A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Archive for the ‘academia’ Category

new views, new worlds

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 21, 2009

When I was in graduate school, I took a number of courses outside my immediate field for auditor credit, rather than full course credit. I had no background in petrochemicals, for example, or the oil markets of the Gulf, but I thought that as long as courses were being offered in those subjects, I should try to learn what I could.

One of these “I don’t know enough about this subject but I’d like to” courses was a semester-long class on the region’s political economy. I didn’t know anything about political economy – in fact, I didn’t know what the phrase meant. And I certainly knew nothing about terms like “ISI”, the “rentier state”, or the “tertiary sector”. But I stuck it out, and have been grateful ever since for the opportunity to develop at least a basic understanding of the mysterious world where economics and political science meet.

I have been equally grateful for the professor, Steve Heydemann, and his many memorable classroom quips of – including one that has resonated with increasing urgency over the past few months.

I believe, he said in response to a question about the credibility of another scholar’s recent op-ed, that in-country knowledge has a shelf life of about six months.

In other words, one can write about one’s experiences of the country as it was six months or a year or whatever other point when one was last there, but after a certain period one can no longer claim to have the intimate experiential knowledge of the country in its current state.

Six months isn’t a magic number – and for those with permanent ties, like H, perhaps the time limit is irrelevant.

But for me I find that it is time to make the switch from experiential writing – recounting the goofy bits of my daily adventures – to analytic writing. And quite frankly, I can take only so many analytic blog posts, either my own or others’.

I look forward to reading about the Lebanese elections, the Kuwaiti parliament, and other issues dear to my heart on your blogs, and I look forward to either resuming this blog or starting a new one when I feel that I have more daily-life anecdotes to share.


Posted in academia, blogging, women, words | Leave a Comment »

20,000 students “just like that”: American universities in Kuwait

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 20, 2009

This post isn’t about the upcoming Lebanese elections, or funny words in Arabic, or even about my prospects as a dictator. Its about Kuwait, and by extension about the many countries around the region who have been working over the past few years to partner with American, Australian, French, and UK universities as a way of making world-class higher education available to students within their national borders.

Its a tricky process, I think, and requires a great deal of trust on both sides. The article is long, but if you are a student, an educator, or simply an interested citizen, I think you will find it a good and useful read.

New Private Universities in Kuwait Pin Their Hopes on U.S. Partners



Sharply dressed in black suits and bright red ties, the two recruiters latch onto high-school students as they walk through the gates of Exhibition Hall No. 8 at the Kuwait fairgrounds.

“I want to tell you about the American University of the Middle East,” one of the recruiters says, following a visitor into the university fair.

“We’re affiliated with Purdue University, from the United States. Do you know Purdue?” his sidekick adds, brandishing a clipboard emblazoned with the Purdue logo. “Would you like more information? Just fill out this card and visit our booth. We have a coffee bar there.”

These recruiters have figured out that the key to selling private higher education in Kuwait is to emphasize what may be their year-old institution’s most important asset: its affiliation with a top foreign university.

“The international affiliation is very important. Purdue is a good American university. Its reputation is known,” says Ahmad Al-Jaber, one of many high-school seniors who swarm around the American University of the Middle East’s booth. “And it’s not going to put its name with a school that is not good. Is it?”

This implied assurance of quality is more than just an institutional strategy. It’s a national one. When Kuwait lifted a ban on private higher education less than a decade ago, it decided that the best way to ensure the development of academically sound universities was to require all new institutions to have foreign partners.

That policy has helped the country rapidly build a credible private higher-education system where none existed before. In only eight years, eight private colleges have opened in this sprawling city-state, catering to some 13,000 students. Nine additional institutions have been authorized to open in the next few years.

Two other Kuwaiti universities have paired with American colleges. The Gulf University for Science and Technology, a polytechnic, teamed up with the University of Missouri at St. Louis; and the American University of Kuwait, a liberal-arts college, is in partnership with Dartmouth College. Other private colleges have Australian or European partners.

