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The Arts Step Out:

The Flourishing Cultural Life of AUB

The stage lights are back on, the majestic organ in Assembly Hall has been fine-tuned, the choir has never sounded better, and the demand for art classes is on the rise. And that’s not even mentioning the outstanding museum collections. May Farah finds that the artistic and cultural scene on campus is thriving.

A rich, cultural life has always been a hallmark of AUB—from theater to concerts and dance, from the arts to museums that brim with archaeological treasures as well as biological and geological specimens from Lebanon’s past. Let’s just simply say that creative expression and cultural exploration are some of the qualities that have always made AUB—and its students—distinctive in Lebanon and the region.
The University was once home to a thriving fine arts department that closed in 1976 to make way for the establishment of a new expanded program once “the war was over.” But the war that everyone thought would end in a year went on for 15 years—and the proposed grand plan for an AUB multimedia fine arts complex never saw the light. In the years since then, however, the Civilization Sequence Program of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has been offering courses in painting, sculpture, theater, and music, with more and more students enrolling every year. Meanwhile, plans are moving ahead these days, not only to reestablish the fine arts department, but to resuscitate the grand plan that for more than two decades has been gathering dust in a forgotten drawer. The vision now is to create a cultural center at AUB that will reign as the region’s showcase for contemporary Arab arts.

Demand for the arts at AUB has not diminished, judging by the full courses and waiting lists—especially for the graphic design program that was launched by the Faculty of Engineering and Architecture in 1992. As for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, it is now offering at least 17 different art, music, and theater courses to students (as well as to the community in its outreach extension program), ranging from the more theoretical art appreciation and civilization classes to hands-on studio workshops in painting and sculpture and in acting and directing. The result is that a number of students have ended up discovering a talent worth pursuing. For example, one young woman discovered the sculptor inside herself and is now on her way to pursuing that art in Italy. Another has decided to work for a degree in interior architectural design.
Outside the classroom, there are many other cultural offerings for students, faculty, staff, and the community. Both Assembly Hall and West Hall are regularly staging live music and theatrical performances. AUB’s museums continue to lure both the expert and the novice to their collections. And each spring the Green Field is transformed into an outdoor auditorium for AUB’s celebrated Folk Dance Festival.
Because the arts and culture are such a fundamental part of AUB’s past and present—and certainly of its future—it is worth spotlighting some of their different activities for the readers of MainGate.

The Sound of Music: Assembly Hall

Every year, AUB’s Assembly Hall comes alive with the sound of music. This past academic year alone, a remarkable 30 or so concerts were presented inside the arched elegance of the former chapel, which was built in 1891 and is noted for its excellent acoustics.
Organ, violin, piano, oud, Spanish guitar, cello, and virtually any other instrument imaginable were played to perfection. The vibrating sounds of piano, voice and organ filled the air. And what made the organ recitals more remarkable was that, for the first time since it was installed in 1972, the stately organ in Assembly Hall was completely renovated. It took a team of specialists from Denmark a grueling four weeks last year to repair, adjust, and replace some of the thousands of components of the huge, awesomely complex machine. But, judging by the magnificent sounds it now produces, it was well worth the fine-tuning effort.
The Assembly Hall music series also featured purely instrumental concerts, some with vocal accompaniments, as well as solo recitals, duos, string quartets, group performances, a jazz concert, and the AUB Choir. And, as any AUBite will tell you, no season of Assembly Hall offerings would be complete without classical opera, mezzo-sopranos, and the yearly Christmas carols.
This past year there was even a night dedicated to Hungarian folk music, and a couple of evenings of holiday music from Spain, France, England, and Lebanon. Students, professionals, and aspiring non-professionals alike took the stage at Assembly Hall. A musical highlight of the season was when the Lebanese National Symphony Orchestra joined the AUB Choir for its annual spring performance. Another star attraction was the staged music and poetry dialogue, which featured a combination of contemporary instrumental and vocal selections interspersed with the recital of German and Lebanese poetry.

