FSJ & Touchstone Fundraising

From the May, 2003 issue of Touchstone


A Farewell to Hamra by R. Joseph Hoffmann

A Farewell to Hamra

Beirut 2001: The Year in Pixels

by R. Joseph Hoffmann

I am walking up the stairs of Fisk Hall to get to my office. The steps are always stuffed with students using them as bleacher seats. There is no clear passage between tightly packed bodies in springtime embraces, elbow-to-elbow cell-phone addicts, and recovering exam-takers, plonked down in exasperation until their next class begins. The old building itself is a typically noble collegiate monstrosity of the late nineteenth century, looking out on a green oval and attended by two equally venerable structures, all named after the American missionaries who founded the Syrian Protestant College—now the American University of Beirut (AUB)—in 1866.

Daniel Bliss is the name to conjure: an energetic Presbyterian attached to the Syrian Mission to the Holy Land, whose job it was to spread the gospel to the infidel—and any indigenous Christian Maronites and Orthodox who might, in the bargain, see the error of their theological ways.

It worked. Though Bliss couldn’t raise the necessary money by subscription in America, with a Civil War economy digging at everyone’s pockets, he resourcefully took his pleadings to England, where by April 1866 he had managed to collect £4,000, and sailed off to Beirut to begin his marvelous odyssey.

Bliss’s memorial edifice stands a hundred yards away from Fisk’s, free of the traffic problem I am facing because it opens welcomingly level to the ground. As I hit the landing to the front doors, I sidestep twelve or so card-playing students and dodge another four playing hacky sack at the entrance.

Things are tense this morning, more than usual. Tensions in Nablus and Jenin have spilled over onto campus, where it seems every fifth student is a stateless Palestinian, has a Palestinian parent, or feels a kind of warm anti-American satisfaction in supporting the Palestinian cause. That explains the hisses, the clucks, the sniggers, instead of the cheerier Marhaba’s and B’jour, Sirs I was getting last month.

The Coming of Bliss

Bliss’s idea was the child of its era, the Evangelical internationalism that preceded America’s political involvement in the rest of the world by several generations. Similar histories were being sketched in the South Pacific, in Hawaii, and, sidestepping the more practiced British, in parts of Africa. For every Livingstone, there was a Bliss; just as later there would be a retinue of Andover Newton bachelors of divinity to bring the refreshment of Scripture to thirsty souls—many of them as well trained in basic medical science (Baldwin on Maui, Peabody in Syria) as in theology.

Bliss carved out a Christian motto at the front gate as buildings began to rise on his superb site overlooking the vast, and then unpolluted, view of the Mediterranean: “That they may have life and have it more abundantly.” But even in 1866 one had to be careful. The verse was New Testament, but the sentiment was (and still is) taken to refer to the value of a “liberal education” at the hands of Western instructors. Beirut by the mid-nineteenth century had already seen its share of invading non-indigenous Christians: The Crusaders left rubble in the form of churches and “castles” from Tripoli to Tyre; the Cistercians came to mind the holy sites and to ensure that the Maronites remained essentially of one mind with Rome; and by the time Bliss arrived, the Jesuits had planted vineyards in the Bekka Valley and were producing potable if not exportable wines for the local population. The gospel seemed secure, as the old Quaker hymn intoned, beside the Syrian Sea.

As the teetotaling Protestants took up their life behind the gates of their college in the Muslim quarter of the city, their goal was to represent the American form of Christianity to the victims of ancient misunderstandings and aberrations. They would teach medicine, the useful arts, literature, and divinity, while the Catholics brought only dogma, the sacraments, and, perforce, grapevines. Bliss is reported to have said of his college that “any man, white, black, or yellow, Christian, Jew, or Mohammedan or heathen may enter and enjoy all the advantages of this institution . . . and go out believing in one God or in many gods or in no god. But it will be impossible for anyone to continue with us long without knowing what we believe to be the truth and our reasons for that belief.” The key presumably was “impossible to continue with us,” since there was little doubt among the men of the college what Bliss believed.

Bliss reigned for eight years. In 1902, and for a further 18 years, his son, Howard S. Bliss looked on approvingly as the landscape of Ras Hamra was transformed by a spurt of building activity that had produced, before the outbreak of World War I, one of loveliest neo-Ottoman campuses in the Middle East.

