Arriving at Paris Orly in early June, a bunch of Macalester College students bussed into the airline bus station and arranged to stay at a pension on Rue Madame (in Stein and Toklas territory). No one knew where that was. It turned out I was the only one who spoke French so I led a caravan of students on foot with their suitcases through the streets until we found the pension. That started a pattern of translating and guiding that was to last through 20 years residence in the Middle East.
I was on my way to Beirut funded by a grant for my senior honor thesis on American missionary efforts to support education in the Middle East, especially in the Levant. Dr Armajani, for whom I served as student assistant, was my mentor and intercessor with the college administration and, after I got to Beirut and enrolled at the American University of Beirut (AUB), he managed the change of honors thesis topic to the origins of the Palestinian liberation organizations including the Palestine Liberation Organization. He also arranged for me to spend the first semester of my senior year and Interim at AUB adding courses on Middle Eastern history.
But meanwhile back in Paris, my French skills led to my guiding groups from the pension to the tourist sites around the city before I boarded the train at the Gare de l’Est for the trip to Istanbul.
That was a journey. Somehow I didn’t get the memo that said get on the train car labelled for your destination. I just got on at the back of the train and then discovered that at each stop, as that car was taken off the train, I had to move up a car or two, until I actually ended up in the Istanbul car. It was a long (4 days) trip but after we left Budapest it got a little riotous as our compartment became home to Bulgarian party members with a large supply of “potato wine” (aka vodka) with which they inebriated the whole compartment. Arrived finally in Istanbul, a bit sodden with potato wine, I booked a flight to Beirut and left for my summer residence with the Itani family, courtesy of fellow Macite Amal Itani, in the Ghberi suburb of Beirut. I signed on at American University of Beirut and found rooms in Ras Beirut with an Afghani and a Jordanian roommate.
The Itanis were wonderful: welcoming, tolerant of my unintentional cultural faux pas, and not all English speakers. French was second language after Arabic, so in the ensuing eight months my French got a true workout. They took me everywhere with them around the country (the family had a nationwide distribution company for fresh produce) and introduced me to the sights and sounds and flavors of Lebanon. They taught me backgammon which I still love and play and got me into the Baalbek music festival. They all loved to eat and led me to memorable meals of Arabic cuisine, chicken baked in olive oil and garlic on the Syrian border, and that delicious cheese sweet kanafa.
At 21 years old, I was a lot less cautious than I am now. 1969 was just two years after the disastrous (for the Arabs) June 1967 war and Americans were not persona grata in many places. On September 1, Syria opened its borders to Americans for the first time since the war and I went for a weekend in Damascus to see the Damascus International Fair. At the border, the passport clerk strongly advised me to speak French in Damascus rather than English, and so avoid any possible unpleasantness. I did, and at the end of three days in Damascus had a splitting headache (French overload?). I also inadvertently ordered fried brains at a Damascus restaurant, having confused “veau” with “cerveau”. I definitely didn’t get veal!
At AUB I met a number of Palestinians and became very interested in their cause, both politically and historically. Studies in the AUB history department shaped some of my inquiries and led me to decide to volunteer as a researcher at the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Research Center in Ras Beirut, then headed by Dr. Anis Sayegh, brother to economist Dr. Yusef Sayegh, a friend of Dr. Armajani. The Middle East and Middle East studies can be a very small world. As it turned out, Dr Yusef Sayegh was the examiner of my honors thesis, The Palestinian Fedayeen: Their Heritage and Their Promise, completed after my return to Macalester in late January 1970. (On a visit to Mac in the 1990s for an Alumni Board meeting, a librarian told me that my thesis had become the most purloined one in their collection. I guess that’s success.)
With the additional time afforded by spending the first semester of senior year in Lebanon, I had the time to do substantial interviewing of Palestinian leaders, particularly of the fedayeen organizations, and with Dr. Anis Sayegh’s help, I embarked on a series of road trips, by the regional service taxis, to interview Kamal Nasr of the PLO and Al-Fateh, Georges Habash of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Nayef Hawatmeh of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and many of their aides. On some of those road trips, the Palestinian organizations sent along armed guards leaving me feeling both protected and insecure; so much for inconspicuous historical research. In Irbid, in northern Jordan, I spent several visits with family of AUB friends who were active in the Palestinian guerrilla forces, and spent the nights in the local bomb shelters as Israeli forces in the newly conquered Golan Heights shelled Irbid nightly.
Through those travels, I became very familiar with Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, as well as Turkey where I had arrived by train. That experience helped me when, from 1971 to 1973 I studied at American University in Cairo (where I did learn Arabic) and led parties of friends on vacation tours of all four countries.
The late 1960s were years of violence and political turmoil in the Middle East and elsewhere and I early discovered the somewhat equivocal position in which politics placed otherwise innocent Americans. In late summer 1969, I took a break from AUB and went back to Istanbul for a visit and then trained to Greece, stopping in Thessaloniki and the monasteries of Athos, and continuing on to Athens. Athos, the Orthodox religous center on a peninsula near Thessaloniki, was restricted to males of species, including farm animals. The monasteries, many of them built during the Byzantine Empire were beautifully decorated with frescos and mosaics, and mostly built on dizzyig cliff edges for protection against marauders. I walked everywhere and ate with the monks for the five days I was in Athos. (The food caught up with me on the bus trip back to Thessaloniki when I developed a horrendous case of diarrhea!)
In Athens, while staying at the youth hostel near Syntagma, a careless clerk left my backpack (containing passport, travelers checks and air ticket back to Beirut) on a counter from which it was stolen. In recompense the hostel gave me free room and board for the ten days I was stranded in Athens.
The US embassy only became helpful about the stolen passport when my father contacted Hubert Humphrey, then a visiting professor at Mac, for help. Those were the days of the colonels’ rule in Greece, when the authorities suspected leftwing plots to overthrow them (as portrayed in Costa-Gravas’ 1969 film Z). The Greek authorities were even less helpful and I spent a very unpleasant day being interrogated by the secret police, bright lights shining directly at me with shadowy interrogators trying to trap me into saying that I was part of a leftwing conspiracy and had given my passport to the underground. Eventually they gave up and authorized my departure.
The Itanis, my wonderful Lebanese family, covered the new plane ticket and wired me funds while I was stranded. They picked me up at the airport and carried me off to their home with the chickens and horses in Ghberi.
And that was my Macalester summer abroad.