American University of Beirut

Ghassan Tueni's Acceptance Speech

​​June 25, 2005

Mr. President, excellencies, ladies and gentlemen:

While receiving this distinction, I cannot hide my great joy and a feeling of fulfillment. My memory takes me back to another "commencement ceremony" - if I may use the analogy - to June 1945, when I received from one of the earliest presidents of AUB, President Bayard Dodge, with his splendid smile and warm handshake, my BA in philosophy and political science. A long, very long stretch of time between a BA and a doctorate, be it honoris causa. 

A day I still recall with reverie. In the front row were my father and mother, who applauded my classmate the young father Hazim, now Patriarch Ignatius IV, more than they applauded me. Yet I was not jealous. Neither Hazim nor myself could understand how our teacher (who taught us Plato, Saint Thomas Aquinas and Emmanuel Kant in a language and manner that put him half-way between professor and prophet) could have converted some of our classmates to Catholicism and not to Orthodoxy. The third member of that last class of Dr. Malik before he was appointed Minister Plenipotentiary to the UN and Washington was Raymond Karam. Raymond much later, assumed the name of Brother Cyril when he founded a monastery near Wellesley, Massachusetts. Such are the bonds of friendship that Patriarch Hazim and myself went to visit him there in the 1990s to attend mass and spend a day of recollections before sickness took him away. Raymond had initiated us both to classical music. I loved Brahms; Hazim preferred Beethoven and Mozart. The three of us tried our luck in Alexis Boutros' Association des Musiciens Amateurs choir performing the Messiah, Elijah, and even Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. I hate to admit that I was disqualified after the first performance, while Hazim and Raymond and the choir survived all the way to the foundation of ALBA, the Acadéie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts.

I made up, however, by sticking to the Acadéieuntil Alexis Boutros called upon a group of us, in 1950, to create the first Faculty of Law, Political Science, and Economics using the Arabic language, while the USJ had a monopoly on teaching law solely in French.

Kamal Joumblatt was the most distinguished member of the group. He chose to give a course, History of Economic Theory, from Hamurabi to modern times. He discovered before long, that he could never have possibly covered the totality of his program and reach Karl Marx before the end of the year. As for me, I gave a repeat course of a seminar I had taught at AUB upon my return from Harvard, in 1947-1948. Our ALBA adventure did not last very long. In 1959, President Chehab decided to close us down and transfer our activities to a newly founded Lebanese National University, imposed by a student strike. And teaching, of course, in Arabic.

My academic career did not start, nor stop there. Upon my return from Harvard, which I had joined in 1945, Vice President of AUB Professor Constantin Zurayk offered me a stop-gap teaching position, probably as an instructor in political science, though I had left Harvard for cause majeure without having presented my PhD dissertation, with a mere MA obtained on the way, after passing the usual comprehensive exams.

My ambitious topic for the dissertation was "Dialectics of liberty in the moral and political philosophy of Emmanuel Kant," and I used the complexity of my topic as an alibi to postpone finishing it, confident that the 5,000 editorials I wrote in my 60 years at An-Nahar could some day, with my lectures, speeches, and political publications compensate for my failure.

Dr. Zurayk's gesture in appointing me was obviously a personal favor. I can never forget that he had given me my highest grade ever, an A+ for a paper on Thucydides in a course on the philosophy of history. A mark that served to compensate the C- from President Dodge in a junior course on Grecian history. 

Those early university days are never forgotten. Foremost, my debt goes to my teachers, all formidable mavericks. I must seize this solemn moment to pay them due tribute. Malik and Zurayk of course, but also Anis Makdisi, who taught us everything I still quote from the Arab renaissance literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And Albert Hourani, Assad Rustom, Zein Zein, and Nicolas Ziadeh, who inspired us to reach out into our historical Arab roots for better understanding of the present crises in the Middle East. Then in a different context, Roger Soltau who, when I was brought to AUB in 1947, thought he might need a Harvard graduate to assist him in his course on the history of political ideas. Despite Soltau's awesome standing, I refused to cover all German philosophy in only three one-hour lectures, whereas I remembered from my student years that he had spent two full weeks on the less important Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. I don't recall, nor would the students, what finally was decided, but I was grateful to be accepted to teach a graduate seminar on modern political theory from which, as is customary to say, I learned more than my students. Incidentally, one excellent member of the class has survived my teachings and continued to honor me with her friendship. Her contribution to the class discussions was all the more compelling, as she was the daughter of the father of the Lebanese constitution of 1926, Michel Chiha. Madeleine, now Héou, has not ceased pretending that I was indeed able to teach her things she hadn't learned from her father.

Ladies and gentlemen:

I know I have to shorten my talk. But how can a journalist do that, especially if he has such a distinguished, yet captive, audience?

AUB never offered me to return after that one year because in 1948 and 1949, I was forced to join another "institute of higher learning." I am speaking of "the sablons," the Beirut jail where I served numerous months, off and on, for my defense of liberty but, not necessarily in Kantian terms. Yet I always felt that the defense of liberty - Kant or, no Kant - was a categorical imperative. I thought my reclusion was a unique occasion to finish my dissertation for Harvard where I kept registering and paying the fees. So I carried my research cards, and Kant's original German version of Zum Ewigen Frieden, which I have since kept as a relic, as it had been stamped by the jail commander who authorized its entry. Oddly, I was not allowed to receive from Albion Ross, the correspondent of the New York Times, Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, deemed a "dangerous" book. Albion Ross could never renew his visa to Lebanon. I might not have known then whom the bell tolls for. Now I do, after a long and often dramatic career, whom the bell is tolling for, and why, in our tortured Arab geography. 

