Fall 2006 Vol. V, No. 1
Celebrating our 140th Anniversary
Najla Zurayk 37, A Woman for All Ages
Ann Z. Kerr
A Quaker woman who was a boarder at a missionary founded secondary school, taught school for three years while studying piano and French, then worked her way through four years of university study, first Junior College, where she was student body president, and then AUB where she fell in love with her future husband through college club social activities. This does not sound like the biography of an Arab woman as projected by the western medianor does the image of a 95-year-old woman sitting at her computer e-mailing friends and relatives around the world from her Beirut apartment and receiving members of the family and out-of-town friends for lunch or tea and discussion of whats going on in the world. Najla Zurayk, an AUB graduate of the class of 1937, is today and always has been a remarkable woman for any place or time.
As a friend of the Zurayk family, I have had the privilege of knowing
Najla for many years and have seen her in her role as wife of one of the
Arab Worlds finest scholars and diplomats and as mother of four
extremely talented and accomplished daughters. Her part in the success
of her family is unquestionable, but of equal interest is the story of
Najla as an individual. Najla has lived through the political upheavals
and wars of the last nine decades and has sustained the loss of her husband
and eldest daughter, while maintaining a life of vitality, purpose, and
interest in the world. On a recent trip to Beirut, I had a chance to interview
her and learn more about her early life. We sat on her sun porch where
Najla was surrounded by books, puzzles, a tape player, writing materials,
word games, and her knitting.
After the First World War ended Najla attended the Brummana School and then, in 1923, when she was twelve, her parents moved to Ras el Metin to work in an orphanage school and she went to the American School for Girls (ASG) in Beirut. One of the old American teachers who had taught my mother was still there, Miss Barber, Najla recalled. I came down from the mountains and stayed with my sister and her husband, and after that I went as a boarder.
After I graduated from ASG in 1928, I taught for a few years at the Brummana School and studied French and piano, but I wanted more than that. I didnt want to be a society girl waiting for a husband. I wanted to learn more. I told my father I would like to go to Beirut and study. He had sent my younger brother to AUB and there wasnt a lot of money left, so I said, if I find a job, will you let me go? He said yes, why not, so I found a job with the YWCA with Miss Hubbard. She was the executive secretary and a wonderful woman. So was your mother-in-law who was on the board and was in charge of the Girl Reserves. Elsa Kerr helped me a lot. That was before she became the adviser to women students at AUB. [Elsa Kerr was the mother of former AUB President Malcolm Kerr, the authors late husband.]
My job at the Y was to work with young girls in schools, and I had to visit schools all over Beirut. Being from the mountains and having been a boarder at ASG, I didnt know the city, so I said, Miss Hubbard, how can I find my way? She told me, you must depend on yourself, and that is how I did it. I went all over town for five piasters. It was safe much safer than now. I could take the tram home alone, sometimes at 9:00 or 9:30 at night. Where did you live? I asked Najla. First with my sister and brother-in-law and then with my parents when they retired and came down from the mountains to Ras Beirut.
Najlas life in 1932 sounds much like that of a young woman today trying to juggle work and study with social and family life. She began her university studies at the Junior College, which was later named Beirut College for Women and is now Lebanese American University. She soon was elected student body president, a position which brought a disciplinary role with it. She remembers having to participate in a judicial committee that expelled a girl for staying out all night with her boyfriend, but usually the disciplinary cases were simpler. When we signed out to go off campus, we usually wrote that we were going out with our cousins. It didnt take much to know that cousins meant boyfriends. So the dean would say to us, Please dont stand so long on the corner with your cousins!
After Junior College, Najla went to AUB where she majored in sociology and education. Classes were small with only a few girls. We had a nice lounge for women in College Hall with a balcony overlooking the tennis court. The library was on the same floor and we spent most of our time there or in the lounge when we werent in class. I joined several clubs, the Urwat al-Wuthca, an Arab association that introduced students to their heritage. Costi was teaching at AUB by then, and he was the faculty adviser. The other club I liked was the Village Welfare Society. We had this at Junior College too we went to the villages and helped build latrines, taught health and child care and nutrition and tried to improve peoples lives in the poorer areas. Every Thursday, my classmate Anise Najar and I went to a village near Chtoura to work with the women there. We learned so much from these experiences. At the Y, too, we had an undernourished childrens camp. Its a shame these social service activities dont still exist.
Did you take any courses from Costi? I asked Najla. One in Arab history, she replied. I was trying to improve my Arabic, so I took a class from Jibrail Jabbur. My education professor, Bulos Khowly, advised me to take courses in many different fields to broaden my horizons. I took economics with Bassim Ferris and sociology with Stuart Dodd.
It was only in my second interview with Najla that she revealed the fact that she had been chosen May Queen at AUB. That must have been the precursor to the Miss AUB contest we had by the mid-fifties when I was a student at AUB, I told her. Najla remembers feeling overwhelmed when, in the midst of professors and their wives who were gathered upstairs in West Hall, Professor Joseph Haddad stood up and announced that Najla Cortas had been selected May Queen. I was very shy in those days, and I went behind the platform and remained till everyone left. Did Costi notice you? I asked Najla. I suppose so, she said with a chuckle.
After a long friendship, they were married in 1940, by which time Najla, like many women marrying today was 29 years old with more than a decade of work experience behind her. It was difficult for Costi to make the decision to marry, she recalled, because he was supporting his mother and two sisters and a brother in Damascus. Their marriage of more than sixty years was one of rich family life with their four daughters, their extended family, and eventually two granddaughters. While mainly involved in academic life at AUB and at one time acting president, Costi had several other posts in his long career, one as president of the Syrian University, which Najla recalls as one of the happiest periods in their lives. The Syrians really like to enjoy life and have fun. They also spent time in the United States when Costi was the Syrian minister plenipotentiary before they had an ambassador. It seems apparent that theirs was a marriage of friendship, love, intellectual companionship, and the capacity to enjoy life together.
Though never returning to work to earn a living, Najla continued her involvement with the YWCA as a volunteer, bringing her broad experience in teaching and social service to the boards of different organizations. Today, though slowed down by age but blessed with good eyesight, hearing, and a clear mind, Najlas life is remarkably full and rich as she continues to take an active role with family, friends, and the community. AUB has been a central focus of her life. There could be no finer representative of the class of 1937or of any class.
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