Bittersweet Thoughts of Another Beirut

THE week of June 20, 1964, the week I was graduated from high school, holds bittersweet memories. The location was the then-beautiful city of Beirut, Lebanon. On the shores of the eastern Mediterranean, this city, blessed with natural beauty, was the gateway to the Near East and the Orient. Its high-rise buildings and beautiful modern boulevards blended well with the older, quaint buildings and narrow winding alleys and streets. Dubbed ``the Switzerland of the Near East,'' Lebanon's population was very cosmopolitan.

In its souks (marketplaces),boutiques, and bazaars one saw such an amalgamation of people; people dressed in traditional Lebanese, Arab, Shirkassian, Kurdish, and Turkish attire blended in with the most modern of Western dress. Indeed, Beirut's citizens took pride in the fact that when it came to fashions, they were only one day behind Paris, Rome, and London.

Like their enterprising, seafaring, and hospitable Phoenician ancestors, the Lebanese possessed a unique vibrancy and joie de vivre. In the aftermath of the horrors of the two world wars, Lebanese soil became a haven for hundreds of thousands who sought refuge from oppression, massacre, tyranny, and hunger. The Lebanese people I knew were gentle, generous, hospitable, caring, and enterprising.

On April 9, 1959, my widowed mother, my twin brother, my aunt, and my grandmother crossed into Lebanon from Israeli Jerusalem. An uncle and aunt and older siblings (a sister and two older brothers who made a similar move to Jordan in 1956) met us in Beirut. Once reunited with all her children, my mother, a schoolteacher herself, set about the task of finding schools for her children. Thus it was that in the fall of 1960 the three younger boys were enrolled at the privately owned National Protestant Secondary School for boys.

The student body of my high school reflected the pluralistic nature of Lebanese society. In addition to Lebanese students, there were students of Armenian, Iraqi, Palestinian, Saudi, Syrian, and Egyptian backgrounds. There were Christian (Marionite, Greek Orthodox, Melkite, Protestant), Muslim (Sunni, Shiite, Alawite) and Druze students.

Our principal, the late Kamel Deeb, was a compassionate disciplinarian. He frequently admonished us during the morning assemblies to avoid indulgence in the five vices, which began with the letter seen (s). As Mr. Deeb began his exhortation, Nazem, one of my close friends, would simultaneously whisper these vices to those close by. Holding his left hand out and using his right hand to count, Mr. Deeb's stern but fatherly tone listed cigarat (cigarettes), sayarat (cars), cinamat (cinemas), sitat (women), and sukor (alcohol) as the worst influences on the lives and minds of his young scholars, thereafter referred to by the students as the five deadly sins of the National Protestant Secondary School.

The school's curriculum was very stringent. We were required to learn a foreign language for 12 years, and most of my classmates spoke three or four languages fluently. We studied Near Eastern history and geography in Arabic, and world history and geography in English. It was in these classes that I learned about America, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and the ideals which made America a land of freedom and opportunity.

Inspired by these class discussions, Krekor Hagopian, dressed in faded blue jeans, penny loafers, and white T-shirt, his hair shining with a Brylcream application, would proceed to tell us about his plans of conquering Hollywood. Indeed, Krekor knew all the top hit songs by heart, and his renditions of these songs held many sophomores and juniors in awe.

We were also required to study algebra, calculus, advanced math, chemistry, biology, and physics. Frequently while Ramzy, my twin brother George, Wafi, and Ibrahim argued with the math teacher about the different ways of solving quadratic equations, Usama, Uthman, and Yahya - the jocks - would manage to stir up some trouble at the back of the class. I can't say that I was altogether disappointed with their antics; one needed the comic relief when one was on the periphery of a serious discussion. Albert Akiki, a young and brilliant teacher, gave us just the right amount of slack.

We were taught Arabic and English literatures, including the works of Near Eastern and European masters. A.C. Bradley's ``Shakespearean Tragedy'' was a required text in our senior English literature class, and writing full-length and well-developed critical analyses and essays was a prerequisite for passing English. While Kifah Fakhouri wrote the best Arabic essays, I managed to write the best English essays.

Of all my classmates, Kifah was the one whom I admired the most. He was not popular with the guys, nor was he popular with the girls. He was somewhat timid. Kifah could play the piano, violin, accordion, trumpet, and saxophone like a virtuoso. He could recite classical Arabic poetry with eloquence. His recitative deliveries had an aura of dramatic and mesmeric nuances. At the age of 16 Kifah had his own TV program: He wrote, produced, and directed a weekly children's marionette show. How well I remember the few times I accompanied him to the TV studio to assist him with the marionettes.

Thus it was that on June 20, 1964, that my classmates and I were graduated from the National Protestant Secondary School. I shall never forget the charge set forth for the 50-odd. We were challenged to accomplish many things: We were challenged to succeed, to better ourselves, to pursue meaningful professions, and to seek a higher education in order to make contributions to our Lebanese society and the world.

On that day my classmates and I pledged that no matter where we were, we would all travel to Beirut for our 25th class reunion. Also on that day Kifah was recognized for his accomplishments in Arabic literature, George was recognized for his accomplishments in science, and I was recognized for my accomplishments in English literature.

Over a third of my classmates remained in Lebanon to pursue their higher education. Many traveled to the Gulf region and Europe seeking an education or employment. The rest went to the United States, the land of greatness and opportunities.

Thus it was that in the fall of 1965 I made one of the most difficult, yet most rewarding, decisions of my life. I followed not only in my classmates' footsteps, but also in the footsteps of my twin and an older brother. As I bade my widowed mother and sister goodbye, I pledged to myself that my brothers and I would one day unite the family. Deep in my heart I knew that Lebanon, a gracious host to my citizenless Palestinian family, would never be home.

In 1974, a year after I had earned my doctorate in English from a US university, I took my American-born wife to Lebanon for a visit. Even though I saw only a handful of my friends, the trip was made memorable by my seeing Kifah, his wife, and his family. He has made a name for himself in the field of dramatic and music education. His programs and ideas were used and implemented in classrooms throughout Lebanon and the Gulf region.

Yes, the education I received at the National Protestant Secondary School helped me reach all of my goals. I am today a professor of English; I write, sculpt, and paint. I am married and have two sons; all of my immediate family is residing in the San Francisco Bay area.

I know that Ramzy, Nazem, and Yousef are employed as engineers in the US, that George is a physician in the Washington area, and that others are in private business around the US. I deeply regret that the political situation in Lebanon is such that we can't have our class reunion. What fun it would have been to have visited, as agreed upon in 1964, the Arous al Bahar Cafe nestled near the waters of the beautiful West Beirut Mediterranean Sea.

Yes, we the 1964 class of the National Protestant Secondary School took the charge seriously - we've succeeded. Herein lies the stinging irony. For while each has succeeded in his own way, the society that had helped prepare us has failed miserably.

History has shown us that in the midst of chaos and anarchy, the voices of the artists help bring balance and meaning to life.

Kifah, I yearn to hear your voice, I yearn to hear your music and poetry, I yearn to hear your kind and gentle words that are laden with love, dignity, and respect for God's creation. I keep looking for your voice of reason and your message of love and harmony. While my classmates and I will not be able to have our reunion, Insha'Allah (God willing), the collective voices of Lebanon's sons and daughters will call for a reunion of hearts and minds.

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