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Forward Thinking

Last Glance: The AUB Mace

Honorary Doctorate Ceremony 2009

Time Flies

Beirutis Set One Fine Table

Inaugurating the Diya Mutasim Dermatology Library
Incoming:  Welcome to new VP and FM Dean Dr. Mohamed H. Sayegh and FAS Dean Patrick McGreevy.
 

Summer 2009 Vol. VII, No. 4

Speaking Out

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.

Consider the first meeting: Beside the Milk Bar, around noon on Thursday, November 20, 1969. Students are gathering between West Hall and what is now the Office of Information and Public Relations in the west end of Ada Dodge Hall. Anticipation and curiosity are palpable as the students wait for the beginning of the first Student Council-sponsored Speaker’s Corner, designed to fight perceived student apathy on campus. This was the period of global student unrest, and just short of one year before the infamous Newsweek designation of AUB as “Guerilla U” (October 1970).

Fuad Bawarshi, president of the Student Council, outlined the rules: All contributions should be in English; provocation and personal attacks were ruled out. For minutes no one stirred. Then a young woman, a graduate student in English literature, came forward and “told the approximately 100 students . . . leaning out of the windows and blocking the Milk Bar doors that ‘they should get involved in what they believe,’” and that if they really believed in something they should “come out and say it. . . Come up and say whatever you want to say.”

That student was Hanan Mikhail, later to be known as the Palestinian activist and leader Hanan Ashrawi.

The Speaker’s Corner was the brainchild of a few students who came away from a visit to London’s Hyde Park corner convinced that AUB needed its own Speaker’s Corner. The tradition, begun in 1969, continued under the auspices of the Student Council until that organization was finally dissolved for good in 1974.

“Come out and say it... Come up and say whatever you want to say.”
— Hanan (Mikhail) Ashrawi, Nov. 20, 196

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

Demonstrations, 1967
Demonstrations, 1971
Pro-fedayeen students barricade Nicely Hall, 1969

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.

But the rising steam could no longer be contained. The increasing intensity of student involvement in politics in the early seventies can be seen as related to unrest on university campuses world wide. But local problems, such as the repercussions of Black September—the ejection of the Palestinian movement from Jordan—were passionate topics at the Speaker’s Corner. Students spoke for and against the Jordanian government, and the Palestinian revolution drew strong support. When the Jordanian army attacked the remnants of Palestinians remaining in Jordan, AUB students abandoned classes and many joined a nation-wide protest.

In such an atmosphere, the appearance at the Speaker’s Corner on October 29, 1970 of the notorious hi-jacker, former AUB student Leila Khaled, drew an extra number of curious students. She had been released from jail in a prisoner exchange agreement after the attempted hi-Jacking of an El Al Boeing 707 in August 1969. She won applause from the engrossed audience, when she began, “I could speak in English, but since I’m at the American University of Beirut, I’ll speak in Arabic.” Khaled went on to attack the Jordanian government for its repression of the Palestinians in Camp Wahadat in Amman, called for pan-Arab national unity, and underscored the importance of the Palestinian resistance. “We have always said and will continue to say that the reactionary authorities in this area are an added advantage on the side of the enemy. These last events prove the validity of our strategy, which is to overcome reactionary governments in order to overcome Zionism and world imperialism by the United States. The dreadful massacres of our people in Amman... can only be compared to what is now going on in Israel and to the barbarism of Genghis Khan,” said Khaled.

“I could speak in English, but since I’m at the American University of Beirut, I’ll speak in Arabic.”
— Leila Khaled, Oct. 29, 1970


A look at other speakers on that day reveals the nature of the Student Council-backed Speaker’s Corner. One student thanked the council for replacing scholarship money stolen from him during registration. The editor of the yearbook urged students to participate in the production of Campus ’71. Student Council President Maher Masri asked students to refrain from class attendance for two hours on November 2 to commemorate Balfour Day, and announced a blood campaign, a general assembly for evaluation of the council, and a request for a full-time doctor at the infirmary. Another student noted that posters were being torn from walls. When a known jokester tackled various topics, including French-educated students, the council president reminded students of Speaker’s Corner rules.

