Summer 2009 Vol. VII, No. 4
Student Council: appointed, suspended, elected, dissolved... and back on track; Speaker’s Corner on God, cricket sandwiches, and a passion for politics.
Protest at AUB is a firmly entrenched University tradition dating back to the beginnings of the Syrian Protestant College. One AUB graduate, Makram Rabah (BA ’03), author of A Campus at War; Student Politics at the American University of Beirut, 1967-1975, suggested that protest was part of the curriculum. Protest may never have appeared in the University Catalogue, but its seeds are reflected in American liberal arts education and in the University’s goal of producing responsible individuals ready to take up positions of leadership in their societies. When seeking over the years the establishment of a student council, lobbyists were serious about the need for AUB students to participate fully in university organization and to express their own views in order to improve the University and to secure for themselves the best possible education. During the years coinciding with unrest in France and in the United States, the Student Council established in November 1969 one of the most popular of AUB traditions—the Speaker’s Corner—tightly bound to the tradition of protest. The Speaker’s Corner, which quickly became “the talk of the town,” encouraged students to speak their own minds on almost any topic.
“Come out and say it... Come up and say whatever you want to say.”
Capitalizing on the location beside the hugely popular student hangout, the Milk Bar, the Speaker’s Corner drew hundreds of students for debate and discussion at noon every Thursday. For the most part, issues ranging from the existence of God to “cricket sandwiches” in the Milk Bar to political questions
and beyond—were discussed in an “atmosphere of seriousness and political maturity.” The institution provided “a useful platform to let off steam and express oneself freely and, most importantly, to avoid physical confrontation among students.” Topics included AUB issues—comprehensive exams, teaching methodology, BA-licence equivalence, and the establishment of a free university; the problems of the Lebanese work force—garbage collectors, bakers, Regie tobacco workers; and, increasingly, especially in the seventies, political issues—the perceived inaction of the Lebanese government, the role of the fedayeen and the Palestinian Revolution, the repercussions of Black September, and the Roger’s Peace Plan.
“I could speak in English, but since I’m at the American University of Beirut, I’ll speak in Arabic.”
Yet the AUB Hyde Park was miraculously revived just last July 4, when a commemorative Speaker’s Corner sponsored by the AUB Worldwide Alumni Association of AUB as part of the 2009 class reunion was held at the old venue between West Hall and Ada Dodge Hall. Entitled “AUB Student Politics: Past and Present,” the event brought together old friends who had stirred the campus to demonstrations, strikes, occupations of buildings, and serious debate some 35 years ago. The podium, set up in the old Speaker’s Corner venue between Ada Dodge and West Hall, was ringed with life-size black and white photographs of some of the demonstrations and the demonstrators. Former Student Council members Fuad Bawarshi (BBA ’70, MBA ’77), Jacques Ekmekji (BEN ’71), Mohammad Farid Mattar (BA ’74), and chair of the publication council of Outlook and Campus Maher Masri (BA ’69, MA ’73) recalled the excitement of their student days. Three of these men, Bawarshi, Masri, and Mattar, served as presidents of the Student Council. Other speakers included recent student activists Maysam Ali (BA ’07), a former president of the Student Representative Council (2004-05) and Outlook editor in 2007, and history graduate and author Makram Rabah (BA ’03, MA ’07). Former Dean of Students (1981-99) Fawzi Hajj and current Dean Maroun Kisirwani also spoke to the audience of some 200 people, including other key players in the days of protest—Professor Emeritus Kamal Salibi and Dean of Health Sciences Iman Nuwayhid. Former President John Waterbury was also seen in the captive audience.
The student activists all praised the University and the important role the Speaker’s Corner had played in their formation as students. Maher Masri said that although the occasional scuffle and fisticuffs broke out among students in the audience, no attack was ever made against a speaker. “The Speaker’s Corner served as a potent reliever of tension,” he said. Students were able to let off steam.
“It is not necessary to be as mischievous as we were, but be sure that your voices still make a difference.”
Closely related to increasing protest on campus (much related to the growth of Arab nationalism) was the development of student government. Students began demanding participation in important administration decisions and membership on key committees in the 1940s. Such participation, particularly in the form of a student council, is one of the many traditions of AUB.
March 19, 1974
April 3, 1974
April 24, 1974
April 25, 1974