In my endless leisurely hours at the sablons I was often reflecting on Socrates as he had died in jail refusing his student's proposal to escape. Indeed, how could I not as I watched some young comrades condemned to death, taken out of their cells at midnight? Socrates' personality, as revealed in the Apology and Crito, was fascinating, so I came up with this strange theory: that Socrates is the nearest character in philosophy to the journalist. He does not claim to know the truth, as journalists must never pretend they do. Instead he dialogues and by dialectics, he incites his interlocutors - I could almost say his readers - to discover truth and announce it as their own. Furthermore, Socrates' knowledge is what he acquires from dialoguing with his interlocutors. The journalist returns to his readers a well-digested version of what he has observed and learned.

Confident that I was, in this Socratic manner, capable of discovering the true nature of events and questions, I could therefore welcome jail, by defending with temerity what I had come to know and believe in. I even invented a name for the game: "apostolic journalism."

And as if being in jail gives you the right to sin and forgive yourself, I went in my reflections to entertain the prospect that had journalism existed in the days of Jesus Christ, the gospels would have been considered superb masterpieces of reporting. Saint Mark and Saint-Luke - not perhaps Saint John - would have stood out as excellent reporters.

Hence, the shared sacredness of our mission as journalists, a heritage from my father which I felt proud to have continued since his death, for twice the time he had spent on our paper since founding it in 1933. 

Looking back on my career - I am now nearing eighty - I find it utterly stupid to have been constantly obsessed with this unfinished PhD dissertation. To the point of having been anxious to resign, and did in fact resign from the presidency of Balamand University to which Patriarch Ignatius had appointed me, and which I had occupied during its founding years from 1990 to 1993, simply because I thought it was not fitting that a university president should not have a higher degree than his teaching staff.

Indeed, I had come to Balamand from New York where I was flattered and proud to have succeeded my teacher Dr. Charles Malik at the UN during six years of Lebanon's most tragic days. His presence there was constantly remembered as the man who presided over the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I candidly admit that the Lebanese delegation was drawing on his legacy to validate Lebanon's identity, nay, even its raison d'être as a legitimate sovereign state, always striving to develop a democratic spirit against all odds.

From this perspective, I always looked upon my two years at Harvard as a unique privilege for which I shall be eternally grateful to the Institute of International Education, now probably vanished. It gave me one of the two fellowships reserved for Lebanese candidates, in the first contingent of Arab students invited to go to the United States after World War II.

Once at Harvard, I was drawing on Malik's credentials, looking up his teachers, his friends, and colleagues. I also attended as an auditor courses I thought he might have taken. This sort of communion between students and teachers is near to impossible to hope for in the impersonal universities of today. 

A professor I felt it was most challenging to work with was political scientist William Yandel Elliot, author of The Pragmatic Revolt in Politics, the first American book to expose fascism as a philosophy. Elliot was proud to tell us that he was taking, our classmate, his favorite assistant, Henry Kissinger, "down to Washington," to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for which he was a consultant. 

Later, much later, when I called on Kissinger as secretary of state to negotiate for Lebanon, I reminded him of Harvard and told him that of course I did not expect him to remember me. To which he replied with Kissingerian humor: "Would you have remembered me if I hadn't become Henry Kissinger?"

This exchange contributed to reduce the dose of "constructive ambiguity" expected in every conversation with him. I distinctly recall that our first hour-long one-to-one exchange ended well. But I can't claim that it ended the so-called civil war in Lebanon. Later negotiations were more successful, because ambiguity was not deemed a necessary tool of negotiation. 

Ladies and gentlemen:

My hundred days as minister of education, back in the 1970s, brought me to the conclusion that universities must not only teach but also convey culture. This necessitates sharing between teachers and students the same love for ideas, values, and everything that touches the essence of true knowledge. Hence, my conviction, expressed brutally, that the Lebanese University is to be completely scrapped and re-invented. My earnest hope remains that AUB, not others, should find it possible to continue as the model of what it has always been, of classes, seminars and tutorials that have a human dimension, the availability of teachers to students, the earnest desire to research together and deepen the knowledge of all fields of humanities as a necessary prerequisite for specialization. 

As a conclusion, I beg to be allowed to recollect one final point, which will illustrate how important it is to learn in communion with your teachers.
In my days, "tutorial courses" were still on the Harvard curriculum for graduate students, at the discretion, however, of the teacher. I was attracted by the presence at the university of Dr. Heinrich Brüning, a former chancellor of Germany overthrown by the Nazis. A political refugee, he was living at one of the houses across my street on the Charles River. The course he offered was called, Readings in Diplomacy. The weekly sessions lasting from two to three hours were convened in his suite to discuss a book or a topic assigned the week before.

I do not recall that we read and discussed any of Machiavelli's books. Maybe we did. But I am sure we did not bother to read Mein Kampf, though we casually discussed German diplomacy in the 1930s. But I have often attributed to Brüning that he taught me the following on diplomacy, which I have constantly tried to apply, unmindful of success: 

"It is generally believed that diplomacy implies by necessity the telling of lies. The contrary should be the rule."

"The best diplomacy is to always speak the truth. If you are negotiating with a friend, you will gain his confidence and make an economy of time. If you are negotiating with an enemy, he will never believe you anyway; so you would have fouled up his plans without failing your conscience."

Mr. President, my friends, as a finale, I feel I have to say, with great sorrow, that much of what the Arab world suffers from is largely due to the fact that neither our diplomacy nor our press has dared, or even allowed to tell the people the truth about our state of being and where we stand in the world. Nor are we always allowed the academic freedom to seek to understand why we keep declining. 

At AUB, academic liberty, we were taught, is sacred. And we shall continue, I am sure, to offer it the sanctuary it needs and deserves. 

Thank you.

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