Voices Raised in Song: AUB Choir

Music has always been a strong component of the cultural history of AUB and continues to serve an important function in rounding out the liberal arts education for which the University is so well known. While some courses, like musical traditions or elements and notation of music do not require any prerequisite experience, the five AUB Choir courses are all about developing performance skills, with students learning and rehearsing a choral repertoire over two or more semesters. The basic prerequisites for those courses are an audition and the consent of the instructor. “We expect a student to also participate in the events we hold, because the aim is to build a performing choir,” says Paul Meers, the director of the AUB Choir and Choral Society and an assistant professor of music.
Meers has achieved that and more. Over the years, though the number of choir members has remained steady, the quality has consistently gone up, as has the dedication of the students, says Meers, who has been at AUB for three years. The choir is composed of about 30 to 35 students who are joined for performances by members of the Choral Society, whose membership is made up of alumni and other aspiring vocalists in the AUB community.
Meers conducts the choir for at least three regular annual performances: the Christmas and spring concerts and commencement. For this year’s spring concert, members of the Lebanese National Symphony joined the choir in performing an extraordinary program of classical music. “Plus, there are other ceremonies that come up which feature the choir,” he says, “like West Hall’s rededication ceremony this past February.”
Then there are the special events. This year, the Beirut community was treated to an unprecedented 100-plus strong choir in Lebanon, when AUB’s 45-member choir was joined by teachers and students from nine schools across Lebanon for the first annual Lebanon Choral Classic Workshop.

Discovering The Artist in Oneself: The Fine Arts

With the end of the academic year comes what has now evolved into an annual tradition at AUB: the art exhibitions of student work.
The sculpture exhibit, which features the work of students in both basic and advanced sculpture courses, is held between the end of May and early June in the Sculpture Room under Jesup Hall. It is there that many of the 200 clay, stone, and metal pieces on display this year were hand-crafted and chiseled to perfection under the watchful eye of instructor Mona Saudi, an internationally renowned Jordanian sculptor.
With 40 years of professional experience behind her and now into her third year of teaching sculpture at AUB, Saudi is a stimulating mentor who knows how to guide her students into bringing out the best in themselves. “One of my concerns,” she says, “is to help the students discover the artist within themselves…how to generate a strong interest in sculpture and develop a basic knowledge of the various sculptural styles from the dawn of history to the present time.” The pieces exhibited, which were produced by 66 students, varied in material (clay, plaster, wood, metal, and stone), as well as in size and style. An estimated 600 visitors came to see the sculpture show, which received nationwide media coverage.
Simultaneously, in adjacent Nicely Hall, year-end exhibits of art, pottery, and ceramics showcased student work—from basic drawing and painting, to watercolor and illustration, to pottery and ceramics. While the pottery and ceramics were displayed outside in the garden next to Nicely Hall, the paintings were hung along the walls of the studio classrooms.
A total of 60 students took the beginner’s ceramics course, learning the A to Z of ceramic techniques. And over 50 completed the advanced class, using their newly acquired skills to produce a variety of ceramic objects, ranging from functional ware to decorative panels and architectural facades. Their efforts resulted in a number of remarkable pieces, each distinctly different in design concept. From beautifully crafted coffee and tea sets, vases, trinket boxes, plates, bowls, and coasters to replicas of ancient pottery and tableware (some of them modern geometric in style), each piece reflected individual creativity and imagination.

