Commemorating the World War I centennial, an exhibit of select documents from the archives of the AUB University Libraries, retraced the University’s fascinating trajectory during that era, bearing witness to the increasingly influential role that the then-Syrian Protestant College (which was later renamed to AUB), was destined to play in the region.
The exhibit, which was curated by Samar Mikati Kaissi, AUB archives librarian and Kaoukab Chebaro, head of archives and special collections and assistant professor of philosophy, also spotlighted the practicality and flexibility of the college administrators, the vision and steadfastness of the faculty and student body, and the grassroots engagement of SPC with the community.
“We are still experiencing the repercussions of the Great War, the war to end all wars, and the legacy of colonialism that created the tensions in our region of the world,” said AUB President Peter Dorman, during the opening ceremony of the ‘”SPC & WWI 1914-1918” exhibit on December 8, 2014 at West Hall’s Common Room. “Following the war the SPC was no more a college but a university, AUB, not only for Syria and Syrians but for the region as a whole.”
The chronological exhibit starts with 1913 describing the scene as a quiet place and a booming college, with 1914 showing mounting tensions but still the relative freedom to carry out relief work and dabble in extra-curricular activities. 1915 witnesses full entry into war with locusts, famine, blockade and disease, which results in the turmoil of 1916. The next year sees a temporary closure and change of curriculum of the college and the onset of medical diplomacy, with the SPC pulling through with the end of the war in 1918.
“This is an incredible collection,” said Lokman Meho, AUB university librarian speaking about the showcased photos, letters, reports, diaries and documents. “It is only a small subset of what we have and want to make accessible to all students and researchers.”
The original idea for the exhibit came from Mikati, who, together with Chebaro and a dedicated team of individuals worked tirelessly for over a year to bring the exhibit to life.
“The events of WWI are deeply etched in the psyche of the people with one third of the Lebanese population dying from war, famine and disease,” said Chebaro. “The exhibit tells the story of the SPC in WWI and is a shining example of the resilience of individuals in trying times and a testament to the roles they played in those harsh moments.”
Dorman recalled stories as told by his Aunt Belle during the WWI famine. His aunt would tell him of the “orange circles” on walls in Beirut, which were actually the traces of oranges rubbed to simply peel off the bitter outer skin after which they were wholly eaten, including the seeds, to ward off hunger.Another story included his father being invited on a treasure hunt where an actual buried treasure, in the form of Ottoman gold coins in a metal strongbox, was unearthed, buried by his grandfather in case they had to make an emergency getaway.
For Chebaro, the most memorable photos include a pair of mismatched shoes worn by a lady, at a time when owning a matched pair of shoes was a luxury; and the other was a picture of Jamal Pacha giving orders in the field with a little girl standing beside him looking totally out of place, “as do all innocent children in any form of war setting.”
“History remains the best teacher with many lessons learned from those hard times, including the importance of being deeply rooted in one’s own community,” said Chebaro.After the end of WWI, the administration had put forth to the Board of Trustees its proposal to change the name of the Syrian Protestant College to the American University of Beirut. The War had given further credence to the College's plan to move further in the direction of a secular liberal arts college, to emphasize the virtues of social and public commitment as essential elements of a liberal arts education, to expand its programs to a full-fledged university, and to incorporate service to the community along with strong academics and stellar professional schools in its plans and vision.
On November 18, 1920, the College officially changed its name to the "American University of Beirut".
The exhibit ran until December 11 in West Hall and is permanently hosted online at http://www.aub.edu.lb/ulibraries/asc/online-exhibits/exhibits/show/wwi.