When you think of the Middle East does a picture of female college students wearing min-skirts, halters and sundresses come to mind? Well probably not and indeed that would not be easy to find these days. Beirut in t6hose days and still, obviously was a bridge between East and West. It was far more sophisticated than most American cities, it had it all; the best of restaurants, luxury hotels and lots of Western tourists. Perhaps a bit shallow but always fun and lively. There was every life style and every amusement for the most jaded of tastes. Ras Beirut, the center of the city, was the epitome of sophistication and class-conciousness. A woman would answer the doorbell if not totally attired in the best clothing and carefully made-up. Living now in coastal North Carolina and thinking of the way women dress here in public, even those with the means, makes one feel like living in Dogpatch. That was rather ordinary in the 60’s. Something called the Islamic revival has intervened. Many of these ladies are now wearing hijab ( hair covering) and perhaps a few even the niqab ( veil). That is neither progress nor retrogression. That’s not the point. The point is simply that the Arab world is a lot less fun these days. Some would say that political freedom has moved forward since those days of the late 60’s. Perhaps, although I am skeptical. What has changed for the worse is the concept of social freedom, particularly that of women. The wearing apparel is only a symptom of the lessening of social freedom throughout the Arab world……for both men and women. People are no more religious than before, only more fearful of crossing the increasing number of social red lines. Life has become more hypocritical, more cynical, and people more suspicious of one another. Religious divisions are much deeper, not only between muslim and non-muslim but between muslim sects as well. The Shi’a /Sunni divide is the most explosive factor in the Middle East today. The Palestinian issue is eclipsed by this divide. Wherever these two communities of Muslims live…Yemen, Lebanon,Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and now Syria, the communities are more at each other’s throats than ever before. The war in Syria is no longer freedom-seeking Facebook addicts seeking political freedom,( if it ever was) but war between the Alawis ,a branch of Shi’ism, against the more numerous Sunni Community. Moreover, more and more, the anti-Assad forces are not ordinary Sunnis but radicalized adherents of radical Islamic thought. The term “Free Syrian Forces” is amisnomer. They are totally dominated by Islamic radicals and many are no longer just Syrians.
But to return to AUB. I loved my time in Beirut. It was a wonderful city. The Palestinian issue was just beginning to spill over into the streets. There were the very poor of course, mostly in Chiah district, the poor Shi’a from the south who has migrated for work in Beirut as had many Syrians. But every Middle Eastern people were represented in Beirut, including Armenians, which at that time by some estimates were 35% of the urban population. The had their own churches, schools and kept out of politics as much as possible. The big division was between Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslim, especially Palestinians which the Maronites hated. You have be specific when discussing religious divisions in the Middle East, especially the Arab world, because they are not clearcut. Never have been. Even during the Crusades there were Christians on the side of the Muslims and vice-versa. The Christians in the Middle East have always been divided. One of the main reasons that there are so few today living there. For instance in the Arab world, the Maronites of Lebanon do not think of themselves as Arabs who they see as lizard -eating nomads of the desert. On the other hand the Greek Orthodox do consider themselves Arab. In fact two of the most bloodthirsty Palestinian terror groups, the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine, ( PFLP) and the Palestinian Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine ( PDFLP) were headed by Greek Orthodox Christians. One, George Habash ( PFLP), was a graduate of AUB and a heart surgeon. Then there are Armenian Orthodox, Greek Catholics, ( that are not Greek but follow the Greek church). And then there are the mysterious Druze who are an offshoot of Shi’ism of the tenth century. They are neither Muslim nor Christian. They keep to themselves as well and serve as the best soldiers in the Middle East. They serve in the armies of Lebanon, Syria, and Israel.
I keep getting off the track. back to AUB. I was a student there from fall of 1967 to Spring 1970. I was a major in the U.S. Army and attending AUB was part of my program to become a specialist in the Middle East. I attended AUB for two years and obtained an MA in Arab Studies. It was a wonderful center of learning with the very best of faculty. Professor Joseph Malone was a my mentor and one of the truly remarkable founts of experience and knowledge in the Middle East. He was not a flamboyant instructor but his knowledge of the area and people to contact was phenomenal. I frequently took and advantage of the time off and available money to travel throughout the Middle East, including Greece, Ethiopia, Malta, Iran and most of the Arab world. During the weekends in Lebanon I drove around the small but beautiful country to visit most every village, from the city of Tripoli in the North to the Shi’a villages in the south. Always the reception,. whether it was a Maronite, Sunni, Shi’a or Druze village, was cordial, accompanied by coffee and sweets. The differences in attitude and lifestyle was stark but the hospitality was always warm.