Two Kinds of Palestinians

Today the Palestinian Cultural Club and its cousin, the Cultural Club of the South (Israeli border territory, near Saida and Sour/Tyre), are having a bake sale for the victims of Israeli “terrorism.” The word, thanks to a certain slippage in use since 9/11 (we Americans excel in translating tragedy into verbal farce) is now applied to everything from suicide bombers in Tel Aviv cafés to pop quizzes. (At the last faculty meeting, I heard attendance policies described as “subtle terrorism,” a form of intimidation I would relish if I could make out what it involves.)

The Palestinians of Lebanon are of two varieties: Most who make it through the college gate come from families who settled legally in Lebanon prior to the partitioning of 1948 that created the state of Israel. Many of these hold Lebanese passports, work at high-paying jobs as lawyers and physicians (or university professors), and commiserate rather than identify with the other Palestinians. The refugees who began flooding into the country from about 1950 are settled in one of the refugee camps, Sabra and Chantila camps near Beirut being the most notorious.

I have never been inside the camps. They are visible from the coastal road, along with their effluences in the form of squalid Shi’a squatter villages to the south of the city. Not all the Shi’a are poor, but many are, and they look to Iran and Syria rather than to Beirut for guidance on practical and spiritual matters. Poverty and shared hatreds make natural allies of the Shi’a and the refugees. It was here, after all, that hapless Americans were detained for up to four years by “armed gunmen,” as MSNBC likes to put it, during the eighties.

One can imagine that any American, this week anyway, who worked his way through the gates would vanish forever. But that is only pragmatic speculation by an outsider: Inside are people who call themselves “Palestinian” as you and I might call ourselves Americans or Japanese or Italians. But these latter are real places on maps, not stories invented (for all the third refugee generation knows) by their grandmothers. They cannot leave Lebanon. Their stateless, never-seen cousins cannot come here. That’s what the “right-of-return” issue is all about: not permitting a million or more Palestinians now living in Lebanon and Jordan (and Syria and Egypt) to flood the Jewish state (or rather, any future Palestinian “entity”) with fifty years of diasporati.

When the Palestinians get hard-won sympathy in the West, it is the kid-card they play: the miniscule figures of children standing down tanks, a boy cradled lifeless in a father’s arms as he pleads with soldiers—Israeli and Palestinian—to stop the shooting. To walk across the AUB campus these days is to walk through a midway of images of successive “genocides,” plastered on portaboards or strung between trees against a springtime backdrop of azalea and hibiscus. In Ann Arbor or New Haven, these would be banners proclaiming student elections, fraternity rush, a walkathon, a concert in the amphitheater, gay pride week—even solidarity with Palestine marches. But this is brownies for bullets: Makeshift labyrinths displaying archival photos of the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide (1917–1919), with a bad recording of Katchaturian to entice people through; an exhibition of images and artifacts displaying the glories of two Intifadas; a length of photocopied pictures (magnified five times their unnatural size) glommed from Al Jazeera or Al quds al Arabi, showing a beaming “Israeli” soldier holding the head of a Palestinian girl in his hand as a trophy; and here a group of Israeli soldiers eviscerating a corpse. The hardest thing for a Westerner in Beirut to adapt to is the permeability of the death instinct among the young, the celebrations of death, dying, anniversaries of deaths—the Intifada itself, which is, after all, a cult of martyrs.

When they—the Palestinians—lose sympathy, it is because the Arab press, sad to say, regards the difference between whitest truth and blackest lie as a matter of opinion. Remember the early war reports from the Taliban “foreign minister” before he hied to Pakistan, thence to oblivion? The death of fifty in Jenin becomes the massacre of a thousand; passion plays with stunt corpses (ending with the “body” springing from the bier and running off into the crowd, Kalashnikov held high) become the high art and drama of Nablus, Bethlehem, and, ad misericordiam, the Lebanese camps.

Ironies & Donuts

I am having coffee in the student cafeteria with a friend, an English teacher. She has the typical Lebanese habit of speaking three languages at once—a sentence starts in English, gets peppered with Arabicisms, and salted as taste requires with Franglais. After two years I still can’t decide whether this is impressive or merely irritating. “Maleeeesh,” she says, “never mind, today I buy you coffee, plaisir. . . .” I ask the server for a donut, which I offer to share with her, but Laa, non, y’anni, I must eat it all myself and she won’t hear another word, hallas. . . .

