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Najla Zurayk ’37, A Woman for All Ages
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Summer, Interrupted
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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 media—nor 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 what’s 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 World’s 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.

Our conversation began with her warm recollection of her parents and their dedication to education. “My mother was from Brummana and my father’s family was from Biskinta, at the foot of Mount Sanin,” Najla explained in the lively voice of a woman half her age. “He came to the Friends School in Brummana on horseback or donkey with a bundle of his clothes. She went to the girls’ school and he went to the boys’ school, and this is how they met. My mother also spent some of her high school years at the American School for Girls in Beirut. Later they both became teachers at the Brummana School and wrote love letters to each other in code – even though they were in the same town. You know the two schools were as far apart as West Hall and Bliss Hall. The community didn’t know that they were in love or corresponding,” Najla said with a big smile.

Najla was born in 1911, the third of the four surviving children of Tanius and Mariam Cortas. She was just old enough to witness the terrible starvation in World War I. “I remember standing on the balcony of our house, which my parents had turned into a ‘soup kitchen’ for the Near East Relief Organization, watching people come with their utensils to get their rations at the lower story of our house where my mother was in charge. Other women were helping to cook and bake bread right there at our house. It was really hard and when I was older, my father told us stories of seeing people with bloated stomachs – you know, dead from hunger.”

“Why was there so much hunger?” I asked. “Because everything had to go to the Turkish army. Mt. Lebanon was very rocky and we didn’t have a lot of crops. I remember my father used to walk from Brummana to a village about fifteen kilometers away with a muleteer to get wheat and then walk back. Oh, the kind of food we used to eat! I remember my little brother complaining about having to eat mujedera all the time.”

I asked Najla if she recalled when the British and French arrived in Lebanon. “I must have been about nine years old when the British came to Brummana. They came to the Cedars Hotel just below my parents’ house. One day, a group of us children looked over and saw an officer lying down with a stone for a pillow. We said ‘haram’ and brought him a cushion and said, ‘please don’t sleep on a stone.’ He was so touched he took us to the canteen and gave us all kinds of things we hadn’t had through the war.”

Najla continued these recollections in her strong voice. “The English were starting to go away and then the French came.” “Why did the British leave?” I asked. “Because they made an agreement with the French. Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine were one entity under the Ottomans—then they divided us up and each took a portion. I asked Najla if she had ever been to Palestine. “Did you get to see Jerusalem?” “Oh yes, I went to Palestine as a Quaker to the annual meetings. My father used to go to the yearly meeting and he took me with him. Of course we went and returned by land. I went to Ramallah twice. That was before – in the early thirties I would say.”


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 didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 author’s 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 didn’t 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.”

Najla’s 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 didn’t take much to know that cousins meant boyfriends. So the dean would say to us, ‘Please don’t 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 weren’t 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 children’s camp. It’s a shame these social service activities don’t 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, Najla’s 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 1937—or of any class.
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