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Recognizing Outstanding Achievement and Service

Honorary Degrees Return to AUB

Everyone on campus is still trying to explain the heightened warmth and excitement pervading the dignified ritual ceremony in which the American University of Beirut awarded honorary degrees for the first time since 1969. Perhaps it was the revival of an old AUB tradition after a regrettable absence of more than three decades. Perhaps it was the eminence of the recipients and their commitment to advancing the intellectual, economic, political, and social well-being of humankind.
The ceremony, held in Assembly Hall at noon on commencement day, was attended by prominent former members of the Lebanese government, among them President Elias Hraoui, Speaker of the House Hussein Husseini, and Prime Minister Selim Hoss, as well as by the many distinguished members of the
university community. It was a standing-room-only audience, filled with faculty, staff, students, alumni, and old-time AUB friends and associates.
The six honorary doctorates, awarded in five different areas of humane letters, were bestowed upon: Edward Said, Columbia professor, literary critic, and prolific author (in Academia); Amin Maalouf, Lebanese novelist and Prix Goncourt winner (in Arts and Letters); Carlos Ghosn, CEO and President of the Nissan Motor Company, and Hasib Sabbagh, businessman and philanthropist (both in Business); Helen Thomas, long-time feisty doyenne of the White House press corps and the first woman to receive an honorary degree from AUB (in Media and Public Affairs); and Lakhdar Brahimi, present United Nations envoy in Afghanistan and for many years a tireless peace negotiator in hotspots of the world (in Public Affairs).
The entire ceremony—the processional, the presentation of the degrees by President Waterbury, the placing of the hood on the shoulders of each recipient by Provost Heath, the singing of the alma mater, and the short acceptance speeches of the awardees—was marked by intense solemnity, alleviated by the occasional wry humor of President Waterbury’s remarks in introducing the candidates.
Three themes dominated the acceptance speeches: praise for AUB, the troubled state of the world, and commitment to the values of multicultural identities.
Edward Said called AUB “an impossible institution, so deep and antithetical are the currents and countercurrents out of which it is built, American and Arab.” Yet, he went on, “One marvels at its genius for surviving with such brilliance and style. Its men and women have enabled and embodied its educational mission, despite all odds and unimaginable difficulties.”
Novelist Amin Maalouf recalled his family’s long attachment to AUB. He said his grandmother had decided 68 years ago to move from her ancestral village to Beirut in order to bring her children closer to AUB. “For years, for decades, the life of the household revolved around this campus.”
Businessman Carlos Ghosn expressed his delight in participating “in the revival of a tradition here at the American University of Beirut…such an outstanding institution.” Hasib Sabbagh, also recognized for his achievements in the business world, spoke of the profound role AUB had played in his life, saying that after fleeing Palestine in 1948, he received two passports: the Lebanese passport of his adoptive country and his AUB “passport,” a degree in civil engineering. In words of praise, he noted the extensive network of successful AUB professionals around the world.
Media celebrity Helen Thomas, who is an American of Lebanese origin, expressed personal pride in receiving an honorary degree from “this esteemed University” and said she would always cherish it as a very special tribute.
Lakhdar Brahimi described AUB as an “unequalled center of learning in this part of the world, which has produced leaders in every field and in every country throughout the region.” He said that in Afghanistan he often sees AUB graduates who are ministers, professors, or businessmen, and added, “You will be pleased to know that they are now in the process of establishing an AUB alumni chapter in Kabul.”
All of the candidates candidly expressed their views on the troubled state of the world today, with special reference to the ongoing turbulent events in the Middle East region. Edward Said declared, “This is a terrible time to be both an Arab and an American. Those of us who are both, live in effect a standing civil war. We are enemies on two counts: in America the Arab is mostly a terrorist and a fanatic; and in the Arab world the American is an imperialist interested in world domination. And, to make matters worse, these two worlds, at their most extreme, are irreconcilable.”
Amin Maalouf, speaking again of his forefathers, said they strongly believed that “whatever could be achieved anywhere else under the sun, could be achieved on this land, by our people…the highest level of freedom, the highest level of human dignity, the highest level of advancement in scientific research and economic development, as well as in the development of ideas.” But Maalouf said he felt compelled to say that subsequent generations had not lived up to realizing the grand hopes of their ancestors.

Hasib Sabbagh, whose daughter Sana spoke for him, described the post 9/11 era as “a world of malaise, a world dominated by political and cultural distortions….a climate where human dignity and the value of human life is a non-issue.”
Thomas commented on how her career in journalism had allowed her to “put the spotlight on the political wrongs committed against helpless people, among them preemptive war.” And UN peace builder Lakhdar Brahimi, in describing his proximity to “so much human suffering and despair,” said he had “seen man at very close range, at his worst: selfish, greedy, cowardly, and cruel.”
Despite their unflinching criticism of the state of affairs in the world today, all the degree recipients saw great hope in the widespread emergence of multi-cultural identities and dialogue among peoples. Edward Said insisted, “There are values, institutions, histories, and individuals who defy simple characterization; there are men and women whose personal circumstances cross national and religious boundaries; there are ideas that travel and communicate with each other, despite all efforts to restrict them. This doesn’t mean that all conflict and antagonism can be resolved or spirited away. But it does mean, however, that coexistence can occur without violence or rage, and that a decent commerce between all kinds of differences is made possible, and indeed preferable.”
After lamenting the failure of his generation to fulfill the dreams of their ancestors, Amin Maalouf, described “this whole world” as “going astray…suddenly heading backwards,” desperately needing to be “re-imagined and rebuilt with higher standards of global fairness and of global togetherness.” Maalouf stressed the need for “a deeper commitment to a common future, in which no human culture would be left aside.”
All six honorees expressed their faith in a world of multicultural identities. Carlos Ghosn, a Brazilian working in Japan by way of Paris, said, “Every working day is a crosscultural experience. People with different beliefs who speak different languages come together, linked by a common vision and a common destination.” Hasib Sabbagh said that when he was building physical bridges he was always “inevitably building, in parallel, bridges of understanding between peoples of different religions and different political persuasions, both in the Middle East and in the world at large.” He especially views AUB as a uniquely positioned facilitator of “constructive dialogue between East and West.”
Helen Thomas expressed pride in “the richness of the two cultures” in which she had been raised. “Some day,” she said, “we will grow to understand that we are our brother’s keeper and bonded with all mankind.” Lakhdar Brahim, explained his creed in these words: “Throughout my missions, I have served one objective only: the promotion of cooperation and understanding between men, at times between nations across national borders, and at other times between neighbors turned enemies within the same country.”
Following the ceremony the honorees met briefly with members of the audience outside Assembly Hall before proceeding to the reception held in Marquand House, the presidential residence.
Most likely, what made the degree-awarding ceremony so memorable was the deep concern expressed by the recipients for our world gone astray, of “suddenly heading backwards,” combined with their high respect and determined insistence on the healing value of the emerging phenomenon of multicultural identities among all the peoples of the world.