The conversation turns to politics. It always does. Did I see what was happening in Jenin, where the Jews bulldozed houses with babies sleeping inside? Five thousand died, she says—at least. I am skeptical, I say. The houses were booby-trapped—the same devices the “heroes” use when they blow up families in shopping malls. The Palestinians are killing themselves more efficiently than the Israelis are. It is a technical, or perhaps technological point but completely out of place. My irony causes her to withdraw the donut. No one here talks about peace, I say, only the war, the “cause,” the Jewish enemy.

She seems startled that I would have this opinion, and worse, students at the next table have begun to eavesdrop, sensing the tension. It is a disgrace in a university that was founded to emblemize free speech American-style, I go on, hungry and weak from my morning classes, that there is only one safe kind of speech here—the speech that decorates itself in checked PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) scarves and makes heroes of killers. I am a Palestinian, she says, my mother comes from Jerusalem. My aunties won’t eat MacDonald’s hamburgers or drink Starbuck’s coffee (they all live in Alexandria—Virginia) because the meat is dripping with Palestinian blood. The donut is offered again but I have lost my appetite. Don’t you think the bombers are killers, I ask, knowing the answer. The bombers have no choice. If a survey of AUB students were taken, 99 percent of the students would say the same thing. No survey is needed.

Suicide & Permission

Occasionally the voice of the mullahs breaks through to the English press, The Daily Star, whose anti-American language is pulled from a pannier bag with just three themes: (1) Why don’t the Americans do something? (2) Why don’t the Americans do something different? (3) Why do the Americans always do the wrong thing? Of course, the cyclical nature of violence in the Middle East creates the phenomenon of the cyclical editorial, as stereotyped in form as its nearest relation, the weather report for the Holy Land. The consistent theme of Arab reporting is that Americans and most (but not all) Europeans simply don’t understand the Middle East and this is so, largely, because they do not understand Islam.

So today—June 8, 2002—the senior marjaa (the highest level of Islamic scholar-teachers), the Ayatollah Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah has a treat in store: He is going to explain to readers of the Star the “religious basis for the ‘suicide’ attacks.” In the lead-up to his comments, readers are promised “a multifaceted argument on martyrdom [sic], racism, and the environment.”

After assuring the taliban (students) that the attacks are “not craven acts of the morally depraved” as they are depicted in the Western media, the cleric explains, “Killing oneself is like killing another human being: It requires permission. One needs permission from Allah to kill oneself or others. . . . Basically it is haram to kill oneself or others except during jihad.” Fortunately, he says, Allah did not identify a certain “procedure . . . for defending the rights of Islam”: “If achieving victory means that we have to go through a minefield, which . . . means that many are going to be killed, then we would go. . . . The martyrdom operations do not target civilians but rather aim to defend their people by inflicting damage.” And by the way, he cautions, please do not call these episodes “suicides,” for suicide is a crime from the Islamic point of view, and if one kills oneself without permission from Allah, “he will be immortalized in hell in the hereafter.” We need to remember, all of us, that the martyrs of September 11 presumably had permission.

We also need to know what sounds are ringing in the ears of the “martyrs” when they slip through a border patrol, on the way to their deaths in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. They are the words of Ayatollah Sayyed Fadlallah.

A Million Jews

I returned to Beirut on September 22, 2001, from a restful summer in Maine. Logan had opened just a few days before, with its necessary but not very convincing addenda of National Guardsmen (bored) and jittery security guards in situ. Even though I was flying “away” from the terror, it was hard not to think of my destination as a circle of hell. The Arab press had been busy indeed: Mustafa, my favorite taxi driver, greeted me at the Beirut Airport with a tale of intrigue so shocking and detailed that no one could refute it: “A million Jews were absent from work on September 11,” he began, searching my face in the rearview mirror for signs of assent. Of course, the story had already made the rounds and had been covered by the American press with a sort of Get-Real cynicism. “How can you explain that? I tell you: The Butcher. Sharon. That’s how.” I am sorry to report that this remains, well nigh a year beyond, the standard belief in the Arab street, and the Arab street runs through the center of the American University of Beirut.

