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
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.