To be sure, Kuwait’s private universities have not yet established the kind of academic profile needed to place the small nation on the academic map. When it comes to the Middle East’s higher-education renaissance, nobody mentions Kuwait’s colleges in the same breath as New York University’s soon-to-open campus in Abu Dhabi or Qatar’s Education City, whose six U.S. branch campuses have established Doha as a college town on the Persian Gulf.

But here in Kuwait, the private universities have transformed the local scene.

For more than three decades, private higher education was banned in Kuwait. The giant, state-owned Kuwait University was the only option for students who wanted to earn a college degree in this emirate at the northern end of the Persian Gulf.

But as the number of Kuwaitis edged close to a million during the 1990s, Kuwait University simply could not keep up with the demand.

Qatar and the United Arab Emirates faced similar challenges. But the unopposed rulers of those petrodollar-rich monarchies could set aside the kind of public money needed to build flashy campuses and lure top foreign universities to fill them up.

Politics are much more complicated in Kuwait, an aspiring democracy where a tumultuous parliament frequently exercises its power to oppose the ruling family’s decisions, including on the national budget. Public money has never been as easily available as it has been among Kuwait’s neighbors.

So the Ministry of Higher Education settled on a more cost-effective approach: It turned to the private sector.

The government has set out a number of requirements for private investors wishing to develop their own universities. The foreign partner must be ranked among the top 200 by The Times Higher Education Supplement or appear on U.S. News and World Report’s top tier of colleges. The relationship between the Kuwaiti institution and its foreign partner must be a meaningful one.

“We don’t want to be in a situation where we’re buying degrees — fancy degrees, with fancy names, but not enough meat,” says Imad Alatiqi, secretary general of the Private Universities Council, which regulates all private universities in Kuwait. “We want substantive relationships, where there is a commitment of quality from the local people and from the international people.”

Within those requirements, though, there is quite a bit of variety. The University of Maastricht Business School, in the Netherlands, and the Box Hill Institute, in Australia, have opened branch campuses or franchises of their home institutions in Kuwait. The Kuwaiti partners take a back seat when it comes to day-to-day operations.

Other local investors have chosen to seek advice from their foreign partners, but manage their own academics and operations.

In those cases, the Private Universities Council requires the foreign partner to submit a formal opinion every time the Kuwaiti university makes a major academic decision, such as starting a program or hiring an academic officer.

The council, which licenses and accredits all institutions, also sets the standards it expects private universities in Kuwait to meet.

“Any arrangement between the two universities that can deliver those standards, we welcome,” Mr. Alatiqi says.

A Liberal-Arts Alternative

In 2003 a group of investors led by Sheikha Dana Nasser Al-Sabah, a member of Kuwait’s ruling family, wanted to establish an American-style liberal-arts college. They approached Dartmouth, which offered the kind of curriculum and approach to teaching they hoped to emulate.

They first called Dale F. Eickelman, a Dartmouth anthropologist. It was clear to him, he says, that the Kuwaiti investors wanted to develop a deep relationship.

“From the start, their instinct was to say to us, ‘We don’t just want you to sign off on things for us, we want you to help us aim for the highest level,'” says Mr. Eickelman, who has spent more than three decades working in the Middle East.

Dartmouth found the idea of helping build a liberal-arts college in the Middle East, a relatively uncommon concept here, hard to resist.

Six years later, hundreds of students now mingle in the shaded courtyards of the American University of Kuwait, switching seamlessly from Arabic to English and back again.

The compact campus on the outskirts of this dusty city, with its palm trees and glass buildings, could not seem farther from Hanover, N.H. But inside its classrooms, the approach to learning is similar.

The largely Western-educated faculty members do not expect their students to memorize lectures, as is common in Middle Eastern universities. Instead, Dartmouth has helped the American University of Kuwait set up the kind of curriculum and structure that, Mr. Eickelman says, encourage students to learn how to form their own opinions.

The university emphasizes a broad liberal education. After the Private Universities Council concluded that Kuwait had no need for anthropologists, Dartmouth worked with university officials to successfully argue that degrees in anthropology and sociology would prepare students for a wide variety of careers.

Dartmouth’s agreement with the American University of Kuwait, which extends until at least 2013, is intentionally vague, says Laurel R. Stavis, executive director of the Dartmouth College-American University of Kuwait Project. There is no pro forma checklist of things the two institutions must do for each other.

