an American at an “American” school: Robert Ober on IC
Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 28, 2008
I love memoirs. I love the range of human experience they open up: the fascinating minutiae of daily life, the compelling quirkiness of the individual perspective. So when I saw that Robert Ober, headmaster of Beirut’s International College from 1998 to 2001, had written a memoir about his time in Lebanon, I immediately ordered it, and read it all in one go on Christmas Day.
Ober’s memoir, Seeing Arabs Through an American School, is fascinating – biased, but fascinating. He makes some strong generalizations about “Arabs”. But his insights about Lebanese culture and particularly the hotbed that is Ras Beirut, with its trifecta of AUB, IC, and the American Community School, are not to be missed.
The chapter titles themselves give insight into the challenges Ober faced as headmaster: “Descent into conflict”, “A non-sectarian school in a sectarian setting”, “Syria and other stumbling blocks”, “Customs and values”, and “So whose campus is it?”, among others.
With both the chapter titles and the anecdotes he chooses to recount, Ober pulls no punches when it comes to critiquing the fossilized hierarchies of privilege that made it difficult to return IC to its pre-war glory days as a truly world-class school.
For example, from secretaries to deputy deans, some Lebanese personnel who had taken positions during the civil war viewed their jobs as sinecures and signs of status, not as positions in which they were actually expected to work. Hence much of Ober’s time was spent soothing wounded egos and trying to figure out just why employees like the school’s incompetent janitor were allowed to remain on the payroll (in the janitor’s case, because he was Druze, and the school feared that the Druze militias that protected it during the war would be ‘upset’ if he were fired).
The rest of his time seems to have been taken up with other battles: trying to get building keys; negotiating with AUB, which owns the land IC sits on and apparently wanted the College off; and dealing with US-based trustees who seem to have been in lala-land when it came to imagining the needs and capabilities of the post-war IC.
The memoir is frustrating at times, mostly because Ober’s experiences were so frustrating, but also because it does seem that he used the memoir as a way to air his side of the story. As a result, it gets a bit self-righteous in tone … but then again, I imagine that most of the over-privileged IC poobahs he dealt with were rather self-righteous themselves. So perhaps Ober’s tone is merely par for the course :).