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Deconstructing Social Change in Lebanon

By May Farah

Over the past 10 years, the Center for Behavioral Research has become the cultural salon of AUB’s campus, intent on sponsoring stimulating lectures and conferences, hosting a proliferation of visiting scholars and doctoral students from around the globe, and undertaking compelling research on Lebanese society. MainGate takes a closer look at this thriving social science center.

It would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to predict what pinnacles the Center for Behavioral Research (CBR) would have reached had its activities not been interrupted by the civil war; but, judging by its postwar momentum, the time lost has rapidly been regained. All indications are that the center has evolved into a spirited research milieu and the locus for sustained intellectual debate, providing much needed opportunities for the pursuit of investigative studies in the field of social and behavioral sciences.

It is also somewhat difficult to determine precisely how old the Center for Behavioral Research is. Initially established in 1964 as a joint venture between the Departments of Psychology, Sociology, and Anthropology as a forum for interdisciplinary research, seminars, and workshops, it served to host itinerant and visiting scholars and research associates through the decades. Its activities came to an abrupt halt during the early years of the civil war, however, and between 1992 and 1994, shortly after the end of hostilities, it temporarily became the home of AUB’s Project on Conflict Resolution.

Today, however, one milestone is certain: next year will mark the 10th anniversary of the center’s rebirth. Relaunched in 1994 under the sagacious direction of Professor Samir Khalaf, who had just returned to Lebanon and the University after many years at Princeton as a visiting professor, the center has established itself as the regional focal point of research, discourse, and debate for many renowned academicians and intellectuals.

The CBR also underwent a major facelift. Its facilities now include an up-to-date computer system and Internet capabilities, thanks to generous grants from the Ford and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundations, the latter having exceptionally extended its regular three-year allocation twice. “The aim of Mellon Foundation funding is to help the Center get started by supporting its activities, and that’s why it is limited to three years,” explains Professor Khalaf. “They generally never extend beyond three years. That the center has been receiving Mellon grants for nine straight years is a credit to the work we do.”

Nestled in the corner of Nicely Hall, as part of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, the somewhat modest premises of the CBR include office space and a seminar room and carrels for graduate students, research assistants, and visiting fellows. “The initial source of funding allowed us to establish this research unit,” says Professor Khalaf, noting that increased funding has allowed for more ambitious activities.
With its ongoing Mellon grant and, more recently,
funding from the International Development Research Council (IDRC) of Canada, the center has expanded its scope to offer a range of intellectual and cultural
programs and activities. These include international
conferences and seminars organized independently or in collaboration with other groups on campus, as well as with institutions and organizations both in Lebanon and abroad; a summer research program that provides faculty members with funding during the summer break so they can focus entirely on research and writing; an international monthly and biweekly lecture series, which has attracted distinguished scholars from around the world (among them Edward Said, Rashid Khalidi, Theodore Hanf, Mariam Cooke, Ghassan Hage, Mark Lance, John Keane, Frank Wisner, Walter Wallace, and Fawaz Gerges); funding for graduate students; and an affiliation with the center and use of its space for post-doctoral candidates and visiting scholars.

“We invited experts to come and work and that became contagious,” says Professor Khalaf, who admits to having been infected himself—he published two books last year and has a third in publication now. “As a result, the CBR was internationalized and we now attract scholars from Canada, Australia, the United States, England, and the Nordic countries, among others—and all this without advertising.”

With the University clearly reemerging as a favorable research site, the CBR has been receiving a growing number of requests from doctoral candidates for “affiliation” while pursing their empirical and field research. “Perhaps because Lebanon has regained a modicum of security and political stability and has begun to host regional and global summits and high-profile conventions, the center has had no problem in attracting international scholars to participate in our activities,” he comments.

“Architects, anthropologists, sociologists, historians, urban specialists—all of them find it attractive here, because they are catching Lebanon in a postwar mode. It coincides with what is happening in the field, with issues of space, place, and political identity. Media theorist and professor Laura Marks chose Beirut for her sabbatical year from the Film Department of Carleton University in Ottawa for many of those reasons, all bolstered by the recommendations of a colleague who had been affiliated with the CBR a couple of years ago.”

In talking about her choice, Professor Marks remarks: “I had a sabbatical and wanted to be in Beirut. So, I asked the center if it would host me, thinking it would be the closest to a cultural studies field.” She later discovered that the center was slightly “more sociological” than she had expected, but says that the experience nevertheless has been beneficial. “What I want and am always looking for is a close-knit academic community, and the center, with its small group and fair amount of intellectual exchange, offers that.”