It’s Showtime! The Thrill of Student Theater

The six theater electives offered by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences serve to introduce students to the world of acting, directing, set and costume design, and the technical aspects of backstage operations (lights, sound, and stage construction). During the course of the semester or year, students put into practice everything they learn by participating in several performances, including one major production.
“The courses can be a lot of fun and a break from the academic world,” says instructor Sharif Abdelnour, who wrote two of the three minor productions staged this year. “Because students are spending so much time together, they become good friends. And they get to produce something and see it. For many, it’s the first time they work as a team in making something.” This year, the students were involved in the “making” of three productions: “Starter of Wars,” “Godot,” and “Hotel Paradiso.”
“Starter of Wars” was produced and performed to coincide with the international Lysistrata project, the worldwide theater event for peace that was held for the first time this year. The AUB production involved two main performers and 23 production crew members. The 40-minute anti-war play, written and directed by Abdelnour, is based on the historic Greek play Atristophanes. His version featured two women, a mother and a daughter, arguing about their respective son and husband going to war. The mother is angry and upset that her son is going to fight, while the wife is proud of her husband’s bravery. Performed in both English and Arabic, the play used dramatic multimedia effects to get its anti-war message across.

The second minor production, “Godot,” was a one-act black comedy with an original script written by two instructors and the student head of the drama club. The play, though related to Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” was certainly different—it dealt instead with the other side of Beckett’s theme, with what Godot may have been doing while everyone was waiting for him.
The final and main production of the year was the hugely successful presentation of the comedy “Hotel Paradiso,” which featured a cast of about 20 students, plus more than 30 people in charge of sound and lighting, publicity, costumes, make-up, props, and sets. For five nights, the cast and crew put on a remarkable show, and judging by the enthusiastic response of the audience, it was a show not to be missed.

Joyfully Celebrating Cultures: Folk Dance Festival

Considered a top cultural event, perhaps because of the sheer number of people involved—both in participants and spectators—AUB’s Folk Dance Festival was first held back in the 1950s. Since then, it has become one of the University’s most anticipated annual events.
Months of meticulous preparation, training, and hard work go into organizing each year’s festival, with invitations calling for student participants going out to schools across the country at the beginning of the academic year. Rehearsals begin at least seven months prior to the event, as students from all over Lebanon, who range in age from 12 to 20, learn dances from across the world.
The music, which is selected during an annual workshop camp held in California, changes each year. And while the festival has no single particular theme, there is usually recognition of one specific event or activity. Last year, for example, an Iraqi dance was featured to acknowledge what was happening in that country. A certain pattern, however, is always followed—every festival includes Lebanon’s dabkeh, and every festival ends with a traditional Russian dance, because it involves the participation of everyone, students and spectators alike.
Preparing for the festival begins in October and ends with the one-day performance that is held in May, preceded by a full-dress rehearsal the day before. This year, for over two hours on the Green Field, about 400 dancers dressed in a rainbow range of colorful costumes celebrated folk dances from Africa, Armenia, Canada, China, Croatia, Czechoslovakia, Egypt, Greece, Holland, India, Iraq, Lebanon, Mexico, Romania, Russia, and the United States. The festival, which is regularly attended by some 2,000 to 3,000 people from the Lebanese community, helps fulfill that part of AUB’s mission to spread its values of acceptance, tolerance, and democracy throughout the Middle East. In bringing together people from diverse backgrounds, it encourages today’s youth to appreciate the traditions and folklore of other cultures.

