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Winter 2007 Vol. V, No. 2

Maingate Connections

A Global Approach during Times of War: IIPES 2006

Zahra Hankir BA ’06

Just two hours before Lebanon’s airport was bombed for the first time, Omar Chatah, Akl Fahed, Ghassan Yaacoub, and I (all AUB students) left for Greece to take part in an international program that was described as “an educational, cultural and social exchange.” Before departing from Beirut Airport, I frantically called my mother and told her I would not leave given that the situation was rapidly deteriorating. She refused to let me stay, telling me that by proudly representing Lebanon abroad, I’d truly be serving my country. Nonetheless, I was disturbed by the idea of discussing conflict resolution with Israelis in Crete while my country was being shelled and my loved ones were being brutally threatened. I left Beirut with a lump in my throat, as did the entire Lebanese delegation.

The goal of the International Institute for Political and Economic Studies (IIPES), which is organized and funded by Georgetown University and the Fund for American Studies, was to open our minds and change our lives. No small feat. Former IIPES alumni, many of whom were AUB students, had convinced us to apply to the program for these very reasons. But our thoughts—and reality—were elsewhere. The classroom was as global as one could get, with students coming from countries as diverse as Serbia and Syria. But we weren’t sure if this “global approach” to international issues would really prove effective. Ideally, one must learn to distinguish between the flag and the person. In the context of war, can that really be possible?

When we first met the Israeli students on the program, we initially approached each other with curiosity. As we got to know each other, anger, rage, and frustration would often prompt heated debates that forced us to think critically. No topic was off limits, and these debates challenged—and sometimes strengthened—many of our previously held beliefs. Discussions ranged from Israel’s “right” to exist, to Hezbollah’s intentions in Lebanon.

My greatest dilemma emerged when I read an article that one of the students had published in Haaretz. Entitled “Coffee with Lebanese,” the piece wrote of the writer’s experience at IIPES. Yet the fact that he felt that Israelis were “very similar to the Lebanese…” particularly in terms of “the delicate fabric of sub-groups in the society, the strong connection to the West, politically and culturally, and the nonstop coastal cities and an intense desire for economic prosperity and peace,” bothered me immensely. I saw that his message of “prosperity and peace” really had underlying political points that were part of a larger political agenda. The Lebanese student that the author wrote about in the article, “M,” was vehemently anti-Hezbollah. His views were clearly considered sober and reasonable. Despite the hatred for Israel as a constant enemy of the Arab world, he shows a lot more hatred for Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran. Such a statement clearly seemed to me to be part of an attempt to condone Israel’s disproportionate and horrendous aggression. The article disturbed me: maybe the political situation was bigger than we were, and maybe, just maybe, by engaging in dialogue with Israeli students, we were not transcending the situation, but rather fuelling it.

I decided that although we were essentially pawns of the same game, we were all indoctrinated with certain mind frames that would not shift drastically, even at IIPES. The scope of change would have its limits. Nonetheless, this gave way to interactions that did not revolve around politics.

We subsequently got to know each other as human beings, and not political pawns from the “other side.” Some of us became drawn to one other, possibly feeling that it was necessary that we reach constructive conclusions rather than simply disagree. In some strange manner, we became unexpected friends. Inevitably, some other members of the group could not understand this, particularly those who felt it was offensive to agree with the “enemy” on particular contentious issues. While the most atrocious events were taking place in Lebanon, Israeli students consoled the Lebanese. Some of them even apologized, as if they assumed some responsibility for the war. After a rigorous process, we were finally dealing with one another as people, not as Lebanese or Israelis.

In our world of realpolitik, it is quite easy to be skeptical of a feel-good “global approach.” Three weeks of dialogue, exchange, and soul searching still left me skeptical as to what effect the approach could truly have on the ground. I expressed this to one of the Israeli students. “We’re powerless,” I said. “When you get back to Israel, you might be asked by the IDF to serve on my land, against my people.”

Surprisingly, my Israeli colleague told me that he had already been “summoned” to the

army, but that he would not return until the conflict was over. And he didn’t. IIPES had changed him in the same way it changed all the Lebanese and Israeli students on the program, and in the same way it has changed me. Ultimately, it proved that a commitment to critical thinking, particularly in terms of approaching international issues, can certainly translate into empowerment and a desire to end aggression­– regardless of differing political views and agenda.

Ultimately, despite the reality of Lebanon’s current volatile situation, the desire to serve my country has strengthened. IIPES motivated me to aim higher and challenge myself further despite the ailing status quo, helping me come to the realization that the key to creating a global community is education and global awareness. The choice to leave Lebanon and pursue a higher education in the West was not as difficult as it would seem. Essentially, what keeps me motivated is the firm belief that I am away from home temporarily in order to get the best education possible so that I can return and truly make a difference—on the ground.

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MainGate welcomes contributions from alumni reflecting on their AUB experiences as well as stories about their lives after graduation. Submissions may be sent to maingate@aub.edu.lb.