Instead the relationship is an “organic” one that changes to meet the Kuwaiti university’s needs as it matures, Ms. Stavis says.

Administrators and faculty members from the American University of Kuwait are able to turn to a group of Dartmouth consultants, selected by Ms. Stavis and Mr. Eickelman, for advice on issues like governance, faculty recruiting, and communications.

Students from both universities have begun traveling back and forth. This summer an American University of Kuwait faculty member will be awarded a fellowship to spend a month conducting research in Hanover.

Ms. Stavis is also helping develop a dual-degree program that would enable Kuwaiti students interested in engineering degrees, which are not offered by the American University of Kuwait, to complete their studies in New Hampshire, earning a Dartmouth degree.

The Kuwaiti university covers all of Dartmouth’s expenses, but it is hardly a money-making opportunity for the college, Mr. Eickelman says.

“The amount of money is a joke. Let’s just say it’s tremendously little for the work that is being done,” he says, declining to say exactly how much money Dartmouth has brought in.

Building Up the Sciences

Joel Glassman, associate provost and director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, says his university is more interested in helping to build indigenous institutions overseas than in cloning the home campus and transplanting it to the other side of the world.

“It’s not so mysterious,” says Mr. Glassman, who heads up Missouri’s work with the Gulf University for Science and Technology. “They’re asking for our advice. Academics are not shy people. There is nothing we love more than being asked for advice.”

Administrators and faculty members from St. Louis have helped the Kuwaiti university develop academic programs and curriculum, recruit faculty and staff members, and build the university’s administrative organization.

The Gulf University for Science and Technology, which opened in 2002 and enrolls about 2,600 students, modeled its programs after those offered in Missouri. Students can earn undergraduate degrees in computer science, English, business, and mass communications, and a master’s in business administration.

Like the American University of Kuwait, it requires all undergraduates to take a set of general-education courses.

The university has ambitious plans to spend $100-million to expand its campus to house a full-fledged engineering college.

This is Missouri’s second such partnership in the Persian Gulf. It has advised the Modern College of Business and Science, in Muscat, Oman, since it opened in the early 1990s.

Now Missouri is helping the science-and-technology university as it seeks accreditation from AACSB International: the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

Robert Cook, vice president for academic affairs at the university in Kuwait, is in the process of hiring 38 faculty members.

He says the relationship with the Missouri campus has given the university’s recruitment efforts a boost. Attracting quality faculty members is often the biggest challenge new universities face in the region.

“For potential faculty members who have never been to the Middle East before, Kuwait can seem an intimidating place,” says Mr. Cook. “So we did all the interviews for American candidates on the St. Louis campus, and a University of Missouri-St. Louis faculty member in the same field sat in on the interviews.”

That assured candidates that the Gulf University for Science and Technology is a serious institution, strongly linked to a serious U.S. university, Mr. Cook says.

The Kuwaiti university has not yet built much of a regional reputation, but here in Kuwait its skills-based programs are highly regarded.

Mr. Cook boasts that 80 percent of its graduates are employed within six months of graduation. Unlike most public-university graduates, who are automatically given government jobs, graduates of the Gulf University for Science and Technology typically find work in the private sector, where employers demand the best candidates, he says.

Gaining Credibility

Back at the university fair, the American University of the Middle East’s recruiters have done their job: The university’s booth is surrounded by teenagers filling out applications for next fall.

The campus is still in its first year of operation. About 100 students are enrolled in three degree programs — business, design, and information technology — which operate out of a single building at the edge of a windswept stretch of land.

Purdue has agreed to help the Kuwaiti university design and build “some very Purdue-like programs that will, over time, morph into the kind of programs they need in Kuwait,” says Andrew Gillespie, Purdue’s associate dean of international programs.

Kuwait’s private universities face a clear challenge as they continue to expand. The best Kuwaiti students still prefer to study abroad. And two out of every five students — 20,000 of them — take advantage of generous overseas government scholarships every year.