Exhibiting the Past: the University Archaeological Museum

AUB’s renowned University Archaeological Museum, located in Post Hall, was founded in 1868, two years after the University itself was established. Through the decades, as its collection grew, the museum premises increasingly became inadequate and the need for expanded space became an urgent issue. In 1956, the AUB Board of Trustees agreed that the interior of Post Hall should be redesigned to allow for expanded exhibition space. Consequently, the necessary funds were secured to undertake renovation of the museum, which resulted in doubling the exhibition space, equipping the museum with metal and plate glass showcases, creating a separate large hall specially intended for study of the collection.
Recognizing that a museum of archaeology cannot remain static, AUB embarked on a program of archaeological excavations in the region, which it considers the main source of the ancient artifacts that enhance the historical and scientific value of the collection. Today, the museum exhibits a wide range of artifacts from Lebanon and neighboring countries that trace mankind’s progress in the Near East from the Early Stone Age to the Islamic Period. The collection, which is considered one of the best in the Middle East, includes all the archaeological periods and contains an extensive variety of artifacts: prehistoric flint implements, pottery, bronzes, glass, stone and marble sculptures, cylinder seals, jewelry, mosaics, and so on.
The museum, which is open Monday to Friday and has always been free to the public, receives about 2,000 to 3,000 visitors per year. It also hosts a program of educational activities in collaboration with the Society of the Friends of the Museum, which includes monthly lectures by local and visiting archaeologists, programs specifically designed for children (which have been hugely successful), and annual trips to various historical sites both in Lebanon and Syria, as well as to sites in other countries in the region and beyond. Moreover, the museum regularly organizes or participates in archaeological exhibitions both locally and abroad.
In the next few years, the museum is to be relocated to a more spacious and user-friendly space. When it does, University Archaeological Museum Director Leila Badre plans to present the collection in a different manner, this time by theme instead of chronologically. “For example, all artifacts under the theme ‘development of writing’ would be grouped and presented together,” she says. “In this way, it will be easier for visitors, especially for students from across Lebanon, to study the various themed groups—religion, Islamic coins, jewelry, and so on—while listening to audio-taped descriptions of each.”

Fossils, Minerals, and Stones: The Geology Collection

The Geological Museum, located on the upper floor of Post Hall, has been around for at least 50 years. The mineral and rock collection, which originates from various sources, including Lebanon, the Middle East, the United States, Canada, Europe, and other parts of the world, is used as a teaching aid by the University’s Geology Department.
Faculty members, researchers, and scientists affiliated with the museum and AUB collect and add valuable specimens, which continuously improve the collection. Although primarily used as a teaching museum, it is also open to the public and many tourists and local visitors visit the museum each year, as do thousands of Lebanese students who come in groups with their teachers as part of their science education. The only one of its kind in Lebanon, the Geological Museum rates well when compared to similar museums in the region or even those found in North American universities.
The most valuable and fascinating part of the museum is its fossil fish collection, which is made up of world-class specimens, some of which are extremely rare. Most of them, found in the Jbeil-Haquel area in Lebanon, are about 100 million years old and have been well preserved in the Middle Cretaceous limestone strata in which they were embedded. The museum also boasts a very valuable specimen of Ichthyosaur. The exact species of that specimen is Ichthyosaurus intermedius conyb, representing a marine reptile of the Jurassic Age that is almost an astounding 160 million years old.

Showcasing Lebanon’s Biodiversity: Natural History Museum

AUB possesses scientifically priceless specimens of the animals and plants of Lebanon and the region as well. These collections, which contain the only specimens representing the biodiversity of the area, are known respectively as the Biological Collection and Post Herbarium of the Natural History Museum. Housed in the Department of Biology, the collections constitute unique resources for scientific research and education.
The biological and herbarium collections date back to the late nineteenth century, and since then have grown as a result of work by successive AUB faculty members and students, as well as through the acquisition of other collections. The natural history collection contains more than 15,000 vertebrate and invertebrate specimens of over 1,200 species from many parts of the world (Europe, Africa and North America), although the majority of specimens are from Lebanon and the surrounding region. The herbarium includes more than 6,000 plant specimens of flowering plants and ferns of Lebanon and adjacent regions.
Some preserved specimens collected from the region have become extinct, so the museum stands as a valuable record that those species did exist in the region at one point in time. An excellent reference for students and professors studying biodiversity, the collections are visited by at least 1,000 schoolchildren each year.
Because of the scarce availability of exhibition space, many of the specimens are not on display and hence are only available for research purposes. That may soon change, however, when and if plans to move and expand the museum go ahead.

Yes, cultural life at AUB continues to flourish. And signs are that the 2003-04 academic year will again be marked by a full program of concerts, theater, exhibitions, and museum events—all of which are sure to put AUB well on its way to being the prime cultural center of Beirut.