronic files, video clips, and newsprint looking for stories of hope, of solidarity. If we were to notice the atrocity now, instead of waiting for the children of our children to notice, perhaps there could be a different story. Perhaps our great-grandchildren would find stories of hope and of solidarity.

Can we imagine a Beirut in which the synagogue is as lovingly restored as the Place de l’Etoile or the old Ottoman Serail where Lebanon’s president now resides? Is that Beirut only imaginable in a world with a different past? Is it utopian to imagine a Middle East in which Jewish people once again live among the region’s other people? The alternative—a walled and brutal Israel—will be no place for honorable menschen.

From Damascus to Beirut

August 23, 2006 | Hossein Shahidi, Assistant Professor of Communication

Because of the closure of Beirut airport and the destruction of Lebanon’s highway system by Israeli bombardment, I returned to Beirut from Damascus by bus on Friday, 18 August, 2006, traveling along Lebanon’s byways. The slow journey took us through beautiful villages and small towns that most passengers would not have visited otherwise. Perhaps we need a calamity to remind us of what is often sacrificed in high-speed development.

At the Syrian-Lebanese border, aid workers form various organizations including the UN, were stationed to help the refugees returning to Lebanon. One group of aid workers delivered a supply of bread, cookies, and fruit juice cartons to our bus. The gift would surely have been received gratefully by the survivors of a famine or an earthquake. But at least on our bus, none of the returnees showed any interest. The supplies were stowed away on the bus—no doubt to reach more needy people.

The bus ride cost little more than $4 and took less than four hours, while some other passengers were paying a hundred dollars or more for exclusive taxis, without necessarily saving any time. Indeed, at the Lebanese immigration post, I came across a taxi driver who outside the Damascus bus garage had offered to charge me $20 for the journey—as one of four passengers —because, he said, “there are no buses.” We greeted each other, shook hands, and laughed after I pointed out that there had, after all, been a bus.

The Syrian and Lebanese sections of the Damascus-Beirut road are different in landscape and displays of wealth. In Syria – with a population of nearly 19 million and per capita GDP of $3,900 – the road passes through a slowly rising, mostly barren land, with some billboards advertising a narrow range of goods and services, and some praising the Syrian leadership. At the border crossing, there are also billboards declaring Syria’s wishes for Lebanon’s strength and security.

In Lebanon—population nearly 4 million, per capita GDP $6,200—where the land grows increasingly green as the road descends from the mountains towards the Mediterranean, there is a deluge of ads for a whole variety of consumer goods, many of them promoted by women in suggestive poses. There are also posters announcing concerts by popular singers that were due to take place in the second half of July, early into what was to have been Lebanon’s tourist season.

There were no billboards announcing the planned appearance, also in mid-July, of the greatest living Arab singer, Fairouz, at the magnificent Roman Acropolis in Baalbeck. A Fairouz performance, of course, would sell out without much promotion. But up to the war and in its early days, the voices that could be heard widely on radio in Beirut and Damascus belonged to the more recent Arab singers, some of whom also promote carbonated drinks. Later on, it was Fariouz’s voice that filled the air. Yet again, a calamity seemed to have served as a reminder of a treasure.

On the bus, I sat next to a Palestinian-Lebanese family, with two articulate and inquisitive little girls. They were not allowed by their elders to be photographed, but they did hold up for photography leaflets that had been distributed in Lebanon warning of the unexploded armaments dropped during the war.

Arriving in Beirut, on its way to the southern city of Saida, the bus passed by the south Beirut neighborhoods that had been attacked by Israel. Though we were far away from the demolished buildings that had been shown on television around the world, what we could see—including a vanished urban bridge now replaced by a string of Lebanese flags—gave a clear picture of the destruction.

There were also scenes showing the Lebanese people’s resilience: a toy store back in business, and a man reading his paper at a sidewalk café, on the ground floor of a damaged building. And there were more billboards along the streets, some commercial, others political, including those displaying Iran’s leaders and the General Secretary of the Lebanese Hezbollah, Seyed-Hassan Nasrallah.

Reprinted with permission from www.iranian.com

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