Tribute to Antoun Ghattas Karam: Elegance of word and gesture

​​​​​Safa Jafari Safa, ss152@aub.edu.lb, Office of Communications

In honor of Dr. Antoun Ghattas Karam, 100 years after his birth and 40 years since his passing, the Department of Arabic and Near Eastern Languages at AUB held the Antoun Ghattas Karam Symposium. Former students, colleagues, friends, and family of the honored educator and prominent literary figure gathered in a tribute of gratitude, inspiration, and high reverence of his legacy.

Born on April 12, 1919, Karam graduated from AUB with a bachelor’s degree (1945) and a master’s degree (1947) in teaching of Arabic. After receiving a PhD degree from Sorbonne, Paris, he returned to Lebanon to become the first dean of the Faculty of Arts and Literature of the Lebanese University from 1960 to 1963. He served as visiting professor at Columbia University from 1967 to 1968, and decided to return once again to AUB in 1971 to serve as chairman of the Arabic Department until 1974, where he was also professor of Arabic literature and of Islamic thought.

Karam has several publications and translations, such as The Prophet by Gibran Khalil Gibran. He established the Friends of the Book Association in Lebanon and won the Republic of Lebanon Literature Award in 1974. He was later granted the title of Officer of the Lebanese Order of the Cedar. After his passing in Beirut in 1979, his life has been commemorated through the inauguration of a public library in Jezzine and the establishment of the Antoun Ghattas Karam E-Classroom at AUB’s Jafet Library.

“The Department of Arabic and Near Eastern Languages has always taken pride in its history and legacy,” said Dr. Bilal Orfali, chairperson of Arabic Department. “To speak of Dr. Karam is to speak of a golden era in the history of the department and the university. Many giants have passed the gates of this department, since the days of Sheikh Nassif Al Yaziji when the university was founded in 1866. The luminary we celebrate today belongs to this generation of giants. It was only our duty to eternally honor and celebrate his contribution.”

The symposium presented video testimonials by Professor Karam’s former students, Dr. Rita Awad, Dr. As’ad E. Khairallah, Dr. Tarek Mitri, Marwan Najjar, Dr. Ameen Albert Rihani, and Dr. Nazek Saba Yared. They spoke about the inspiration he ignited and the impact he made in their intellectual, academic, and career paths.

“He was the critic that never rested. He was also elegance and sensitivity, precision and sensitivity together. He was very harsh in his verdict but very polite in expressing it,” said Marwan Najjar, who was an undergraduate student of Karam. “In his teaching, his life and his death, he was extremely polite. Even before he passed away, he went in a coma for a few days, as if asking us for leave to go. He was polite even in his death.”

“I can never forget his scientific exactitude, his fine sensitivity, his broad culture and his high morals,” said Dr. Rita Awad who knew Karam as a doctoral student in the Arabic department. “I also will not forget the elegance of his looks and of his speech. He was a mystic in his passion for what he taught.  His audience felt that he put his soul in his lectures … He was often in tears as he described the splendor of Islamic art that he saw in Najaf; his voice quivered in emotion as he read verses by As-Sayyab, Hawi, Abu Nouwwas and al-Mutanabbi. No wonder that his tender heart stopped because he saw the civil war splinter the Lebanon that he loved to death.”

Presentations followed by professors from the Department of Arabic and Near Eastern Languages. Dr. Zeina Halabi spoke about Karam’s influence on modern Arabic literature; Dr. Nadim Naimy about his influence on creative writing; and Jewett Chair Professor Ramzi Baalbaki about his leading role at AUB. Communication expert Ramsay Najjar also spoke about Karam’s leading role and impact within the region.

“Antoun Ghattas Karam is a key figure of AUB’s Arabic language department and a distinguished professor in Arabic literature, highly revered by everyone who knew him,” said AUB President Fadlo Khuri who spoke about Karam’s legacy and rich contributions to Arabic literature. “He has left a big void behind him in the lives of his family, his AUB family, and his many disciples. We, at AUB, pledge to perpetuate his memory for as long as we shall live.”

“Every day, I learned something from my father, something to enrich the mind, the heart, and the soul,” said Dr. Shadi Karam who spoke about his memories of the “tsunami of knowledge, wisdom, and culture” of professor Karam, who “memorized tens of thousands of verses in four languages,” and “found the most improbable connections between German romanticists; French, English, Italian authors and playwrights; Greek and Latin classics; and modern thinkers and avant-garde essays.”

“Thank you President Fadlo Khuri and AUB for helping us so effectively in preserving Antoun Ghattas Karam’s legacy throughout all these years … Thank you all for having taken the time to share with us these precious moments … Antoun Ghattas Karam was so present in this hall today through your words.” ​