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An Interview with Professor Nicola Ziadeh
Professor Emeritus of History

From 1949 to 1973, Nicola Ziadeh was one of AUB's most eminent faculty members. Renowned throughout the region as a historian of the Arab Islamic world, he has always also been known for his deep commitment to teaching. Lively and informal in the classroom, he is remembered by many of his students for his flair in making history come alive—"When we studied Libya," said one, "we traveled to North Africa with him."
Ziadeh, who will celebrate his 96th birthday this December, dazzled MainGate editors Lynn Mahoney and Ibrahim Khoury with his sharp wit and intellect throughout their interview on the terrace of his Kraytem home. Over some of the professor's delicious, special-recipe tea, they learned about his life at AUB as well as about his remarkably productive "retirement" years since then.

When did you arrive at AUB?
I was living in London in 1948 with my late wife and our first-born son, working on my PhD. At that time, Palestine had been taken over by Israel, so I was completely cut away from my home and country as well as the job I had been offered there. I looked around for another job and with luck got it at AUB, joining the faculty in 1949 as an assistant professor. My starting salary was $1,900 a year—and it went up $100 my second year! The first year was hard on the history faculty—we were short of staff and I had to teach 12 hours a week, plus having 12 theses to supervise. My first contract was for three years, and I remember the late professor Constantine Zurayk taking me aside and telling me that once you beat the opposition and win you will never leave AUB. I retired in 1973 at the age of 65 and went on to teach at other institutions in Lebanon and throughout the world.

What was your first impression?

Actually, the first time I walked through the doors of the Main Gate was in 1925. Darwiche Makdisi, my college teacher from Jerusalem, and I were visiting Beirut, which was a brief stop during our journey on foot from Palestine to Syria. It was a holiday and we did not expect to find anyone on campus. However, I was charmed by the University's campus and its atmosphere. As a result of that visit, I wished I could be a student at AUB. This was never realized, but I did spend most of my career there.

Where did you teach most of your classes?

My classes were held in College Hall at first and then in Nicely Hall after it was built. However, I continued teaching graduate seminars in College Hall.

What was the biggest change you noticed at AUB?

Change came during my first years at AUB, when Stephen Penrose was president. You see, before World War II the president of AUB was perhaps the top representative of the United States in the area and was sought out for advice. At that time, the US ambassador started meeting with the president often and some people did not like it. Rumors sprung up about the US government interfering in the University, which at times I felt gave AUB a bad reputation in the region.
Another huge change was the Arab nationalist movement, which began on AUB campus with students such as Wadih Haddad and George Habash in 1951. They were not the founders of the movement, but collected whatever ideas were there before. They were my friends.

What do you think students remember most about your classes?

Two things. First, I never carried any paper into a lecture—I completely prepared for each class the night before. Second, I felt my students would remember me as a friend, not as a teacher.

Are you still in touch with your former students?

None are in Beirut anymore. People do visit me though, such as Dr. Hasadine Moussa, who is Sudanese and received his BA, MA, and PhD at AUB. He taught in Nigeria and is now in South Africa.

When did you leave AUB? Have you been back?

My relationship with AUB really ended with my retirement in 1973. While I no longer taught there, I continued to use the library and take walks on campus. I did attend the historic opening of the new College Hall and was honored by AUB at the Great Scholar Teacher Awards in 1999.

What did you do after you left AUB?

After I retired, I had hoped to teach one or two classes as a professor emeritus but the then chairman of the History Department did not allow it, which in my opinion was because of an earlier conflict between us. No matter, because at the time I was going to teach at the University of Jordan; but then, unfortunately, my wife died of cancer. So I stayed in Lebanon and went on to teach at Saint Joseph University instead.
During that period, I also traveled to Nigeria for conferences and was approached to become a visiting professor at two universities there. I did not receive any pay, but got the use of a house, a servant, and drinks. The only money I needed was to fill my pipe with tobacco!
I later taught at the Near Eastern School of Theology, but totally stopped teaching in 1991 at the age of 85 because my sons insisted that I take time out to turn my daily diaries into a book. So I wrote My Days, which is in Arabic. Since then I have continued to write books and translate. Throughout my life, I have written 45 books in Arabic and six in English, translated 14 books from English to Arabic, and published more than 100 papers. I also conducted more than 2,000 interviews on television and radio.

What impact has AUB had on your life?

To begin with, AUB provided me with a platform that I could not have had in Jerusalem. AUB is still unique in that way. My colleagues were very friendly and we would often do research together in the library. The faculty used to meet daily at 4:00 pm in the faculty room for tea, with the dean as host. Everything was beneficial about my experience at AUB. I made use of it and profited.

Do you have something you would like to say to your former students?

I am grateful to quite a number of students for their help and assistance in the library. I am also gratified that they accepted my view of things. I loved teaching—which is interesting, because I had what one would consider a late start. I got my BA at the University of London at 32, then received my doctorate in 1950 at the age of 43. I didn't join academia early in life, as my parents died at a young age and I had to take care of the family. I suppose if I had been able to stay in Palestine, I would have become a secondary school headmaster. Instead, life took me to AUB.