was a trying time for dreamers,” Wadad Makdisi Cortas wrote of the
year 1935. She was 26 and “yearned to speak my language, to read
Arabic books, and to foster Arab independence and solidarity.” But
she had just become the headmistress of a girls’ school in Lebanon
that was a particular thorn in the side of the French colonial rulers.
in their other colonies, the French imposed their language, insisting
that the students at the Ahliah National School for Girls not only
be taught in French but also use it at recess. “Students who insisted
on speaking Arabic were to be singled out, and those who persisted
were to be given detention,” Cortas recalled. (Of course, as history
marched on, English won the battle to become the global lingua franca.)
memoirs span the 20th Century: She was born in 1909 and died in
1979. She writes beautifully, with dry humor and with sadness, of
living and traveling in a Middle East without borders and of the
agony inflicted as frontiers were carved into a soil alive with
friendships and family ties - agonies that continue to this day.
evokes a time when Jews and Arabs mingled freely, then stopped due
to the growing conflict as Palestine was forcibly transformed into
Israel. And she describes from personal knowledge - she was one
of 12 women amidst 1,000 men at the American University of Beirut
- women’s struggle for a place in the public sphere.
was still the headmistress when my mother taught at Ahliah years
later and when I went to school there decades later. So I turned
to the just-published English translation of her memoirs, A World
I Loved: The Story of an Arab Woman (Nation Books) with anticipation
mixed with apprehension. She was a formidable woman and I had left
a lot of homework undone: I was sure she would reach across the
pages of time to hold me to account.
my mind, perhaps the book’s most astonishing revelation was that
she was only five feet tall. She so towered over everyone, her back
straighter than the wall in the assembly hall where we were gathered
for pep talks and music. But of course she spoke from the stage
and we were much smaller then.
she was growing up, in the early days of the 20th Century, Arabs
were not yet worried about Zionism. Cortas describes a mixed Middle
East that included White Russians, Armenians, Turks, Jews and many
others among the Arabs. In her youth, this woman from what had just
become Lebanon even visited a Jewish kibbutz in the Galilee. She
describes it as efficiently run by recently arrived Polish Jews
but “completely detached from the life of the area.” Arabs only
later discovered that many kibbutz dwellers were being trained in
modern warfare at the same time as the British empire was disarming
writing is often lyrical. She depicts a Beirut where mulberry trees
and orchards stretched out in place of today’s chic restaurants
and cafes. “We learned to love the sea in all of its moods,” she
writes, and tells of the old fisherman Khalil who remained by the
sea when the Italians bombarded the Lebanese coast on the eve of
World War I. His philosophy: “Conquerors come and go. Only the sea
is eternally with us.”
was bred on politics, which were then as they are now a matter of
life and death. She listened as her father and his friends argued
long into the night whether Arab aspirations for independence would
fare better under a weak Ottoman Empire or by supporting the British
and French. Arab nationalists chose the latter and paid a price
still exacted today.
came from a family of redoubtable women, and her father supported
the equality of the sexes. She and her sister were the first girls
from their school - they also studied at Ahliah - to go to university.
At the American University of Beirut, they were able to get an education
but had no social life. In a puzzling insight into social mores,
roller-skating was the only sport considered proper for young women.
female students were not allowed to attend historical plays, but
could take up public speaking, and they happily debated the emancipation
of women and political freedoms. The student body went on strike
to protest British and French imperialism, but America was looked
upon with favor as “a great center of liberal ideas.” That was then.
visited America many times in later years, admiring its “organization
and discipline” but finding that “grace had vanished. Life was a
swift race, and no one could afford to loiter.” She noted that black
students at the University of Michigan, where she worked for a post-graduate
degree, were a small minority and were “quite aloof. When it was
my privilege to have contact with some of them, they unloaded their
painful recollections.” In perhaps the understatement of the century,
she thought it would “take a long time to change the situation.”
globe-trotting woman also taught in Iraq back in 1930. Her daily
commute in Baghdad involved a boat ride across the Tigris, past
riverbanks adorned with tall palms dangling red dates, gardens,
and palaces. “I did not have eyes enough to see all the haunting
sights of this magical city.”
Cortas soon got into trouble. Chosen to speak to a cohort of graduating
pilots, she “prepared a fiery speech expressing pride at seeing
the first Arab aviators fly in Arab skies. I must have been strongly
moved, for the speech disturbed the British authorities.” For the
rest of her stay, she concentrated on her teaching.
Lebanon, Iraq, and the whole Arab world were intertwined then, and,
in spite of the borders, still are. Cortas’ daughter Mariam married
the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said. Cortas helped to
found and served on the board of many organizations, including the
Institute for Palestine Studies, to which I am affiliated.
intertwining is why to be an Arab is to sometimes live in a well
of sorrow. My mother, who also taught in Baghdad in her youth, before
her exile from Palestine, spent her last years in Jordan. The advent
of satellite TV into many homes since 2000 meant that she was daily
buffeted by graphic images of terrifying death in Iraq to the east
and in Palestine to the west. Perhaps many Arabs found some meagre
comfort, as I did, that their parents were no longer alive for the
Israeli assault on Gaza this winter.
wrote before she died in 1979: “War has crowded the memories of
my youth and old age and every stage in between.” She witnessed
the early flowering and brutal crushing of Arab nationalism; the
catastrophic loss of Palestine in 1948, which has defined the region
since; national liberation movements; the growing rapaciousness
of oil wealth, local and foreign; and the succession of home grown
dictators and their freedoms denied.
last years were marked by the horrors of the Lebanese civil war,
described in staccato sentences in between sheltering from the fighting.
Yet her legacy lives on and the school she served for so long has
remained a byword for Arab nationalism. But her nationalism was
never of an ugly, exclusivist kind. Rather it was about people attached
to their land being able to express their identity amidst diversity.
wondered whether succeeding generations would “prove wiser” than
her own. As if to answer that question, the introduction was written
by her daughter Mariam, who worked tirelessly to get the English
edition published in time for the 100th anniversary of her mother’s
birth. Mariam has loving, and unflinchingly honest, memories of
the afterword is written by Cortas’ granddaughter Najla, an accomplished
actress, who discovered during a visit to Lebanon in 2006, when
war raged once more, that she was the veteran now, comforting children
and “somehow responsible for future generations.” She and her peers
fought down their fear and went on to protest in old ways and new,
blogging and creating art, music and theatre, with “no sense of
Cortas lived through the horrors of the wars of the present day,
she would also have seen much determination and sensed many changes,
small but tangible, giving hope that a world loved is not yet lost.
It is still a trying time for dreamers. Yet there are dreamers still,
of all races and creeds, striving for a different reality.
Guest Commentator. Nadia Hijab, is a Senior Fellow at the Institute
for Palestine Studies. This commentary was syndicated and distributed
by Agence Global. The Institute has produced authoritative studies
on Palestinian affairs and the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1963.
Its flagship Journal of Palestine Studies is published by the University
of California Press. Click here
to contact Nadia Hijab.