Mr. Al-Jaber, the Kuwaiti student, says that his first choice is to study abroad and his second choice is to study at the American University of Kuwait. But, he adds, the American University of the Middle East is not a bad third choice.

While that suggests that many Kuwaiti students still don’t have confidence in the quality of their own higher-education system, Mr. Alatiqi, of the Private Universities Council, prefers to see the students as an untapped market.

“So you can see why we’re so concerned about building quality universities,” says Mr. Alatiqi, snapping his fingers. “We can pick up 20,000 more students just like that.”

Posted in academia, Americans, Arab world, education | 2 Comments »

Americans abroad – but not often

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 21, 2009

One of the many A’s I know in the Arab world, Andrew Mills, has written a very interesting article on the findings of a recent IIE report on the extremely low number of American college students who study abroad in the Arab world for a semester or year.

I’m pasting A’s article in its entirety, as well as its link to the report (one caveat: the report is a fairly bulky pdf), because I think we do need to encourage more students to study in the Arab world and the Middle East more broadly, and we need to encourage universities to work with their counterparts in the region to develop meaningful study-abroad programs. Americans abroad can be wonderful bridges: if each student talks about his or her experiences abroad to 50 American friends and family, and talks about his or her American life to 50 people in his or her study abroad country, and each of those people talks to one other person about what they learned from the study-abroad student, that’s 200 people with a new appreciation for a foreign country, culture, and way of life.

I’ll climb off my soapbox and give you the article now – enjoy!

Report Highlights Challenges of Expanding Study-Abroad Opportunities in the Middle East

Enrollment in Middle East studies and Arabic-language programs on American college campuses continues to rise, yet the number of American students who spend time studying in the Middle East remains low, according to a white paper issued this week by the Institute of International Education.

The report, “Expanding U.S. Study Abroad in the Arab World: Challenges and Opportunities,” grew out of a workshop held last year for representatives of American and Middle Eastern universities that looked at ways to expand study-abroad opportunities in the Arab world.

Participants attributed the small presence of American students at Arab institutions to several key factors. They include deep concerns among American students over safety in the Middle East, questions among American administrators over the academic quality of many Arab institutions, and the challenges inherent in Arabic-language instruction.

Of the American students who enroll in for-credit study-abroad programs, only one percent of them—just 2,200 students—study at institutions based in the Arab world, the report notes. What’s more, 80 per cent of those students are concentrated in three countries: Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco.

The report says that most American colleges grant credit for relatively few study-abroad programs in the Middle East, usually only for those they manage or those that are closely affiliated with other American institutions.

The workshop, organized by the institute and the Hollings Center for International Dialogue, convened at Al Akhawayn University, in Ifrane, Morocco, last March. Representatives came from 19 universities in 11 Arab countries. There were also 14 representatives from American colleges and organizations that develop study-abroad programs.

In addition to looking at the causes of low enrollments, participants also tried to come up with some ways to encourage the growth in study-abroad programs in the Arab world. Among other things, they encouraged the development of a consortia of Arab-world institutions to share resources and advice, and to better market themselves to an American audience.

Although the quality of programs offered varies widely across institutions in the Middle East, the report concludes that American college administrators often have unrealistic expectations that a quality study-abroad program will exactly match American curricula. The academic culture at Arab institutions may be quite different—placing an emphasis on memorization over critical thinking—yet to reject partnerships because of that, the report states, defeats the larger goals of study abroad, such as exposing students to a different way of life.

Fears About Safety
But by far, the biggest barriers to the expansions of study-abroad programs, the report notes, relates to their safety and security in a region where attacks on Westerners—no matter how statistically infrequent—remain a huge concern.

American educators’ perceptions of the situation often vary significantly from those of their Arab counterparts, the report says.

For example, all of the American participants in the workshop said that students’ and parents’ concerns about safety in Arab countries “hindered their institutions from sending more students to the region, and nearly three-quarters of these participants identified this issue as a ‘great challenge.’”

But more than half of the participants from the Arab world said that ensuring the safety of more Americans would “not be a challenge at all.”

In fact, the preconceived ideas that many American students have about Middle Eastern culture—not to mention their cultural missteps—remain a huge challenge when Arab universities attempt to integrate them into the classroom.