Professor Marks described the CBR’s biweekly lecture series, more popularly referred to as the “brown-bag” sessions, as especially valuable and added that she enjoyed the friendship and interaction with the graduate students. She also had a special word to say about Leila Jebara, who has been the center’s resourceful secretary for over five years: “Leila is a fountain of information on virtually everything related to both inside and outside the center…She is the grease that keeps the machine running smoothly.”

In charge of organizing the “brown bag” sessions over the past four semesters is Sofian Merabet, who has been associated with the center for two years, including one summer as a research associate. Merabet, a PhD candidate at Columbia University’s Department of Anthropology who has been working on his dissertation in Beirut for almost three years, says the sessions “give advanced graduate students and junior researchers the opportunity to discuss their work, while enjoying the valuable feedback of an audience.” He believes that because the CBR “welcomes AUB graduate students and doctoral candidates from abroad, as well as a diversity of visiting researchers, it
creates a unique intellectual atmosphere.”
To accommodate the growing number of affiliates, the center has restructured one office and secured more office space close by. Still, it has had to turn down requests, despite the fact that many come with financial support from their respective academic institutions. The center can accommodate 12 to 14 people each year—four graduate students and eight to ten affiliated fellows —who remain at the CBR anywhere from one semester to one year and beyond.

“We get at least three or four requests for affiliation with the center every day from places like Harvard and Princeton, from universities in Canada, India, and other countries. Unfortunately, our limited facilities do not allow us to accommodate all the requests we receive, whether for long or short intervals of association,” confirms Professor Khalaf. “Hence, we have had to be very selective and at times have had to consider only those candidates pursuing research projects compatible with the interests of other affiliates.”

“The exposure to a spirited and hard-working core of young scholars, sustained by strenuous and competitive work ethics, has been quite contagious,” remarks Professor Khalaf, noting the opportunity given to most of the MA students affiliated with the center to observe activities at close range and consult with other scholars
in residence.

“Their presence and interaction with our own MA candidates has been mutually rewarding,” he adds. “It has motivated our students to complete their requirements in the optimum two-year period. It is truly turning out to be one of the most fortuitous by-products of our activities, something we are determined to nurture and sustain.”

This year, in fact, four MA students affiliated with the center won full five-year fellowships to continue their graduate training in sociology and anthropology at some of the top universities in the United States, including Columbia, New York University, Princeton, Stanford, and Brown. The CBR has also received substantive requests for collaborative research projects and joint workshops from foreign centers and colleagues. “We’ve been coordinating more and more with the programs, departments, and centers of other universities,” says Professor Khalaf.

Perhaps the most visible of the center’s activities is the Mellon Foundation International Lecture Series, which was inaugurated in January 1995 with a lecture by Columbia University’s Edward Said, and has been followed with two lectures annually—that is, when the security situation permitted—by equally eminent intellectuals.

Unquestionably one of the Arab world’s most respected and recognized scholars, Edward Said returned to Beirut this past winter at the invitation of the CBR, when he spoke to a full house of more than a thousand people on the timely subject of “Humanism and Resistance.” His stirring address was followed the next day by a more intimate question-and-answer session with students. Judging by the number of students, professors, and members of the community who turned out to hear Said, it is clear that the center is filling an aching need for the kind of “food for thought” experience that its lecture series offers to AUB and the wider Beirut community.

During the past nine years, the center has also hosted or co-hosted several major international conferences, under such timely themes as “The Lebanese System: A Critical Reassessment,” “Beirut’s Postwar Reconstruction,” and “Imported or Exported Urbanism.” One large gathering, held under the banner of “Reconstruction and Rehabilitation of Postwar Lebanon” and organized by the center with IDRC funding, was aimed at contributing to the reconstruction of Lebanon and, by extension, of other conflict-torn societies. It did this, says Khalaf, “by initiating a rigorous and systematic examination and debate about the key challenges and requirements of social rejuvenation and rehabilitation, which are considered the crucial dimensions of national reconstruction and are parallel to physical and economic recovery.”

More recently, with the help of a long-term grant from the European Commission, the center has become involved in a three-year project that is being conducted jointly with the University of North London. Its intention is to promote awareness of the cultural heritage of Mediterranean urban space, as well as to create and strengthen regional networks.

Khalaf is fully confident that projects such as these will continue to enhance the center’s position within the academic community, both in Lebanon and well beyond its borders. “An intellectual setting or milieu has been created,” says Khalaf. Indeed, it has.