LANDS OF OUR FATHERS

A STORY OF GENEROUS LOSS

* as published in Beirut Re-Collected

"There he was, our great-grandfather Mohammad Ali Rawda, sitting by his house on the beach – at the end of ‘nazlet-al-madrasseh’, right next to that house that’s now been painted all blue and yellow. He was sitting there in the sun when he noticed a group of foreigners, you know they were the missionaries who had come to the city, walking not too far away. Our great-grandfather was a generous man, so he waved to them and invited them into his house. He slaughtered two of his best sheep for them and they sat down to eat. It must’ve been the early eighteen-sixties.

During the meal, one of the men stood up, I think it was Mr. Bliss, and pointed behind him to the hill, to the big plot of land full of trees and with three fresh-water springs, and asked if that land - our great-grandfather’s land - was good for anything ("btinfa3 shi hal 'ard?"). The men explained that they were there to find a plot of land on which to build a university – an institution of learning and education with a hospital as well, for the benefit and wellbeing of the residents of Beirut. Now, our great-grandfather had been to Brazil, and even to the U.S. and he was an educated man; he understood the value of learning. Right there and then, he agreed to donate the land to the missionaries ("wala akhad 'irsh") in return for the promise that all his descendants would study and receive medical treatment for free at the future institution. Later, a contract was drafted to ensure that everything would happen exactly as they had agreed – this was under the Ottomans, of course; I'll see if I can get you the paper, we still have it somewhere – and they all signed it."

 

Tarek Rawda – a man in his early fifties and my neighbour on the second floor – leans against the car that's parked on the side of the road, in front of the building entrance. Today, the car happens to be a brand-new Mercedes (we joke that it belongs to Mufid, the concierge) but whatever the car might be, this is where Tarek can be found, day in, day out – at random times during the day, and well into the night; always smoking his Brilliant Super Slims cigarettes, and playing games on his new iPhone 4 (he might be getting the iPhone 5 soon although it is, to be fair, slightly over-priced).

My flatmate and I are sitting on the two plastic chairs that have by now become a part of the sidewalk; they've almost melted into the tiles from constant exposure to the mid-day heat. We’re smoking an argileh (3anab wa na3na3) that we ordered from the delivery-place a few blocks away. I only moved into this apartment two weeks ago, but already this ‘3adeh’ [hang-out] in front of the building has become somewhat of a ritual that I enact when I come home from work in the evenings. Just like the two chairs, Tarek and his brother Talal seem to be regular fixtures of this little side-street - helping out the valet-parking employees at Lina’s Café, carefully eyeing who enters into the pub under our building, and engaging in casual conversation with just about anyone who passes by. This is their neighbourhood.

 

Soon, Talal joins us. After some quick small-talk, he fills in some of the gaps in the story and talks about all the swaths of land the Rawda family used to own all around Ras Beirut: the land on which AUB now stands is only a small part of the story.

 

The land on which "Beit al-Druz", the main Druze institution, now stands belonged to Mohammed Afandi Rawda and was turned into "waqf durzi"[1] to protect it from encroaching real-estate development – all the members of the family are now buried there. "Hamam al-Askari", the beach club run primarily by and for the army and located along Beirut’s Corniche, also used to belong to the family. Two or three generations ago, the family rented the land to the Ottomans. The Ottomans then transferred the land to the French when they took over, and they in turn passed it on to the Lebanese government when they left. A prime piece of land such as that is of course worth millions today.

"But what can you do?" says Talal, "You're gonna sue a government?! Actually, two governments: to get our land back we would first have to sue the French government, and then the Lebanese one - and who are we?! No way!"

/  /  /

In his paper, "A.U.B. and Ras Beirut: an Idyllic Twinship", Samir Khalaf narrates the intimate relationship between the urban, sociocultural, and economic development of Ras Beirut and the creation of the Syrian Protestant College (now A.U.B.). Prior to this encounter, Ras Beirut was a thinly populated, suburban farmland with an ‘indigenous’ population of not more than thirty households: mostly Sunni, Greek Orthodox and Druze families. The creation of the Syrian Protestant College, followed by the acquisition of vast stretches of valuable land on which to begin building the College’s stand-alone quarters, sparked sudden and rapid transformations in the area - changes that would leave their marks deeply in (and through) Beiruti soils, minds, and homes. Lines drawn at the end of the 19th century that can still be traced and felt today. 

The Syrian Protestant College was created in 1866 by a group of missionaries working for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the first (and today, though under a different name, the largest) organization of its kind in the U.S., which sent its members all around the globe. After their more direct evangelization efforts within the Ottoman Empire had met with little success, the group with future president Daniel Bliss as their leader decided to change their strategy and set up a college for higher education to serve the local population. 

In the years since its creation, the Syrian Protestant College would single-handedly wield unmatched (and in many ways, unimagined and unintended) influence over the development of Ras Beirut and its residents. The construction of a large, walled campus dictated the form of the area’s urban fabric, and its presence as a respected institution of learning caused a significant influx of new residents into Ras Beirut; thus shifting the demographic character of the area. As the ‘magnet’ at the heart of a newly emerging urban center, it also attracted intense investment in the area, thus kick-starting a long-term process of increased urbanization, the effects of which continue to be clearly seen today. More pervasively however, the College also exerted significant influence on a ‘cultural’ level by promoting and endorsing a specific set of moral and personal values - particularly those of ‘Western’ individualism. The university’s West Hall as a venue for cultural events was a major instrument in this project. Thus, as Khalaf points out, while the missionaries’ direct evangelization project might have failed, they nevertheless managed to indirectly ‘convert’ many Beirutis to the secularized but still very Protestant work ethic[2]; one could speak of a ‘cultural conversion’. However, as Khalaf is also careful to highlight, this was never the missionaries’ intent; the result of the encounter was something nobody had anticipated and that left both sides radically transformed [3].

