Oh the days of my youth! My years of unbridled passion and unrestrained life; love and marriage, fellowships and friendships, science, knowledge and skill, and the confident leap towards life. Oh my days at the American University of Beirut!
In the year 1962, I joined the American University of Beirut, one of the most prominent universities in the Middle East and the world. It is with immense joy that I recollect those fresh, living memories. I will never forget the day we graduated and what the university president told us: “I do not know how many doctors, engineers, philosophers or entrepreneurs will graduate this year, but I am sure that influential men and women will graduate, who will help in shaping the future of Lebanon and the region.”
Since its establishment in the year 1866, under the name “Syrian Evangelical College”, this university has worked to link the region with the world and has become an integral part of the enlightenment projects in the region. This is also the case with Al Azhar University, Baghdad University and Al Zaytoonah University. But this university now seems odd in its surroundings. The defect is not in the university, of course, but in Lebanon itself, that has changed.
The deteriorating situation in Lebanon clearly has a negative impact on the university and has become a threat to its existence. If we want the American University to regain its soul, then hope and life must return to Lebanon. The success of the university in Lebanon was the fruit of the freedom and openness that once prevailed in the country. Without the Arabs and foreigners in Lebanon, the university would have been just some faded old buildings.
Although the university president, Professor Fadlo Khuri, recently reassured everyone that the university will continue for “153 years more”, the existence of those holding power in Lebanon, with their current approach, could only mean the strangling of freedom, receding economy and lifelong dependence on a foreign country. There is an enormous difference between the Iranian project in Lebanon and the American University project and I fear that the first will eliminate the second.
The American University of Beirut is a breeding ground for free thought and independent minds. But Lebanon is regressing; there is a lot of democracy but no freedom. In a country where reactionaries hold the governance, where financial and moral corruption prevail, there is no opportunity for an independent academic institution to flourish.
Academies, libraries, places of enlightenment and criticism have always been a threat to the forces of darkness and reactionaries. When the Mongols invaded Baghdad, they dumped all the contents of the House of Wisdom Library into the Tigris River. The Nazis, at the height of their hatred, poured out their anger on the libraries in many European cities, so did ISIS with many historical and ancient cities like Palmyra.
There is no doubt that the American University of Beirut has been subjected to violent tremors over the past 153 years, among these was the Lebanese civil war between 1975-1990. It not only withstood all of them but emerged even stronger. So, why does the current crisis seem so dangerous to the university and to such an extent? I think the crisis is dangerous for Lebanon as a whole, and it might ravage it as an independent Arab country.
Poor you, my university, and poor you Beirut and Lebanon, poor Iraq, oh Syria, Yemen! Poor you our civilisation. We are living in the grip of barbarians from both inside and outside, the bats of darkness, the enemies of liberty. Poor we, who wait for the dawn to wipe out all this injustice and darkness that stains our times and the future.