“Students should not expect that survival strategies that they have employed in other challenging situations will necessarily work well for them to adjust to life in the Arab world,” the report says.

Students who travel to the Middle East seeking Arabic-language instruction also face great difficulty tackling the language itself, which is extremely complex and has many dialects. Vastly different dialects are used in formal situations as compared to casual conversation, and dialects change drastically from country to country. American students who may have spent years studying Modern Standard Arabic at their home campuses often find much of what they have learned is useless when they arrive in the Arab World, the report says.

“Drawing on these considerations, workshop participants emphasized the need for students and their sending institutions to make strategic choices about Arabic study in the region,” the report says.

Posted in academia, Americans, Arab world, college | 3 Comments »

I graduated too soon

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 20, 2009

The Columbia University Middle East Research Center opens Sunday in Amman.

Doesn’t it look beautiful?


Posted in academia, Amman, Arab world | 2 Comments »

unsafe at any speed: a US driving simulator at AUB

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 17, 2009

In May 2005, two days before the elections, M and I went from Damascus to Beirut for a weekend getaway. A was having a joint birthday party in Beirut that Saturday night, and we thought that an excursion “abroad” would be a fun change from our usual Damascene weekend pursuits.

We had a hoot of a time – not only at the party, but in general. And we caused most of our own hilarity – particularly during the share-taxi rides to and from Beirut.

Oh, look at that beautiful mosque, I said as we passed one especially lovely mountain town heading from Masnaa toward Beirut.

Oh yes, M said, frowning and then nodding sagely. She had spent the previous three years in Damascus, so her sense of sectarian architecture was much finer than mine. That’s a beautiful Christian mosque, diamond.

As our return taxi wheezed its banana-boat way up towards Aley, M told me an “urban legend” story that she had heard from equally science-minded friends.

Someone at the American University of Beirut got a grant, she said, to study traffic patterns in Beirut and to suggest ways to improve congestion. (The conversation was sparked, of course, by the many mini-traffic jams we encountered on our way toward the border.) He or she also got access to an incredible new software program, designed to model traffic patterns and analyze them – a program that U.S. municipalities use when trying to improve their own traffic issues.

What did the program say about Beirut? I asked, in between bouts of car sickness induced by our stop-and-go drive.

Well, M said, the team plugged in all the numbers: the maps of the city’s streets, the number of cars on the road, the traffic signals, the parking lots – all the data they would input for any city. And when they ran the software program, the program said: impossible. This many cars cannot possible operate on the streets of Beirut.

What do you mean? I asked. M is the scientist, not me.

The program insisted that there was an error in the data, M explained. It wouldn’t analyze Beirut’s traffic, because it insisted that the number of cars that drive the city each day is impossibly high.

And, by American standards, I am sure that the software program was right. It probably assumed things like lanes, parking spots, and obedience to traffic signals – all of which would no doubt decrease the number of cars that could feasibly fit on Beirut’s streets. But this is reality – and it does work.

I thought of M’s story yesterday, when I came across this press release, about another new AUB research project:

The Transport Research Unit (TRU) within the Department of Civil Engineering of the American University of Beirut (AUB) has just received the region’s most advanced automobile driving simulator, DriveSafety’s DS-600. It will allow researchers to investigate a wide range of topics spanning the domains of traffic engineering, road safety, as well as driver behavior and cognition.

“This is a significant new addition to the Department of Civil Engineering’s research infrastructure,” Salah Sadek, department chairman noted as he observed the final tests being conducted on the simulator. “This simulator will enable the relationship between the driver and the vehicle to be thoroughly investigated, and opens up the possibility for investigating a wide range of research topics as well as providing opportunities for numerous inter-departmental final year projects.”

(You can read the rest of the DriveSafety press release here.)

I’m sure that the simulator will be a great help in the University’s research projects – but I’m not sure that those research projects will have any applicability in Lebanon. I’m guessing that the “DriveSafety” simulator simulates American driving experiences, not Lebanese ones – and probably leaves out some of those, like the joys of encountering black ice on a “rural route” in Iowa, or running into a felled tree on the highway between Seattle and Portland.