 

However, before any of this “unusual symbiosis” between Ras Beirut and A.U.B. could begin to unfold, the aspiring administrators and professors first had to find a suitable piece of land on which they could build their dream of an ambitious institution: a College that would ensure that the people of the Middle East would “have Life and have it more abundantly”.  In the memoir of Stephen Penrose, one of the founders of the university, the following anecdote is recorded:

 

“The Founders had from the first planned to put the new institution into quarters distinctly its own, but buying land in the Near East was not then, and is not now, done in a day. The fewer people who know about a deal the better the chances of success. A purchaser needs to hide from his right hand what his left hand is doeth, and must permit himself to show interest only in property in which he is definitely not interested. Only thus can he hope to obtain a fair bargain in the long run.

With this in mind, it was decided by the Board of Managers and the Faculty to move entirely without knowledge of the Board of Managers or the Faculty. President Bliss and the Rev. D. Stuart Dodge were asked to work alone to find the site and conduct the negotiations. Money was at hand for the purchase, Mr. John J. Phelps of New York having made a gift of $5,000 to that end in the summer of 1867 while visiting his son-in-law, Mr. Dodge. That fact, too, was kept secret. President Bliss himself described their procedure as follows:

“For the space of a year or more, at the solicitations of property owners, or on the recommendation of friends, many places were visited in different parts of Beirut. We rode everywhere through the city, looking as we rode. Finally, we saw the site where the College now stands and fell in love with it at sight, and immediately decided that we had found the finest site in all Beirut if not in all Syria.

“...We employed one of the shrewdest natives, a broker, to obtain the property. He commenced at once by requesting us by no means to mention to a living soul that we desired to purchase it, or that we even knew the site. Weeks passed and nothing was heard from him. Finally he requested me to put myself casually in the way of the owner, whom I knew only by sight, but in no case to speak to him or recognize him. During many months I must have passed by his shop scores of times or met him on the street, but never looked at him. I was out not to see but to be seen - not to court but to be courted.

“One day - I remember it well - we met on the crowded street. As usual, I looked right on; when I had passed on a few steps he said, “Sir”. I turned, lifted my hat, and bowed. He continued, “Mr. Gharzuzi tells me that you wish to buy some land for your school.” I replied, “Mr. Gharzuzi is a land agent and wishes a commission. Good morning, sir.” I continued my walk to the first corner and then hastened to tell Mr. Gharzuzi what had happened. He clapped his hands, and said, “Thank God, we have got him,” and so it was. After a few weeks the land was purchased.”

                                                                                                  [Stephen Penrose, That They May Have Life (1941), p.25-26]

Clearly, there is somewhat of a discrepancy between the two accounts: did Rawda donate the land or did Bliss buy it from him? Perhaps Mohammad Ali Rawda’s invitation was not as serendipitous as the Tarek’s account makes it out to be; perhaps he had indeed been “courting” Daniel Bliss for “many months”. And perhaps Daniel Bliss’ experience was not as ‘smooth’ and heroic as Penrose presents it. Even today, after 140 years of continued urban growth, it would take one not more than a few days to ride through every nook and cranny of the city (on horseback might in fact be faster these days), so Bliss’ narrative of endless searching before “finally” finding the perfect site, which lay just outside the city walls, seems a little far-fetched. Most probably, both (his)stories, just like any other, were ‘polished’ to be presentable to their audience - for Bliss, the headquarters of his organization ‘back home’, and for Rawda, his family and wider social network. However, the basic structure of this historical moment, of a(western) ‘power’ intervening in – and thus drastically changing – the growth and development of a small community’s farmland, and thereby turning it into a ‘cosmopolitan’ site of urbanization, is clear.

 

Bliss and his men were thus given (as Rawda says) or bought (as Penrose says) the land and began drawing up the plans for the buildings. Over the next two decades, the basic lay-out of the campus as we now know it would take shape. Buildings and streets (and trees and hills and springs) now no longer carried the names of the Beyrouti residents - names they had faithfully carried for generations - but many were instead adorned with the legitimating stamps of increasing western influence. The street running in front of the College’s entrance was paved and dubbed “Bliss Street”, others were later to be named “John Kennedy Street” and “Jean d’Arc Street”, and the buildings on the campus were each assigned names of significant members of the group who had founded the institution. The interaction between Rawda and Bliss, between Ras Beirut and A.U.B. - along with countless similar land transactions in the years before and after - both created and reinforced a newly emergent urban condition. 

/  /  / 

“The papers just disappeared during the war. They must have been either stolen by the new administration or burned during the bombing (of College Hall). Or maybe the Americans took them with them. Either way, it doesn’t matter. There’s not much we can do about it now.”

                 

...

 

“Actually, my cousin told me that he might’ve found one of the old Ottoman land-contracts. He’s spoken to a lawyer - maybe we can get somewhere with that. Who knows..?”

[1] In Lebanon, land can be turned into waqf of a certain religious sect. This means that the land is essentially ‘frozen’ and cannot be bought or sold; also, any buildings already on the land cannot be destroyed.

[2] see Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”

[3] for further reading I suggest Usama Makdisi’s “Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East” and Samir Khalaf’s “Protestant Missionaries in the Levant: Ungodly Puritans, 1820-1860” - both fascinating books with slightly different theses. 

richardpelgrim[at]gmail.com​  |  Tel: +31 (0)6 374 807 31

© 2020 by Richard Pelgrim.