More than 50 years after they graduated, UCLA Fulbright coordinator Ann Kerr-Adams has interviewed six of her American University of Beirut classmates to discover the lives they have built in the Middle East.
By Ann Kerr-Adams
This article was originally published in the Summer 2010 issue of the American University of Beirut's Maingate quarterly magazine.
When I started this project to interview my four AUB roommates, I realized I could not leave out two classmates with whom I had remained close and whose homes I had visited in Amman during frequent sojourns to the Middle East over many decades. Widad Irani Kawar and I became friends in Professor Habib Kurani’s philosophy of education class in 1955 when Widad was doing a master’s degree in education after graduating with her BA from the Beirut College for Women (now Lebanese American University—LAU). Our friendship was sealed when she invited me to visit her family in Bethlehem for Christmas and I experienced the warmth of Arab hospitality and family life. I also learned about the Arab-Israeli conflict first hand when members of Widad’s family from the occupied territories waited for hours at the Mandelbaum Gate to cross over for a once-a-year visit with their relatives. They could only stay for a few hours. Widad grew up in the midst of conflict but became a master at utilizing her talents and interests in a positive—and unusual—way.
Looking back to that visit in 1955, I can see how Widad’s lifelong devotion to the beauty of Arab culture was already in place. She and her fiancé (and future husband) Kamel took me to see the historic churches and mosques of Bethlehem and Jerusalem and the surrounding villages. Widad was already fascinated by the different clothes the people wore, particularly the women’s dresses that were distinctive to each village.
The devastating interludes of Arab-Israeli wars were disillusioning, especially for someone like Widad who had grown up in Quaker schools. At LAU and at AUB, Widad had been active in politics, caught up in the idealism of pan-Arabism that was the post-colonial hope of that time. The atmosphere on the AUB campus was heady with such leading Palestinian intellectuals as Walid Khalidi defining the goals of Arab nationalism and hopes for an independent Palestinian state.
After graduating from AUB in 1955, Widad realized that the most effective and natural way for her to contribute to a better understanding of the Palestinian people was through her love of Arab arts and culture. This was her passion and even while she was raising her four children and participating in the social and civic life of Amman, Widad visited Palestinian villages and refugee camps, collecting artifacts and beautiful embroidered dresses. She learned the history of each item, particularly of the dresses and what made them distinctive to a particular village or region. She spent hours listening to people’s stories and wrote them down as narratives to complement her collection.
Soon the collection was too big for their home, so she and Kamel built a new house with an entire basement devoted to housing the ever growing collection, complete with proper temperature controls. Essentially a private museum, the area includes, along with shelves and racks for the costumes, a large work room with a long work table and floor-toceiling book shelves with historic and contemporary books. Paintings by Arab artists decorate the walls of the mini-museum as well as all the rooms of the Kawar’s home. In the center of the entrance is the ceiling from an old Damascene palace and on the walls hang several embroidered dresses and samples of old jewelry, all expertly lit.
Today Widad’s collection is world famous; she has had exhibits in such places as Japan and Iceland and has published catalogues in many languages. In Jordan, her knowledge and appetite for collecting are well known. When I visit her, I see people from different walks of life ring her doorbell to show her artifacts and inquire if she would like to buy them. Now she is planning, with her children, to create a public museum as a long term home for the collection.
“I freed myself from the pressures of politics and my childhood in Palestine. I was engulfed in the battles between the British, the Arabs, and the Zionists where I felt helpless,” Widad told me. “I discovered a new field where I could do research where I saw it was needed.”
Widad is at home in her world which she describes as Palestinian, Jordanian, Christian, Muslim, and Arab. “I found my identity in the Arab traditions and Arab culture which I am trying to preserve.”
Postscript: Widad’s husband, Kamel Amin Kawar (AUB former student), passed away in June 2010. He studied at AUB in 1943-44 before going to England to become a mining engineer. They had a wonderful life together, raising four children and following their respective careers and hobbies.