The Testimonies of Children

The words of children may be more persuasive, certainly more honest, than super-pixilated photos and the Fatah and Hezbollah perspectives on terrorism against Palestinians. A teacher at the American Community School, Betsy Crooke, in 2001 collected “testimonies” from children living in Sabra and Chatila camps, including this one, as part of an oral history project:

Who are we? Where do we belong? On the refugee card we carry, the Director of Sûreté Générale certifies that we are Palestinians residing in Lebanon—in other words, that we are Palestinian refugees. We know nothing about Palestine, the place, except the stories we were told by our parents who never even lived there. Palestine has become a place we escape to every time we face a problem in our place of residence, Chatila, or every time we think about our tragedy as refugees. But what’s the use of having a Palestinian identity if Palestine the place is not ours? This identity of ours brings us nothing but trouble. In Lebanon we’re called refugees and displaced people and we don’t have any rights. We are not allowed to travel to any other land on the globe. And if we do travel, we’re not allowed to return to our place of residence. [In September 1995, Palestinian refugees holding Lebanese travel documents were required by governmental decision to obtain exit and re-entry visas if they wished to travel outside the country. This ruling was revoked in January 1999.]

But is the place we live in, Chatila, our identity? Of course not! What can we belong to in Chatila? To the garbage? Or to the alleyways that stink of sewage? Why should we belong to Chatila? In Chatila we’re only allowed to take menial jobs; in Chatila there’s no health care and no education; in Chatila we get sick because of the humidity and the unhygienic conditions; in Chatila we have to buy our water and electricity visits only occasionally; and in Chatila we can’t find a place to play or a tree to sit under. And if we want to leave Chatila, we need an exit and reentry permit. In short, in Chatila, we’re not treated like people, and we have no future.

The Lebanese will tell you privately that only two things hold the country together, other than a general war-weariness that is not, alas, being communicated to the eighteen year-olds: a general dislike for the neighbors to the south, and a general distrust of the Palestinians. I have seldom seen the Western press report how hugely unpopular the Palestinians are among the Arabs.

I Am Not a Zionist

A student appears at my office door at 11:15. She asks me if I have time and takes a chair without waiting for an answer. It is her presumed right to sit. AUB students are an interesting mix of rudeness and politesse. Many of them have gone through a French school system, the bequest of the French Mandate that ended in 1943 but lingers culturally in enclaves like Ashrafieh, a Christian secteur with mock-Parisian flashes (Rue St. Nicolas, Rue de Sursock, unconvincing boulevard life, good coffee, pastries, cinema, BHV, and Monoprix).

This student has been educated at the College-Protestante, one of several francophone secondary schools in the city. In the normal course of events she would go on to a university in France or Canada. A minority come to AUB. The Maronite and Orthodox Catholic students have the ancient Jesuit Université Saint-Joseph for their gallic preferences. But then, there is AUB with its attractive Medical School, its popular business degrees, the promise of using the college as a springboard to graduate education in New York, Boston, or Los Angeles. And she is here because (like 85 percent of her class, according to a depressing recent survey) she wants to leave Lebanon and never return. She says she will study business or medicine (unlike her more selective American peers) or write poetry, or do what is necessary.

But that is not why she’s at my door. She wants me to tell her something about Zionism for a project she is doing with several other students. I ask about the project, and why a professor of ancient things like myself has been identified as the font of knowledge. You must know something about it, she says, slightly challengingly, “with your background.” She means, of course, my surname: Hoffmann. It was spotted the first day and much debated since. Students look at me for the telltale signs of what they think a Jew looks like.

Our first day through the gate, my wife and I were stopped by a friendly and smiling band of students who asked in innovative English, “Please, we think you are Jewish people?” I tell her as I have told others that Hoffmann is just another uninteresting German name and that some people who have it, like myself, are just uninteresting Germans, not necessarily Jews. Yet I have also had sly grade-grubbers deliver final exams to my office—often in the wake (and when is there not?) of some violence to the south of us—with the greeting, “Sir, I admire the Israelis. I admire what the Israelis are doing.” The implication, of course, is that Hoffmann the Jew will smile and cheerily paste a big blue A at the top of the exam. “Sorry,” I say to the student, “I am not now, nor have I ever been a Zionist. But a quick search of the library catalogue should turn up dozens of sources for you.”

I have repeatedly heard Beirut described as an “international city” because the students are, not often but almost always, able to speak Arabic, French, and English with varying degrees of proficiency. (“Sir, please forgive my English but I am French educated” is a sentence intended to stupefy and impress the bucolic expatriate herd that come here to teach, some with only a smattering of a language other than English and almost none with fluency in Levantine Arabic. When I arrived, protected by a wife with a degree in Arabic studies from the University of Michigan, I was alarmed—and even contemplated suing her—for her inability to understand even the simplest greeting or restaurant command. “It’s not Arabic,” she resisted, trying to drill into my head that the dulcets of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia were not the crumpled sounds of the westernmost Middle East.

