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A Year in Lebanon
College Hall, the administration building at the American University of Beirut

A Year in Lebanon

James Gelvin talks about his year teaching at the American University of Beirut.

Kirsten Bording Collins Email KirstenBording Collins

Professor James Gelvin, Associate Professor of History at UCLA, spent the past year in Lebanon as "Sheikh Zayed Visiting Associate Professor" at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Although he had just returned one week earlier and barely recovered from jet-lag, Gelvin was generous enough to spend about 45 minutes of his time in early July to share with me his experience over the past year as well as his insights into Lebanese society and politics in general.

Beirut: No longer the "Paris of the Middle East"

Gelvin last spent time in Beirut about 30 years ago: "It is not the beautiful city that I remembered…it has changed a lot," Gelvin said. Beirut was once considered the Paris of the Middle East and was very beautiful, but now because of rampant corruption anyone with money can get around zoning laws, which barely exist anyway he said ruefully. Gelvin described how Lebanon has consequently become "uglier" and "not built to scale the way it had been before."

Half of the Lebanese population now lives in Beirut due to an enormous displacement that was a result of the civil war (1975-1990). Lebanon's civil war initially broke out between leftist Muslims aided by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and conservative Christians. Although this war was very complex, drawing in Syrian troops, which remain today, and Israel, which invaded full-scale in 1982 and stayed for a decade, Gelvin said that most of those he spoke with blame the Palestinians for the war: "It is as if the warlords that dominated Lebanese society for 15 years dropped from outer space…there was no responsibility on the part of the Lebanese for this war." Gelvin said that many also blame the United States, which became involved militarily in the early 1980s as part of a multinational peacekeeping force and tried to broker a peace between Lebanon and Israel. There is some blame attached to the other Western powers (France, Britain, Italy) as well, which had provided troops to try to stop the conflict.

According to Gelvin, the Lebanese have never really come to grips with the civil war even though it is over: "You get the sense that Lebanese society is never going to heal unless [questions about the war] are going to be asked and very painful answers are given." I asked Gelvin what he thought it would take for the Lebanese to open themselves up to self-examination and he replied in a matter-of-fact manner that it likely may never happen. There are many reasons for this, one of which Gelvin said is that the Lebanese view the truce that was established after the war as very fragile. He speculated that this might be due to the confessional division of Lebanese society, which has segregated the various religious communities from one another.

Gelvin delved into a discussion of what he termed "confessionalization." He first heard this term in 1975 at the onset of the civil war, when it was a conscious policy of the Phalange, a right-wing Christian, political party, whose goal was to drive Muslims out of certain areas, dividing the society up into religious constituencies. There now appears to be a process of "re-confessionalization" Gelvin said, which he thought was particularly interesting because if it is taking place, he said, "it is different from what happened in 1975, because it really is almost divorced from politics." He added that it is a cultural more than a political phenomenon."

Teaching at the American University of Beirut

James Gelvin loved teaching at AUB and taught six classes over the past year. He described AUB as "a strange school" mainly for the elite in the region. The vast majority of the students there are Lebanese or have some form of Lebanese ancestry, but as Gelvin said, "there are also a few Gulfies, Morrocans, and Palestinians scattered around." The instruction at the university is in English and according to Gelvin, the students tend to be among the best in the Arab world: "It is probably the premier institution of higher education in the Arab world."

Some fields of study, however, are considered "the domain of smarter people than others," Gelvin added, which is determined by how well one does on an exam that is taken at the end of high school. He elaborated on this point with some self-irony and said that those who do really well on this exam, for example, are allowed to study medicine, others engineering, and that those who do poorly end up studying history. On a more serious note, Gelvin said that the social sciences and humanities do not "have the same esteem in the Arab world as they do here." He explained that this is because one can be more politically independent in fields such as medicine and engineering and therefore obtain more financial stability.

Because of U.S. policies after September 11, Gelvin taught many students who, under different political circumstances, would have been at either "M.I.T, Harvard, or possibly the UC-system" had they been able to get their visas to study in the United States. He commented that currently "young Arab males, however, are not the demographic that the United States is allowing into the country."

Seinfeld: A Popular Show in Lebanon

Gelvin attended a party a few days after arriving in Beirut last year with some of the "crème of the intelligentsia," he said, including people he knew from his time in Lebanon before as well as people he had just met. He said that at this party, as in so many situations he had been in before in the Middle East, he sat and listened to a lot of anti-American comments and critique of U.S. policies. However, around 10:45 pm everyone at the party began to leave. This was not the Lebanon Gelvin knew from before. Normally parties don’t even get started before 11 pm. He then learned that everyone was going home to watch the American show "Seinfeld," which began at 11 pm.

The U.S. is broadcasting commercials about American life into the Arab world, Gelvin added, to show how Muslims in America are "free to do this, that, and the other thing" which he said is "complete garbage" because everyone is already well acquainted with American life, mostly from television. He pointed out that when people there watch the American shows that are sold to that part of the world, what is important is that they see "a working class family that owns a home, they see those homes with kitchens that are…to die for…they see that everybody owns a car in America, they see black people and white people getting along together--that not every white is a member of the Ku Klux Klan. That’s what they see and that is the best propaganda to possibly have."

The U.S. War with Iraq

Gelvin was careful not to exaggerate the situation in Lebanon after the U.S. attack on Iraq. He said that there was about a two-week period in which "at least the foreign population was contemplating evacuation." This ended fairly quickly, however, with no one needing evacuation. He added that he generally avoided the American community because of the "heightened tension" that existed during this time.

During this period there were also warnings about going to the Palestinian camps because of the potential for violence there. In fact, gun battles broke out at one of the camps during the end of Gelvin’s stay. He said that he was also advised not to go to the port cities in the north, and noted that "incidents" also had occurred there.

The university campus was very quiet, Gelvin said. It was closed down for one day after the initial attack on Iraq occurred. He added that there were some demonstrations, but nothing on the scale of the demonstrations held in Egypt at that time. Most of the campus organizations are very specialized single-issue groups. They deal with either the Palestinian issue or the other major issue that is very close to Lebanese hearts, which is Syria, Gelvin said.

According to Gelvin, the vast majority of the Lebanese population was not in favor of the attack on Iraq. However, there was a significant minority, he said, who supported the American invasion -- for their own reasons. Most of these people, Gelvin explained, did not think that the United States "was in it to establish liberty, democracy, and freedom" in Iraq and believed that the Americans were there to further their own interests. But those Lebanese who favored the American invasion of Iraq did so despite their distrust of the U.S., mostly because they felt that things are so bad in the Arab world that they are willing to let the Americans "shuffle the deck" and hope for the best outcome. Gelvin interpreted this as a sign of the despair that is currently felt among many politically active circles in the Middle East.

In the end, Gelvin stressed "Most of my Lebanese friends, however, remained my Lebanese friends" and that "one thing that Lebanese, like most Arabs, are very capable of doing is loving Americans while hating America. That is one thing that is fairly constant."

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