How will the civil engineers of AUB compensate for the simulator’s tendency to insist on lane discipline?

How will they compensate for the simulator’s insistence that one should not drive on the shoulder of a mountain road?

How will they account for the driver’s desire to put on his/her hazard lights in foggy weather?

I’d love to be a fly on the wall during the first simulations, and I would love to see how the DriveSafety employees like their experiences on the roads of real-life Beirut!

Posted in academia, advertising, Americans, Arab world, Beirut, Canadians, church, education, Lebanon, research | 4 Comments »

mollusk silk: more from Bsous

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 12, 2009

Since it is the season of love, indulge me as I return to one of my Lebanese loves: the Bsous Silk Museum. I’m not actually a great silk wearer, but the history of silk production in Lebanon is one of my favorite stories.

Any thanks to a casual remark from one of my former professors, I am now curious about the name of the town itself. I understand that “Bsous” comes originally from a Syriac word, and wonder whether it might be linked to the word “byssus”, which appears in the Old Testament – in Exodus, where it is often translated as “linen” or “wool” or even “yarn”. Byssus is the term for the silk-like threads that some types of mollusks (shelled creatures in the mussel and clam family) secrete to anchor themselves to the sea-floor. (Think this sounds gross? Schedule a visit to the Bsous Silk Museum and ask to meet the silkworms.)

Merriam-Webster tells me that “byssus” comes from Middle English bissus, from Latin byssus, from Greek byssos flax, of Semitic origin; akin to Hebrew būṣ linen cloth. And apparently byssus silk and worm silk were seen as much the same – both somewhat nubbier and more linen-like than the silk we use today, thanks to the difference in hand-spun and machine-spun threads.

You can probably figure out my question. Do any of you know whether “Bsous” the town derives from the same word as “byssus”, and whether there was any ancient connection between its land-based silk-making and sea silk? Bsous isn’t a coastal town, so I’m guessing that the term “byssus”/Bsous was used by analogy, but I’m curious whether it was applied first to silk worms and then to silk clams, or vice versa.

Posted in academia, animals, Arab world, Beirut, bugs, clothing, education, Lebanon, research, sea | 1 Comment »

Open Doors: studying abroad and students from abroad

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 8, 2009

Yesterday evening I had a nice chat with a college friend who has also spent time in the Middle East – well, in Kuwait at least. We talked about the changes that Kuwait in particular, and the region in general, has undergone in the eight years since he was last there.

What we really need, he said, is to send more American students there, and to keep bringing more Middle Eastern students here. Of course, the latter is easier said than done, thanks to our onerous visa process. But it is illuminating to see how many American students do study abroad in the region, and where they go – as well as how many come here.

Conveniently enough, a report was recently released giving the latest statistics: Open Doors, an annual report that tracks trends in university study abroad programs, and on international students and scholars coming to the United States.

According to its statistics on the Middle East, 11% more students from the region came to the US for the 2007-08 academic year – a total of 24,755. The number from North Africa increased 4%, to 3,858. 28,613 students from the region isn’t bad – but compared to the roughly 300 million people who live in the Arab world, its a small amount.

The biggest sending countries are Saudi Arabia (9,873), Iran (3,060) [go figure!], Israel (3,004), Jordan (1,799), Kuwait (1,823), Lebanon (1,807), Egypt (1,766), and Morocco (1,132). Saudi Arabia and Iran are much larger countries, population-wise, so its not surprising that they send proportionately more students. (Well, it wouldn’t be surprising if we didn’t have sanctions against Iran. I’m curious to know more about the Iranian students, most of whom appear to be graduate students.)

If you thought the 28,613 MENA students was a small number, guess how many Americans studied abroad in the region last year?

2,764 in the Middle East (an increase of 7%) and 1,658 in North Africa (an increase of 14%).

The biggest destination countries: Israel (2,226) and Egypt (1,100).

In other words, of the 4,222 American students who studied abroad in the Middle East and North Africa most recently, 52.7% of them went to Israel.

Food for thought. In the meantime, I’m off to learn more about white phosphorus.

