“Welcome new students to the American University of Beirut for the 2012-2013 year. Congratulations on being accepted into this world class institution, it is an honor to welcome you here today.”
The orientation for international students arriving on exchange to the AUB began with the same feel-good speech that most western universities dole out to their freshmen. The presentation then turned to more practical topics – talk of the sports facilities, plagiarism policies, and the procedures for course registration.
Suddenly, the mood in the room changed.
“If you’re here, it means that you’re aware of the situation. All we can say is that we can’t predict the future. But we can talk practically. We live in a dangerous world.”
I tried to gage the temperature of the room. Some students were watching with bated breath, others looked nervous, some simply seemed bored. The guy next to me was checking Facebook on his iPhone.
“Your embassies are currently warning you against going to Tripoli – specifically, north of the Crusader’s Gate. We don’t recommend you travel south of Sidon. Avoid the Palestinian Camps – they’re not zoos. And don’t go within 5 kilometers of the Syrian border.”
The advisor then emphasized that just because international media is stating the political mood in Lebanon is “tense,” or that there has been a “security concern” (which I’m assuming was a euphemism for a kidnapping, shelling from across the Syrian border, or gunfire in Tripoli), it does not mean that the security of AUB students has been compromised. “Ever since the civil war, AUB has been a leader in regional security.” A few students straightened up in their seats. I suppose saying the words “civil war” in this situation was akin to mentioning sharks in a promotion for deep sea diving.
The head of AUB Campus Security then came for a brief presentation. A mustached man in uniform with a light Lebanese accent, he told us that he had worked at AUB since before the war. “AUB is safe because the Lebanese conflict exists within AUB. All political parties and religions of Lebanon are represented within the AUB students, and that is our strength.”
We went outside and quickly became busied with other matters – dorms, registration, and instructions to get our AUB IDs. Armed guards patrol the gates and check IDs randomly – eons away from the open, sprawling UBC campus back home.
Campus is overwhelmingly beautiful – palm trees, Arabic architecture and the Mediterranean sprawled in the Hamra district of Beirut. The university feels very western – with the occasional reminder that you’re still in the Middle East. Men are not allowed in the women’s dorms, as Muslim girls remove their Hijabs in their rooms and in the hallways. The electricity cuts randomly, albeit not too often. And let’s face it, lawlessness has its benefits:
“Don’t buy the textbooks, copyright laws aren’t enforced here. Just go to the Copy Center off Bliss street and show him your course codes, he’ll photocopy all the texts you need, it costs like 15 bucks,” an AUB student giving us a campus tour mentioned offhandedly.
The North American students’ jaws dropped – most of us can drop $500 – $1000 dollars a year on textbooks alone.
In my first class of the day, a conversation I overheard between two guys sitting in front of me gave me chills.
“How was your summer?”
“Did you go back to Syria?”
“Well that would explain it.”
My second class, Conflict Regulation, was taught by a former Stanford professor who explained he’s at AUB on a “permanent sabbatical.” He told us that he believes being on the ground is the only way to understand a conflict, and that he’d worked in Kosovo, South Africa, and the Congo – among others. He moved to Lebanon during the war from 1978 to 1986 and conducted the first political opinion polls at the time. He also interviewed Yasser Arafat and Bachir Gemayel.
“When I interviewed Gemayel during the war, he told me that ‘When the Lebanese accept that 2 times 2 is 4, we will have peace in our country.’ I then broke the number one rule of scholarly conduct, and started arguing with him. ‘In Lebanon, 2 times 2 may be 3.9, maybe 4.1, but never 4.’ That is conflict regulation – balance. Regulation is what happens when both sides realize they can’t win. In Syria, both parties still believe they can win, and that’s why it’s been so goddamn bloody.”
The next course, Palestinian-Israeli Politics, was taught by a Lebanese professor. He explained that he lectured, but never wrote papers on the topic because he felt he would become emotionally involved. “Writing is very basic, active, personal. When I write, it’s that I want to make a contribution. I don’t feel I can make a contribution by picking a side. So I don’t. I’ll lecture academically – this isn’t a propaganda course.”
Something seemed mildly absurd about analyzing the conflict logically when only 6 year before, the AUB classroom where we were sitting had itself been threatened by bombs during the 2006 conflict with Israel.
I think I learned more politics in one day here than in 2 years in my top 40 institution.