More than 50 years after they graduated, UCLA Fulbright coordinator Ann Kerr-Adams has interviewed six of her American University of Beirut classmates to discover the lives they have built in the Middle East.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2010 issue of the American University of Beirut's Maingate quarterly magazine. It is the latest in a Maingate series by Kerr-Adams, Fulbright coordinator at UCLA, about former AUB classmates.
I was immediately drawn to Salma when I first saw her in the women’s hostel in fall 1954, shortly after I arrived at AUB. She was a tall, graceful young woman with a reserved demeanor who lived down the hall from my four roommates and me. Behind Salma’s reserve was a person of great intelligence and candor, with a passionate concern for her Palestinian homeland and the old, conservative Muslim family from which she came. “I am from the most conservative family in the most conservative town in Palestine,” she told me with a laugh. “The Jayyusi family has lived in the village of Kur for centuries and only married Jayyusis, but that custom no longer exists. My goal was to study at AUB, and I am thankful that I was able to attain that goal.”
Salma was my source of learning about an old way of life in the Middle East that was quite different from that of my other friends in the hostel. When she went home to her family in the town of Tul Karm for school holidays, she covered her hair out of respect for her father’s traditional views, a custom no longer followed at that time in the families of other Muslim classmates. Salma’s father, Hashem, was a highly educated and respected man who had served as a minister in the governments of the first three kings of Jordan and was a dedicated activist for Palestine. Only six years earlier in 1948, her family’s life had been altered forever by the British withdrawal from Palestine.
Imprinted in Salma’s memory were the dawn bombings on Tul Karm and the day all the inhabitants fled, except for her family, with only their neighbors and a small volunteer army to defend them against the Zionist forces. She recounted this story to me last year as if it had just happened. “My father gathered us together and told us he had eight bullets in his pistol and that if the Jews were to enter the city he would shoot each one of us and then himself rather than let us face the likely atrocities of the invaders. The city was spared when an armistice was declared, but the result of this catastrophe was the annexation of the portion of Palestine to the west of the Jordan River to ‘East Jordan’ under the name of the ‘West Bank of Jordan’. We were told it was a temporary act, but it never reopened.”
The prongs of Salma’s life have been formed by these childhood memories of political turmoil, her devotion to family and her yearning for education for herself and the people of the Middle East. After graduating from AUB, she taught in secondary and post-secondary schools in Jordan and then won a scholarship from the United States Information Service (USIS) to study for a master’s degree in teaching of English as a second language (TESL) at Teachers’ College, Columbia University. She passed her comprehensive exam in 1960 with honors and returned to teach in Ramallah Teachers’ Training College for five years. In 1965, she switched careers to work at the Arab Bank head office in Amman in charge of foreign relations.
Tempted by an offer from Saudi Arabia to head a new private school for girls, Salma left the Arab Bank and tried life in a more restricted environment than she was used to. After a year, she decided to return to Amman where she accepted a job with the Ministry of Education heading the English language section of the Curricula Department.
In 1974 my friendship with Salma was renewed when she came to study for a PhD at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) on a scholarship she had won through the Jordanian Ministry of Education and American Friends of the Middle East, the organization that helps Arab students apply to study in the United States. Although we had kept in touch before, it was during those three years when Salma studied at UCLA that we cemented our friendship as adults. We met on campus frequently and she became a part of our family, joining us for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and summer barbecues.
After she returned to Amman, we visited her each time our family went to Jordan. She continued her work with the Ministry of Education, chairing a committee that revised the entire English language teaching curriculum and then was appointed executive head of the Shoman Foundation which was founded and sponsored by the Arab Bank for the development of science, arts, and research in the Arab world. She was also an assistant professor at the University of Jordan.
Salma has balanced her professional and family life, being of great support to her two older sisters with whom she lived until the end of their lives. Throughout her life she has dedicated herself to improving conditions for Palestinian refugees. She is a key member in groups that support care of the elderly and disabled and find ways to help students go to university, both at home and abroad. “Our lives as Palestinians have made us very sensitive,” she told me, reminding me of her more and articulate statements a few years ago during the American invasion of Iraq War, “I am so disillusioned— can’t they feel the anger, the fury, the injustice they are doing? Islam is so distorted and misunderstood. America is actually murdering the values it taught us.”
The election of President Obama brought hope to Salma and many others in the Middle East for a fair solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are still waiting— but Salma continues her work for the Palestinian people, feeling the injustice deeply but knowing that education is the best pathway we have to maintain hope for the future. She remains grateful for her education at AUB.