Despite the dissolution of the Speaker’s Corner with the Student Council in 1974 and its suspension during the war, various attempts were made over the years to revive the tradition. In 2000 students formed a committee to discuss reviving the corner with Dean of Students Dean Kevlin. The term “Open Meeting” supplanted the designation, “Speaker’s Corner,” and meetings were to be held only indoors in the West Hall Common Room. After the success of the first Open Meeting on March 16, 2000, the students requested moving the meetings outside, in keeping with the old Speaker’s Corner format. The request was denied.

Recently, Dean of Students Maroun Kisirwani said the nearest thing to a Speaker’s Corner on campus these days is a brief period before student elections when each candidate is allowed to address the voters for five minutes outside Fisk Hall. At this time he sees no possibility of reviving the Speaker’s Corner in the political atmosphere currently prevailing in the country. Since it returned to publication in 1997, it has been the student newspaper, Outlook, which has provided a forum for student debate.

1967: A wreath bears a banner that explains it all: students of the American University of Beirut

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.

Makram Rabah, who later signed copies of his book, A Campus at War, asserted, “All people who were involved in AUB’s democratic tradition have done so with one aim in mind . . . to improve our alma mater’s standing as an institution of higher learning in the area and beyond.” The former activists were unanimous in urging students to continue to make their voices heard. “It is not necessary to be as mischievous as we were,” said Fuad Bawarshi, “but be sure that your voices still make a difference.” Most speakers spoke warmly of their days at AUB and expressed their desire to stimulate activism among present day AUB students of the twenty-first century. Bawarshi said, “We hope to provoke a younger generation to play a more active role in the political and economic life of their country.”

“It is not necessary to be as mischievous as we were, but be sure that your voices still make a difference.”
— Fuad Bawarshi

J.M.C.
With thanks to Makram Rabah and the Jafet Library Archives.

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.

1943
Administration appoints members of first Student Council, perhaps to control most outspoken students

1948
New President Stephen Penrose seeks to reestablish suspended Student Council

1949
New Student Council elected

1951
Student Council for first time calls for participation in strike. University students across Lebanon take to the streets chanting “Marakech Arabiya” to support repressed people of Morocco

1952
Student protest of British policy in the ME, treatment of students in Syria, and student arrest ignites student-gendarme conflict and brings arrest of students and suspension of Student Council

1952-54
Negotiations for Student Council reinstatement.

1954
Medical Gate demonstration against the Baghdad Pact results in killed and injured. Student Council remains suspended for 15 years.

1966
New President (Samuel Kirkwood) pushes for constitution of student-faculty committee on student affairs.

1967
Six-day war erupts on June 5. Students discover “a newborn awareness and belonging to happenings beyond the walls of the Campus.” (Najib B. Azzam in Outlook, 1971-72.)

1969
First Student Council in 15 years elected on March 3.

1971
Strike in spring against 10 percent tuition increase brings “creeping occupation” of buildings, long strike, and dissolution of Student Council on July 28.

1972
After much conflict over relative merits of a student council or a student union
“totally independent from AUB control,” the Student Council reestablished in March.

1973
Outbreak of the October War, the fourth Arab-Israeli war.

March 19, 1974
After failure of negotiations over new 10 percent tuition increase students strike and occupy buildings.

April 3, 1974
Suspension of 1973-74 academic year. Student Council releases to press papers taken from occupied AUB offices allegedly confirming corruption charges against administration.

April 24, 1974
Eight-hundred Lebanese security men arrest 61 students occupying buildings.

April 25, 1974
Administration suspends Student Council, Outlook newspaper, and Campus yearbook.

1981
Under Dean of Students Fawzi Hajj new system of Student Representative Committees and University Student Faculty Committee introduced.