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American Sheikhs
Review by Curtis Jones

American Sheikhs: Two Families, Four Generations, and the Story of America’s Influence in the Middle East, By Brian VanDeMark, Prometheus Books: New York, ISBN- 978-1616144760, 2012, pp. 252, $25.00

In 1866 American missionaries founded the Syrian Protestant College—later renamed the American University of Beirut (AUB). It has long been the most influential institution of higher education in the Middle East, and a lonely symbol of America’s secularism and objectivity in a region that has suffered from a grave deficit of these perspectives.

From 1866 to 1984, the institution was steadfastly led by a dedicated family chain of American educators: Founder Daniel Bliss, his son Howard, Howard’s son-in-law Bayard Dodge, Bayard’s son David, and family friend Malcolm Kerr. Until 1945, AUB’s leaders had considerable success in insulating their school from the turmoil that was bound to well up in a region condemned to make the excruciating transit from the indigenous imperialism of the Ottomans and the Safavids, to the alien imperialism of England, France, and Russia, to the alien imperialism of the United States and Israel, to the tortured emergence of an autonomous Middle East.

Perhaps the stewards of AUB could have continued to isolate their invaluable center of learning from politics, if not for Washington’s decision to inflict America’s self-serving compulsions onto the region. The avatar of Americanism, beneficiary of Washington’s prewar policy of benign inattention, could not avoid the battering generated from the postwar policy of blatant intrusion—as in Palestine, Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq.

The cogency and readability of American Sheikhs are enhanced by the author’s description of the lives and personalities of the protagonists—of Daniel Bliss’s modest origins, his education in the devout confines of Amherst College of the mid-1800’s, his ordination as a Congregationalist minister by Andover Theological Seminary, and his good fortune in finding a wife well-suited to dealing with the challenges of those formative years in Lebanon.

Arriving in 1856 as a missionary—a champion of conversion to his own faith—Daniel Bliss had the adaptability and insight to come to recognize that most Middle Easterners were bonded to their own traditional affiliations—Muslims most rigidly of all. The guidance they desperately needed was not spiritual but intellectual. So Bliss became an educator, and AUB an enlightened, nonpartisan purveyor of modern learning.

This realization took decades—punctuated by Bliss’s initial study of Levantine customs, and of the exotic pronunciation and syntax of Arabic; by a bloody sectarian conflict in 1860; and by the inchoate conversion of Lebanon into a special enclave—supervised nominally by the Ottoman Sultan but “protected” by squabbling European powers (France, England, and Russia).

Lebanon’s unique new status afforded Bliss an opportunity to establish the first American college in the Arab world. (In Istanbul, Robert College was chartered by the Board of Regents of the State of New York in 1864.)

Bliss went back to the States, enlisted donors—notably a wealthy industrialist, William E. Dodge—during the height of the Civil War, won a charter from the New York state legislature on May 4, 1864, and was elected by the SPC’s Board as the school’s first president.

On his way back to Lebanon, Bliss obtained substantial donations from leading British humanitarians, headed by Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. On December 3, 1866, the Syrian Protestant College opened its doors to 16 students in a rented four-room house. Three years later, Bliss moved the campus to seventeen acres of cactus-covered headland overlooking St. George’s Bay—a site which was to become a spectacular 800-acre phenomenon among college campuses. The Chief Qadi of Beirut was persuaded to recognize SPC as a charitable foundation (waqf), which status has always exempted it from property taxes and import duties.

By 1883, instruction had been switched from Arabic to English in every department of SPC, including medicine. During this period, evangelical and secularist factions among the faculty fell into a sharp dispute, which shook the college to its philosophical foundations, but by the 1890’s the secular trend had prevailed, student enrollment from all Middle Eastern sects had boomed, and the governments of the Middle East were being studded with graduates of an institution elevated in the early 1900’s to the level of a university—which came to be known as the American University of Beirut.

In the new century, the endemic political stresses in the region intensified to the grave detriment of an institution that had long been an oasis of tranquility. VanDeMark credits industrialist Cleveland Dodge, descendent of William Dodge, father of future AUB president Bayard Dodge, with a central role in isolating American institutions in the Ottoman Empire from the strains of World War I by helping to convince his friend Woodrow Wilson not to declare war on the Ottomans. Howard Bliss managed to keep AUB open throughout the war. VanDeMark cites a statement by Saudi Prince Faysal praising Bliss for building an institution that had signally advanced the Arab struggle for freedom. Exhausted by the demands of wartime diplomacy, disillusioned by the Anglo-French perversion of the peace conference—in which he had futilely participated—Bliss died in 1920.