Posted in academia, Americans, Arab world, education, Israel, travel | 2 Comments »

holidays, Lebanese style

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 3, 2008

This week has been filled with holidays: with Rosh Hashanah, for Jews; and with Eid al-Fitr, for Muslims. Both religions follow a lunar calendar, which means that their holidays do not always align – but I love it whenever they do.

I also love that these holidays are increasingly recognized in the United States, both by schools and businesses. Jewish and Muslim students and workers are more able today to request time off from work or school without prejudice than they were fifteen or twenty years ago. And in some communities, particularly those with long-standing multi-faith populations, these holidays may be publicly commemorated: with a menorah in a town square, for Hanukkah; or a mayoral iftar, for Ramadan.

I love these changes, but I also want more. And holidays are an area in which I think we could learn something from Lebanon.

Here is one list of all Lebanon’s 2008 public holidays:

1 Jan New Year’s Day.
6 Jan Orthodox Armenian Christmas.
10 Jan Islamic New Year.
19 Jan Ashoura.
9 Feb Feast of St Maroun.
20 Mar Mawlid al-Nabi (Prophet’s Birthday).
21 Mar Good Friday.
23 Mar Easter Sunday.
25 Apr Orthodox Good Friday.
Apr Orthodox Easter.
1 May Labor Day.
6 May Martyrs’ Day.
13 May Resistance and Liberation Day.
15 Aug Assumption of the Virgin.
2 Oct Eid al-Fitr (End of Ramadan).
1 Nov All Saints’ Day.
22 Nov Independence Day.
9 Dec Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice).
25 Dec Christmas Day.
29 Dec Islamic New Year.

There are a lot of holidays in Lebanon, you might be thinking. And you are right – but they aren’t all celebrated in the same way. There are two categories of holidays: holidays that apply to everyone, and holidays that apply to people of a particular religious background.

Let me address this second category first. These “members-only” observances are used for the holidays of Lebanon’s minority communities. For example, the entire country does not celebrate Armenian Christmas. But Armenians are expected to be given the day off, with no negative repercussions from teachers or employers.

This is somewhat like what I see happening with Jews and Muslims in the US (or Hindus who want to celebrate Diwali), although with two key differences. First, it is not mandated by the national or state government; and second, it is not universal. In Lebanon, my understanding (which may be wrong – so please correct me if so!) is that employers are required to give members of the celebrating faith the day off, and the government can take legal action against them if they do not. This aspect of holiday’ing makes me a bit uncomfortable – as a product of the separation of church (or synagogue, or mosque) and state, I dislike the idea that people should be automatically defined by their religious affiliation.

Also, in the case of the particular example I gave above, it can get a bit confusing. All Armenians do not celebrate Christmas on January 6 – there are different denominations within the Armenian community. Yet all Armenians are, at least officially, granted the day off. (I would argue that this is one of many indications of Lebanon’s Ottoman heritage. In the Ottoman Empire, “Armenian” was a catch-all millet category that mashed together religious identity and ethnicity – just like “Greek” did. Hence “Armenians” included all ethnic Armenians, who are both Orthodox and Eastern Catholic, and Maronites.)

So: I am not advocating the Lebanese system of insisting that people of a particular religion must celebrate its holidays – after all, we as a country are officially religion-blind.

But I am interested in thinking seriously about the first category of holidays: those that everyone celebrates, at least in the sense of having the day off from work or school. In Lebanon, as here in the US, everyone celebrates national days, like Independence Day and Labor Day.

And in Lebanon, as in the US, everyone celebrates certain religious holidays, like Christmas and New Year’s Day. In the US, these holidays follow the Western Christian calendar. But in Lebanon, they follow the Western and Eastern Christian calendars, and they include the Muslim calendars as well. So everyone celebrates Orthodox Easter as well as Western Easter; and everyone celebrates Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, and the Prophet’s birthday.

The exact list of holidays seems to shift from year to year – in 2009, for example, Armenian Christmas does appear to be an official holiday. And for the past two years, the Lebanese government has been considering removing Good Friday from the holiday list – inspiring copious amounts of over-heated rhetoric as well as public protests.

I’m not advocating that we adopt the Lebanese system. As nice as 16 holidays might be, what we need to focus on now is increasing our national productivity, not reducing it.

