'Lebanon Was Going to Stay'
In the latest of a series of articles about the lives of Middle Eastern women for Maingate, the American University of Beirut's quarterly magazine, UCLA Fulbright coordinator Ann Kerr tells the story of her former roommate Naziha.
Published: Friday, March 12, 2010
Maingate Connections (AUB). Republished with permission.
More than 50 years after they graduated, Ann Kerr-Adams (JYA 1954-55) has interviewed six of her AUB classmates to discover the lives they built against the backdrop of the tumultuous recent history of the Middle East. This is the third in a series.
"YOU KNOW HOW Lebanese pine trees grow—they are so strong," Naziha said to me as we chatted recently in her living room where striking paintings she had done over many years decorate the walls along with family photographs. "I think there was something in me in those war years," she continued, "that wanted to say that no matter what, this country Lebanon was going to stay, and life is going to go on and on." Naziha's paintings expressed these feelings in themes of trees with abstracted roots or seeds dividing and sprouting leaves. "I had put some beans in a pot to soak overnight—there was a bombardment and we went to hide; the beans stayed, so some of them started to sprout. One day these two leaves came out from each bean and then it was as if nature was changing. Roots came out of another part; eventually the beans fell away. I was so fascinated by this process that two or three paintings came out of it." Painting had sustained Naziha during those seventeen years of shelling and car bombs, one of which ripped into her family home late in the war, killing some of her family members.
I still have vivid mental images of Naziha painting on the balcony of our second story room in the Women's Hostel in 1954. She studied art at AUB along with her education major. A treasured photograph shows the five of us roommates at St. Michel beach one spring day when we accompanied Naziha on an assignment to paint a seascape. That was before St. Michel became a place for homeless refugees from the south during the war. We sat very casually, some dressed in bathing suits, others in cotton dresses. Naziha's hair was tied back by a scarf to keep it out of her eyes while she painted, a matter of practicality rather than Islamic modesty. She was the only Muslim among us in our diverse group of one Greek Orthodox, one Baha'i, one Syrian Catholic, and one Presbyterian. She was also the only one of us Lebanese-born, alongside two Palestinians, one Iraqi, and one American, a typical mix in any cross-section of AUB students. In those days, there were no clothing features to distinguish AUB Muslim students from Christians.
The merging of identities so prevalent in Lebanon in those days is exemplified in Naziha's background. Her grandmother had religious lessons at home and went to a Greek Orthodox School run by Greek Orthodox priests. She in turn sent her daughter, Naziha's mother, to the Protestant missionaryfounded American High School in Sidon.
"My father went to AUB," Naziha recounted, "and when he graduated, he, like so many AUB students, was hired by the British Mandate. Some went to teach in Iraq and Jordan—my father went to Palestine, so I spent my early childhood school years in Nablus and Tulkarm. That was what took us to Palestine and it was the Palestinian problem that brought us back to Lebanon. My father could see the trouble coming and sent the family back in 1947."
In Lebanon, Naziha went to high school at the Presbyterian-founded Suq el-Gharb School in the Lebanese mountains where she was a classmate of one of our Palestinian roommates, Roshan Irani, whose family fled Haifa in 1948. Naziha remembers seeing the Irani family arrive in Suq el-Gharb on a bus full of other refugees. "My hardest competition in school was Roshan. Sometimes she would be first and I second and sometimes the other way around." From Suq el-Gharb, Naziha went to Beirut College for Women (BCW—now Lebanese American University) and then on to AUB, like her father, where she had always wanted to go. "My life has really been centered around these two institutions, BCW and AUB. It was fun, it was carefree. I joined a debating club which I enjoyed very much. I learned the beauty of literature. Most of the things I believe in happened there. We learned the importance of the individual, free speech, innocent till proven guilty..."
After graduating from AUB, Naziha taught in the boys section of the Suq el-Gharb High School, the only female teacher. Two afternoons a week she took a service taxi down to Beirut to paint in the AUB art studio and soon began working toward a master's degree in art education. The same year she completed her master's, she became engaged to a young doctor she had gone to see about a back problem.
Naziha and Mohammed raised their children, Omar and Khouzama, in the midst of wartime Beirut. "They remember the war, but they don't," Naziha reflected. "Khouzama wasn't at all interested in politics. She thought it was something horrible that the older generation did, and she wasn't interested in becoming older if this is what maturity meant. At AUB, she buried herself in her science while Omar joined clubs and was active in relief work." Now, both children have highly successful careers, Omar as an engineer in the United States and Khouzama as a professor of botany at AUB.
These days, Naziha leads a less active life outside her home than a few years back when she was president of the LAU (BCW) Alumni Club and engaged in various art exhibits. Her husband is house-bound but the household is energized every afternoon with the arrival of her two small granddaughters who climb all over her shouting "Teta, Teta."