In 1910, Bayard Dodge went as a tourist to Beirut, where he met his future career, AUB, and his future wife, Mary, daughter of Howard Bliss. Named AUB’s director of student activities in 1913, he became AUB’s third president in 1923. One of his many noteworthy contributions was creating an academic atmosphere in which Arabs and Jews could profit from peaceful cooperation. Another was the admission of women. During World War II, AUB recruited Jewish refugees from Germany. Its hospital treated patients from all sides—as it has throughout its history.

Bayard’s disapproval of Zionism, summarized in the Reader’s Digest in 1948, at the height of the first round in the Arab-Israeli conflict, receives mildly apologetic treatment from VanDeMark, whose generally competent summary of the political-military background to his story contains an assessment of relative troop strength in 1948 (“numerically superior Arab armies”, page 128) which contradicts Ilan Pappe’s account in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (pages 44-45).

The Arab-Israeli conflict put an end to Arab-Jewish togetherness at AUB. By 1958, there were no more Jewish students. A Palestinian medical student, George Habash, went on to found a major resistance organization, The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The debacle of the June war of 1967 embittered Arab opinion of all things Israeli and American, including AUB, and roiled regional politics. AUB survived the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90 and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982—when David Dodge, son of Bayard, became acting president.

By this time, Lebanon was bitterly divided between pro-Western forces like the Maronite Christian Phalange, and anti-Western forces headed by Hizballah, a Shiite force founded and backed by the anti-American regime in Iran. Of the Americans abducted by Hizballah, some were killed, and some spared for hostage exchanges—no thanks to Washington’s dull-witted denunciation of such deals on the sanctimonious grounds that they only encourage the terrorists. This reviewer has yet to hear of a hostage who was willing to sacrifice his life in defense of this grisly doctrine.

David Dodge was the beneficiary of hostage exchange—as reported by VanDeMark on the basis of an interview with Dodge, who had long honored the oath of secrecy exacted by his captors. Seized on July 19, 1982, he was held by Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria and Iran until July 21, 1983. In 1990 the AUB Board of Trustees made him president for one year in recognition of his service to the school.

In 1983, suicide bombers devastated the American Embassy in Beirut (April) and the U.S. Marine headquarters in the port (October), causing heavy casualties. On January 18, 1984, Malcolm Kerr, a longtime friend of AUB who had accepted the post of president in 1982, paid for that courageous decision with his life. Since he had followed the regular routine of a college president, with no “contractors” to guard him, his killers—never apprehended—had an easy job. By the mid-80’s, most of AUB’s foreign students and American faculty had left. The final blows were the obliteration of AUB’s oldest building, College Hall, and the abduction of two American administrators of AUB Hospital. Through all this, Lebanese faculty and staff kept the crippled university operative.

In the political wrap-up of his high quality, well-documented, informative book, VanDeMark defers a bit more than necessary to the cause of Arab-Israeli peace by writing of Arab-Israeli “alliance” against Saddam. “Politics makes strange bedfellows” (Charles Dudley Warner, with apologies to The Tempest), but the coincidence of Israeli and Saudi enmity for Saddam is worlds away from an alliance. Nor were the devious Oslo Accords in any sense “a major step forward”. His criticism of the invasion of Iraq is on the mark.

In the 1990s Washington ceased funding scholarships at AUB. The student body had shrunk to a community that was primarily Lebanese. In 1998, John Waterbury of the Princeton faculty became the first resident president since 1984. He survived a productive tenure for ten years—in the constant company of a security guard on campus and a Lebanese soldier in town.

As Prime Minister of Lebanon for most of the period from 1992 until 2005, Rafiq Hariri funded hundreds of AUB scholarships for students from across the Middle East. His assassination on February 14, 2005, has been widely ascribed to the Asad regime in Syria. The reinvigorated university played a valuable role in the care of wounded and the sheltering of refugees. The book closes with a lucid assessment of the reformist aspirations of the new Arab spring, and the valuable contribution that AUB has made, and is still making, to that cause. In keeping with the remarkable family tradition, AUB’s current president is Dr. Peter Dorman, Amherst graduate, Egyptologist, and great great grandson of the founder, Daniel Bliss.bluestar

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy


AuthorCurt Jones, a member of this journal's Board of Directors, has contributed frequent commentaries to American Diplomacy. He retired from the Foreign Service in 1975 after more than thirty years of service, including assignments to seven posts abroad.
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