June 30, 2007
I am deeply moved and honored by the academic distinction you bestow upon me today. My respect and admiration for the American university system is ancient and it led me, on many occasions, to lecture at American institutions and even to teach in some of them over extended periods. I have always been impressed by the teaching and research facilities, by the quality of the students, and by the independence of spirit shown by such great institutions when confronted with the all too often unfair policies (or absence of policies) of many American administrations in this part of the world. The prestigious research and teaching institution that is the American University in Beirut has itself frequently and liberally welcomed such student dissent. I am likewise happy that this distinction is offered in Beirut, the capital of a country to whom the Arab world owes a great cultural debt as birthplace of the nineteenth-century Arab renaissance, the Nahda. Throughout the last century Beirut was the center of intense intellectual ferment and home to much experimentation in and expression of tolerance and political democracy. Over almost a decade of professional life in the Levant, in a French scientific institution, I always found in Beirut the freedom of thought and expression which are at the heart of academic pursuits and without which one could not survive. The founding purpose of Lebanon as the crucible in which great political ideas are formed and as a place for democratic debate and mutual acceptance of diversity are the reasons why this country is dear to free men. In as much as some reference was graciously made to the work for which I am today honoured, I shall not speak of that work but of two individuals whose impact on my own life and political awareness and on my training as a researcher was immeasurable. They are so closely linked with the American University in Beirut that they have forged quite unexpectedly a form of kinship between the university and me, and bear a testimony of the indirect, but happy influence the AUB exerted on the life and career of the French and francophone researcher I am.
First I would like to mention Albert Hourani, whose Lebanese roots lie not far from here and who taught at the AUB. As a student of Saint Antony's College in Oxford I was privileged to be Albert's first student in 1951 when he returned to England and was appointed to Magdalen College, just following the great post war events in the Near East (the independence of Lebanon and Syria in l944, and the partition of Palestine in 1948). I was then a young scholar, steeped in the politics and history of the Maghreb, and for me the Near East was terra incognita. It was through the clarity and brilliance of Albert's teachings, given only a few years after these events, that I was to receive some of the keys to understanding Lebanon and the Middle East. And it is to his able and generous direction that I owe my training as an historian of the Arab world, and thus the academic research for which you honor me today.
My second debt of gratitude is owed to my friend, Walid al-Khalidi , teacher at the AUB, and to his Lebanese wife, the late Rasha al-Salam, whom I first met in Oxford and who accompanied my life later. It is to Walid that I owe my understanding of the Palestinian drama whose first act had then just been played out as a final manifestation of Western imperialism. I had personally experienced in the case of Tunisia how the Western colonial enterprise was in the same time seemingly robust but ultimately destined to failure. The battle for the independence of Tunisia was soon to be over. The fight for Palestine goes on. I am grateful to Walid al- Khalidi for the part he has played and continues to play in defending the rights of the Palestinian people. His fight is our fight. Thank you for your attention.