Some of my professors were Zeine N. Zeine, who Ottoman history, Yusif Ibish who taught Islam, Hanna Batatu, who taught marxism in the Middle East. The later was a favorite with me. he knew I was an army officer and from my remarks in class, a conservative even then but nevertheless we were very friendly. We met several times at Feisels (Faysels?) near the campus and talked about the ideological currents engulfing the Middle East. At the beginning of the second Gulf war in Iraq, his opus, the “Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movement of Iraq” of over 1000 pages became a hit. He was of Palestinian origin, a batchelor who lived with his mother in the mountains. He lived for his work. I loved his classes. He was a marxist but not doctrinaire unlike the vast percentage of those who believe as he did. Many years later when he was at Princeton I sent him a letter but he did not respond. He died some years ago. Zeine N Zeine was a colorful character who loved the ladies. he taught the footnotes. AS he said I’ll teach the footnotes and you students can read the lessons. I liked his approach. It was far more interesting than simply reading from the pages of the assignments. His often repeated opinion that the only time the Middle East had known peace was under the Ottoman empire was not well-received by the other Arab students. Professor ( his name escapes me) was the Arab history professor and he taught more in the Arab fashion.” Listen to what I say. Write it all down and regurgitate it on the next quiz.” But he was likable and I learned from him.
Most of all I learned from the other students, who were from all over the Middle East. Each nationality had their peculiarities.The Saudis, especially the girls, introduced me to the hypocrisy of Saudi Wahhabi culture. The Saudi girls had to be home by six but between the end of class time and six lived on the edge. Their sense of new found freedom was overpowering. I was regaled by the American students tales involving Saudi girls. If half of it was true they were indeed wild. Speaking of the American students, the girls were caught up in the Palestinian movement. The image that comes to mind is one of the little naive blonde churning out mimeographed copies of Fatah propaganda tracts. Generally, among the Arab and Lebanese students, the Palestinians were not popular. A good part of the reason were their constant strikes to close down the university and their collective arrogance. It was the era in which AUB got the title “Guerrilla U” because a number of PLO leaders or philosophers were AUB graduates. One can imagine the paranoia surrounding me and always present in the Arab world concerning this American army officer learning ( trying to) Arabic and studying Arab culture. At that time officers such as I were under the control of the US Army assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence. I was once in the AUB library and I dropped a letter from the Intelligence Office and it was picked up by a student and I was soon known as the resident spy. In fact at some point several leftie students broke into the University registrar office and got hold of my academic records which were duly published in a leftie Beirut newspaper, obviously to alert the public to the spy in their midst. Few Beirutis cared. I will post them when I find the copies. In fact to be identified as working for an intelligence agency accorded one special elevated status. I remember one occasion when I was sunning myself at the AUB beach and an American student, one of the most vocal and left wing activists in my class came up to me and said “I want to work for you.” I was initially non-plussed but caught on and and instead of vociferously denying it, which would have useless anyway, I simply suggested that he go the “right people” at the Embassy. I think he did but whether he became “one of us” is unknown.
Of course it was not always good times. The religious cracks were were beginning to appear. The catalyst as in so may Arab counries were the palestinians. Most had arrived after the 1948 war and the establishment of Israel but others came in after 1967. They were mostly Sunni Muslim but many were Christian. As the Lebanese would say they were all the same…troublemakers. The Palestinians mostly wound up in horrible refugee camps and kept as house pets or unwelcome guests by the Lebanese. They had to illegally buy work permits, s costing up to 25000$ or more. Mostly the Christians were able to integrate into the Lebanese society or leave for the West. Not so for the Muslim Sunni who were despised by the Maronites and not popular with the Shi’a or Druze either. The Sunni Lebanese were sympathetic but not particularly helpful either.The Palestinians lived in miserable hovels in infamous camps such as Shatila. There they lived until the mirage of the PLO gave them the illusion that regaining Palestine was possible ( just as Hamas and The Muslim Brotherhood does today). The guerrilla war began based on the totally irrelevant lessons of Algeria, Che Guevara, Franz Fanon, Ho Chi Minh, etc. The idea of the popular war became the mantra that sent hundreds 0f young untrained Palestinians to their deaths trying to enter into Israel, or commit terrible acts of terror on school children, attacking school busses or school houses. It seemed that in the poorer sections of Beirut the walls were constantly covered with photos of the latest shahid ( martyr) who died at the hands of an Israeli Defense Force that tracked then down and killed them regularly. Meanwhile the Palestinian ideologues lived in luxury flats in Beirut, giving constant interviews to a fawning Western Press. The Palestinian Guerrilla in his tight tiger-camouflage fatigues and colorful berets was the toast of the Western Media. The Palestinian movement was all smoke and mirrors and the Palestinian and Arab leaders knew it but it brought in money and was a powerful distraction from the ills that still beset their societies.