But then, the English is not English either: It is a blend of poor teaching of grammar in the schools, lack of knowledge of any of the great shapers of the English tongue, and the sense that Bruce Willis dialogue and MTV videos are the Olympic level of self-expression. In short, what’s spoken here is the export version of American English, but it can sound artificial—pirated and parroted. It is an odd case of students being encouraged by parents to “use” English (often to the exclusion of Arabic) for its commercial value, but never to learn to treat it as other than the Esperanto of politics and business.

Arabic becomes the code in this system; and French, as their teachers have taught them, the language of art and high culture. Their destiny, like Chaucer’s Prioress, is that Freynsh of Parys is not theirs to know—a language worthier far than theirs, as they were persuaded by their colonial masters. Sadly, the English they speak is a virtual language forced to sound real, practiced in the hallways and on stairways in the course of flirtation, bitching, and seduction, but not really transferable to prose or classroom discussion. It is the English of video games, language laboratories, and whatnot, and always threatens to dissolve into some more natural and unrecognizable patois.

A Shocking Incident

Two things worry me today. They have nothing to do with each other. They have everything to do with each other. My oldest daughter has just returned from a skiing trip in Faqra, about 90 minutes north of Beirut in the area called Ayoun al Siman. The snow-tipped mountains can be seen from the city on clear days—increasingly few as the pollution levels soar to make the whole city a vaporous blotch in the hottest months.

Beirut is not heavily industrialized for a city its size, but it is “over-taxi-fied,” and vintage Mercedes have been dumped here by the boatful since emission standards in Europe conspired to make the old benzine engines obsolete on Europe’s roads. The result is a city that runs on yesterday’s taxis and taxis that run on a Syrian-produced machine oil, the consistency of glop, that can fuel a diesel engine, at a price. The price for the oil is low—very low. So low that taxis are by far the cheapest way to travel from here to Tripoli or from Beirut to Damascus (about $10). But the price for oil is also very high: Beirut has the highest pollution levels of any city in the Middle East—including Cairo—and the highest rate of respiratory disease and airborne carcinogens. The fumes emitted by the 30,000 licensed taxis on the road are not sickly gray-green but coalish black.

But my story was about the mountains. My daughter had been skiing in the lower ranges of Mount Lebanon, when she noticed what looked like a snowball fight or a scuffle at a distance. When she and some friends scooted over to see the action, she noticed that a friend of hers, a tall, awkward, bespectacled, and obviously Euro-American boy of the sort put forward by Hollywood as the truest of the species, was being suffocated in snow by classmates. His cries of “Stop kidding around!” could no longer be heard. His throat was full, his face was covered in freezing ice and his five assailants were obviously enjoying the role of persecutors. One of them, son to a well-known local Shi’a family and an ardent junior varsity member of Hezbollah, was especially into the action: The week before he had given a classroom presentation on the need to provide guns for the Resistance, which many in the local Muslim community see as the Lebanese equivalent of Mercy Corps.

The shouting of students who realized a skirmish was going badly wrong brought teachers to pull the small mob back. The question was why—why had they done this? Why the violence to a classmate and a friend, not known for hostility or voicing extreme patriotic opinions or anti-Arab sentiments? Mahmoud’s response was clear and reasonable: “He’s an American.”

Horror Stories

On October 28, 1997, the Lebanese news agencies reported as follows:

A small explosion went off at the American University of Beirut Monday night, only a few hours after its visiting president met with Lebanese leaders and announced his decision to reside in Beirut. The blast, caused by dynamite sticks thrown by unknown assailants over the campus wall, shattered windows in professors’ quarters on campus and damaged a few cars. Panic-stricken students were roused from their sleep by the explosion. Police said the assailants apparently threw the dynamite sticks over the campus wall on Beirut’s seafront and fled on a motorcycle.

The attack Monday was the first on AUB since a car bomb explosion in 1991 which totally wrecked the prestigious College Hall building in the 131-year-old institution.

It was carefully planned to coincide with the visit to Beirut by John Waterbury, the president of the university who was appointed on July 7. A few hours before the explosion, Waterbury visited Lebanese President Elias Hrawi and House Speaker Nabih Berri and announced to reporters his decision to reside in Beirut as of January 1998. Ironically, Waterbury thanked the Lebanese government for improving security in the country, allowing him to make this decision.