But I think that as we mature into a country that that not only recognizes but embraces the multiple faiths that our citizens follow, we ought also to spend some time thinking seriously about our national holidays.

Erecting a public menorah and holding a city-wide iftar are important symbols. But adding a day to commemorate Yom Kippur or celebrate Eid al-Adha might be gestures of greater substance.

Posted in academia, advertising, Americans, Arab world, Arabic, Beirut, church, citizenship, family, holidays, Iowa, Lebanon, mosque, neighbors, religion, unity, words | 1 Comment »

a tale of two universities

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 12, 2008

The two major American universities in Beirut have issued their take on the current situation here (which is still a mess – despite a major workout this morning, I am still fully grumpy about the utter vacuum of leadership in this country and its wretched consequences). Each has posted its statement on its website and, so I understand, has sent the same information to faculty, students, and staff by email.

Here is what LAU has to say about the situation:

Dearest LAU family: Faculty, Students, and Staff,

We are writing to greet you. We hope that you and your families are all safe. Your safety is uppermost on our mind. As we promised, we are writing to update you on new LAU developments. This morning, the President, Vice Presidents, and Deans, met to assess the current situation in the country and its impact on LAU. In light of that assessment, the following decisions were made:

1. Faculty and Staff. For tomorrow, May 13, the University, with both of its campuses in Beirut and in Byblos, will be open. We ask our faculty and staff to use their judgment before coming to work, taking into consideration road conditions and their personal safety. If in your judgment, you feel that you can’t come to work for safety considerations, please don’t do so.

2. Faculty and Students. There will be no classes for tomorrow, May 13, 2008.

With respect to this matter, we would like to re-assure our students and their parents, that the University will make sure that our students will complete the semester, so that those students who will fulfill the requirements for graduation can graduate on time, and the others can complete successfully the semester’s coursework and move on to the next year in their advancement toward graduation. We are in the process of planning a make-up schedule for all classes lost and we will inform our students accordingly and in due time.

We will be meeting on a daily basis and will keep you informed of new developments. Please be safe with your families and loved ones. We hope and pray that the political and security situation will begin to stabilize and the Lebanese leaders will come to a consensus and settle their differences soon, so that we all can resume our normal lives.

With our best wishes,

Joseph G. Jabbra

Its a personal communication from the university president, using terms of affection and placing human lives as the university’s top priority.

Here is what AUB, the country and perhaps the region’s most venerable university, has to say:

The American University of Beirut will resume classes as soon as conditions permit. The University will, as of that point, make arrangements to complete the second semester and help students make up for missed work. Medical students are expected to attend to their duties throughout.

Regular full-time employees and workers at AUB are expected to attend to their duties as normally scheduled. As on previous similar occasions, any day of absence will be charged towards days of regular vacation to be deducted from the employee’s earned annual leave.

AUB’s statement is an impersonal communication that puts the university’s (and its affiliated hospital’s) staff needs first.

I haven’t been overly impressed with graduates of either university, but if I had been one of them, I would be much prouder at this moment to have LAU as my alma mater.

Posted in academia, Beirut, holidays, Iowa, Lebanon, neighbors, words | Leave a Comment »

weed(s) of the Bekaa

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 23, 2008

During a recent Ebay stint, I came across a laugh-out-loud book title: Winnie Edgecombe’s 1959 Some Major Weeds of the North Bekaa.


Edgecombe (and her husband Samuel) were professors of agriculture at AUB, whose university press published her book.

I couldn’t help myself – I laughed out loud when I saw Edgecombe’s book title. The Bekaa is indeed full of weeds – or, rather, of weed. It has an apparently well-earned reputation for growing vast quantities of high-quality marijuana.

But anyone hoping to pick up growing tips from this book will be sorely disappointed. I mentioned the book to an acquaintance who has worked with AUB for years. Before I finished telling her the title, she began to laugh.

Oh, that book, she said. Of course I know it. I think its the most boring book that the university has ever published.

So there you have it. Would-be weed growers, steer clear of this book!

Posted in academia, books, Lebanon | 1 Comment »