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Painting the Middle East

Painting the Middle East

by Ann Zwicker Kerr, Fulbright Coordinator

The author talks about her new book, Painting the Middle East (2002), and its companion, Come with Me from Lebanon (1994, 1996), both published by Syracuse University Press.

Painting the Middle East, my second book on that compelling part of the world, is a companion to the first, Come with Me from Lebanon, which is both a family history and a record of the political and historical events that led up to the assassination of my husband at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in 1984. The first book is intended to create a tangible record of two losses, that of Malcolm Kerr, a former UCLA professor of political science, renowned Middle East scholar and president of AUB, and that of beautiful Lebanon as it once was before the ravages of rampant, unplanned construction and a civil war from 1975 to 1992. Ample documentation came from letters I had written home to my parents from my earliest days at AUB as a student in the 1950s and from journals I kept over the years as my husband and I, with our four children, spent sabbaticals and leaves away from UCLA in the Middle East. I also pored over Malcolm's books and articles to better understand his views on inter-Arab politics, the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and problems of Islamic adaptation to modern times. The later chapters of Come with Me are enlivened by letters he wrote home to us when he went ahead to Lebanon in 1982 to assume his job as AUB president at the time of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the evacuation of the PLO from Beirut.

Writing the first book was a way of healing and trying to put the pieces together after the tragedy of my husband's death, but it did not answer for me the question of why the appeal of the Middle East which had taken hold in my student days grew stronger as the years went by and continues to the present, in spite of the devastation to our family and to the region. The answer could better be sought in the watercolors I painted in that region over the past four and a half decades and that now hang on the walls of my house and in the houses of my children and friends. I decided to collect them all into a book and write the stories that go with them. They reflect my love of the region and an unashamedly romantic view of the places where we spent frequent sojourns, Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt and the Holy Land. The paintings are reminders of the natural beauty I saw there and of the timeless monasteries, mosques and boats that dot the landscape. I remember the chiming of ancient church bells, the haunting call to prayer from the mosques and the constantly shifting light on the sails of a felucca. When I look at the watercolors gathered between two covers, I am better able to understand the appeal the Middle East has had for me for so long.

My hope is that both books will be useful to readers in making this troubled area and its people more understandable in its complex history, rich traditions, geography and natural beauty. The assassination of my husband almost twenty years ago was caused by Islamic radicals whose motivation for terrorism was based on the same wellspring of support as that of the September 11 attacks on our country. Americans need to have a broader knowledge of the Middle East than most of our news sources present and know that until the regional problems there are solved we will not have peace in the world.

Ann Kerr's Painting the Middle East is available from Syracuse University Press. Come with Me from Lebanon may be found in libraries and in bookshops specializing in the Middle East.

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