“I thank the government for establishing the conditions of security and stability in the country that will allow me to come here to Lebanon and to reside here,” he said. . . . No AUB president has served from Beirut since the on-campus assassination in 1984 of Malcolm Kerr, then president of the university.

Waterbury and his team took up residence in Beirut the next autumn. There was no joy. Marquand House, the noble old residence of presidents of the Syrian College was transformed with walls and guard posts into a compound. The president would now be protected as closely as a minor head of state, his moves plotted, hand-shakers carefully watched. The new team wanted to re-Americanize, or at least to improve on a university destitute of American faculty following the ban on American travel that lasted until 1999. But Americanizing Beirut is easier planned than done. This is the Williamsburg of terror.

Almost no site is without a psychological marker: At a buffet last year, in the midst of wine from the Kefraya cellars and good cheese and mezze, the host flatly remarked, “This is the apartment where Terry Anderson was grabbed.” Jogging a certain stretch of the corniche—the crescent walk that skirts the edges of the Mediterranean coast around St. George’s Bay—will get you, “Frank was just running along when the van pulled up next to him and whisked him away.” For four years.

The Lebanese persist in lavish reminiscences of their long religious wars. They will blow smoke rings of horror stories at parties and dominate academic meetings with sprinklings of the gory days: “That’s where the sniper was, and we all knew, but I missed not even one class that semester.” “Poor Professor Jameson, he was afraid to leave campus when it started, so he slept in his office.” “Dean Ghosn was leaving the Architecture Building—just there—when they gunned him down.” It was their war, and they own it with a fierce proprietary zeal, almost as if it is also their penance, and only their contrition for it will lead to forgiveness.

But one never senses much in the way of forgiveness in Lebanon. The Muslims watch in quiet satisfaction as the Christian minorities desert the country. The Christians say quietly, very quietly, that Israel is not the problem: It is the growing presence and implicit destructive force of a radical Muslim majority. In this constitutionally factionalized state, where parliament must be half Christian and half Muslim, and where the ceremonial Christian president must cope with a Sunni Muslim Prime Minister and a Shi’i Muslim Speaker of the House, no census that would permit religiously based reapportionment has been taken since 1932.

And in this country where the French boast was to have left behind an independent judiciary to deal with constitutional issues, on June 8, 1999, unidentified assassins shot and killed four high court judges at the Justice Palace in Sidon. The government has not apprehended the gunmen. Indeed, they have not thought it wise to do so, though they “suspect” the men belong to the “Esbat al-Ansar” brigade, which is known to operate out of the Ein al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp. We must not blame the French too much for Beirut being typical of its many failed colonial experiences; they carry their failure with such convincing hauteur.

Do You Think So Little of Us?

In 2001, the tenth anniversary of the explosion that wrecked College Hall (since defiantly and gloriously rebuilt), a newly appointed Dean of Students went missing for 24 hours. An alert went out. Then panicked e-mail messages. The president himself seemed to be in an undisguised state of high alert. Was it all starting again? Had it ever stopped? The dean was found, safe, sound, and unharmed, but in a state of some embarrassment, of the hot and flagrant sort, and was sent packing home.

Far worse was the Lebanese Press, biblically righteous in vindication, splaying the institution in editorials that sputtered identical themes for a week: How could the Americans. . . . Why were the Americans so quick. . . . Do they think so little of us that. . . . This is what Americans think of Arabs. . . . A colleague put it to me squarely over coffee: Do you think we are killers? Some, I said.

But consider: Before our fabled cowboy response time, our itchy fingers, our desire for domination of a world about which we are chronically dumb, and our dislike of anything not American become the only story worth telling: Not a single Arab or Muslim was killed in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, where the breaking story too soon became anti-Arab or anti-Muslim sentiment rather than calm assessment of why Muslim countries breed such viciousness.

Know What We Believe

On October 3, 2001, John Waterbury, President of the American University of Beirut, approached the podium at the opening convocation of faculty and students. The affair in academic terms is stylish and splendid, one of the few times in the year that professors feel majestic and not simply underpaid. The day was blisteringly hot and the Old Chapel unwelcomingly full. The students knew the president was going to talk about September 11. He did, in a well-planned address of about thirty minutes that did not point fingers, make excuses, or disguise his anguish.

A former professor of political science at Princeton, John Waterbury tried simply to evoke what the day had been like for him: traveling by train from Princeton, where he has a house, to the AUB offices on the East Side of Manhattan. It is the same train ride every day, often with the same commuters. On the way in, most faces buried in the Times, the Twin Towers were standing tall and catching the eight o’clock sun.

He had left work early, he said, after the catastrophe. Many had. The outbound train was full of quiet “folks”—as President Bush likes to call Americans—until they reached the point where they knew the World Trade Center should be seen, and they turned their heads away to look at the “Jersey side.”

Many of the non-Lebanese faculty, reviewing the prexy afterward, gave the address a high mark. He had hit the right buttons. Needed to be said. No one could object to such a careful and intelligent message. Impressions, not accusations. But many, many Arab faculty were nervous. Twitching in their seats, braiding the tassels on their mortarboards during the address, glum afterward. Some were offended that he had chosen an academic occasion to offer a political commentary. They had so enjoyed his egg-on-the-face rashness in the Dean-of-Students affair, proof that bumptious Americans were always getting it wrong, always ready to paint Arabs in dark colors. Now all Beirut was squirming as its most important institution dared to pronounce the events of September the work of irrational Muslim extremists.

I was reminded of Daniel Bliss’s remarks, almost a century and a half past, that no one “should long continue with us without knowing what we believe” and how this fortress of what passes for reason and learning, in this squandrous place, would have sacrificed its birthright if it did not say at least that much.

I have thought a great deal about the squirming of colleagues since October 3, 2001. I wondered, at first, whether it was the squirming of a five-year-old confronted with evidence of his own sins, the squirming of an innocent falsely accused, or the squirming of pedants resentful at being lectured by a pedant. But now I think the real reason for the squirming was their inability to refute what was being said, something, for better or worse, the theologians of Islam and its most vigorous adherents excel at doing. The defeat of an ugly anti-intellectualism was being played out on stage that day. For all the hard-earned degrees from Harvard, Princeton, and Ohio State that were amassed around me on the platform, it is the stubborn anti-intellectualism of the home tradition, super-amplified, opportunely, from the Bliss Street mosque five times a day, that still reigns supreme in Beirut.

Waterbury was reminding them, I fear, of what their time abroad should have meant to them, and what their time here was making them forget. They had used America for their own purposes, as a supermarket for respect and marketability, in the same way my students crave to use it, but America had not changed them. At least not much. Basic information about free inquiry, the status of women, the critical use of reason had not seeped through into their graduate programs, where they learned to be technocrats in a dozen different disciplines but humanists in none. Now they found themselves in Dr. Bliss’s college, where they were being lectured softly on what we believe.

A Beirut Litany

All Americans here know it, but few Lebanese do—or have forgotten it. And at what seemed a safe distance from the savagery of this part of the world before September 11, 2001, Americans, perhaps, had less reason to remember. But that has changed:

• March 28–29, 1970, Beirut, Lebanon. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) fires seven rockets at the US Embassy, the American Insurance Company, Bank of America, and the John F. Kennedy library.

• June 29, 1975, Beirut, Lebanon. The PFLP kidnaps the US military attaché to Lebanon, Ernest Morgan, and demands food, clothing, and building materials for indigent residents living near Beirut harbor. The American diplomat is released after an anonymous benefactor provides food to the neighborhood.

• January 1, 1977, Beirut, Lebanon. Frances E. Meloy, US ambassador to Lebanon, and Robert O. Waring, the US economics counselor, are kidnapped by PFLP members as they cross a militia checkpoint separating the Christian from the Muslim parts of Beirut. They are later shot to death.

• July 19, 1982, Beirut, Lebanon. Hezbollah members kidnap David Dodge, acting president of the American University in Beirut. One year later, Dodge is released.

• March 16, 1983, Beirut, Lebanon. Five American Marines are wounded in a hand-grenade attack while on patrol north of Beirut International Airport. The Islamic Jihad and Al-Amal, a Shi’ite militia, claim responsibility for the attack.

• April 18, 1983, Beirut, Lebanon. A truck bomb detonated by remote control explodes in front of the US embassy in Beirut, killing 63 employees, including the CIA’s Middle East director, and wounding 120. Hezbollah claims responsibility for the attack.

• September 29, 1983, Beirut, Lebanon. Two American marines are kidnapped by Amal members. They are released after intervention by a Lebanese army officer.

• October 23, 1983, Beirut, Lebanon. A truck laden with bombs crashes into the lobby of the US Marines headquarters in Beirut, killing 241 soldiers and wounding 81. The attack is carried out by Hezbollah with the help of Syrian intelligence and financed by Iran.

• January 18, 1984, Beirut, Lebanon. Malcolm Kerr, president of the American University of Beirut, is killed by two gunmen on the way to his campus office. Hezbollah says the assassination is part of the organization’s plan to “drive all Americans from Lebanon.”

• March 7, 1984, Beirut, Lebanon. Hezbollah members kidnap Jeremy Levin, Beirut bureau chief of CNN. Levin manages to escape and reach Syrian army barracks. He was later transferred to American hands.

• March 8, 1984, Beirut, Lebanon. Three Hezbollah members kidnap Reverend Benjamin T. Weir, while he is walking with his wife in Beirut’s Manara neighborhood. Weir is released, with Syrian and Iranian assistance, after 16 months of captivity.

• March 16, 1984, Beirut, Lebanon. Hezbollah kidnaps William Buckley, a political officer at the US embassy in Beirut. In a botched transaction to exchange Buckley for prisoners held by Israel, he disappears, reportedly in Iran, and his body is never found.

• September 20, 1984, Beirut, Lebanon. A suicide bomb attack on the US embassy in East Beirut kills 23 people and injures 21. The American and British ambassadors are slightly injured in the attack, for which Hezbollah takes responsibility.

• September 9, 1986, Beirut, Lebanon. Hezbollah kidnaps Frank Reed, local director of the American University in Beirut, whom they accuse of being “a CIA agent.” He is released—four years later.

• September 12, 1986, Beirut, Lebanon. Hezbollah kidnaps Joseph Cicippio, the acting comptroller at the American University in Beirut. Cicippio is released five years later, in December 1991.

• October 21, 1986, Beirut, Lebanon. Hezbollah kidnaps Edward A. Tracy, an American citizen in Beirut. He is released five years later, in August 1991.

• February 17, 1988, Ras-Al-Ein Tyre, Lebanon. Colonel William Higgins, the American chief of the United Nations Truce Supervisory Organization, is abducted by Hezbollah while driving from Tyre to Nakura. The hostages demand the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon and the release of all Palestinian and Lebanese held prisoners in Israel. The US government refuses to answer the request. Hezbollah later claims they have killed Higgins.

• November 8, 1991, Beirut, Lebanon. A 100-kg car bomb demolishes the administration building of the American University in Beirut, killing one person and wounding at least a dozen. The explosion is so violent that windows in the 100-year-old chapel are blown out.

• June 21, 1998, Beirut, Lebanon. Two hand grenades are thrown at the US Embassy in Beirut. In a second wave, three rocket-propelled grenades attached to a crude detonator explode near the US embassy compound, causing no casualties and little damage.

• November 21, 2002, Sidon, Lebanon. Bonnie Witherall, a 30-year-old International Missionary Alliance nurse is shot and killed by an Islamic extremist. She and her husband served in a church-run pre-natal clinic assisting Palestinian women. The Lebanese authorities are quick to point out that the attack did not represent an increase in anti-American feeling and was not religiously motivated.

R. Joseph Hoffmann was Professor of Civilization Studies at the American University of Beirut from 1999 to 2003. Beginning in September 2003, he will be teaching at the University of Maine. Hamra is the Muslim quarter of Beirut where the American University is located.

Touchstone is made possible by donor support. 
Become a Friend of Touchstone today
by making a tax-deductible donation to support
its ongoing publication both online and in print!

“A Farewell to Hamra” first appeared in the May 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

comments powered by Disqus

This page and all site content © 2017 by The Fellowship of St. James. All rights reserved. Please send comments, suggestions, and bad link reports to webmaster@touchstonemag.com.


The Still Small God

The Mustard Seed & the Wonders of His Kingdom


Doctors Delusional

Transgender Disorder & Really Bad Psychiatry


Weather or Not

On Christian Stewardship & Climate Change


Greater Than the Sum

Why the Design in Living Things Goes Far Beyond Machinery


Believe Free or Die

On Mathematical Certainty & the Liberty of Faith


ETI In the Sky

What the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life Means for Us

Publisher of:

All content © The Fellowship of St. James — 2017. All rights reserved. — webmaster@touchstonemag.com.
Returns, refunds, and privacy policy.