Beirut hit by travel embargo

March 28, 1997

The postwar recovery of Beirut's oldest university is being hampered by harsh travel restrictions imposed on United States citizens. The American University of Beirut has lost much of its support and prestige as a result of the outdated US Government travel embargo on Americans visiting Lebanon.

Founded in 1866 by US missionaries, the university has a distinguished alumni. Gamal Abdul Nasser, prime minister of Egypt, was at the university during its radical leftist pre-second world war years. More than 25 former students are now cabinet ministers in governments around the world. Prior to the civil war the AUB had become a world leader in international education.

Nearly eight years after the end of the war it is still illegal for US citizens to visit Lebanon. The travel ban was introduced in 1987 during a spate of kidnappings by Islamic fundamentalists. The only other countries with similar passport restrictions imposed by the US State Department are Libya and Iraq. While they are accused of supporting terrorism, no such charges are levelled against Lebanon.

A lot has changed since the dark days of the civil war, but there is little prospect of the ban being lifted until there is a significant movement in the peace process. Every institution in the country is affected, but AUB has been particularly hit. Constitutionally required to have a US president, coordination of the day-to-day running of the university comes from New York.

"We have a system in place that ensures the smooth running of the university. But it is one thing for the president to work with people 7,000 miles away - quite different for him to interact with students every day," said vice president of external affairs, David Maxson, from New York.

The once international faculty is now comprised almost exclusively of Arab lecturers. Before the war nearly a quarter of the teaching staff was American with significant numbers from Europe. While there are no restrictions on Europeans returning to Lebanon, the US ban has meant that the return of foreign staff has been hesitant. The university has a long history of foreign teaching and is anxious to recreate the international environment of the prewar years.

But overseas students who were once a source of revenue are also scared away by the US treatment of Lebanon as a pariah - American companies are free to operate in Lebanon, but not to employ US staff there. The lack of business Americans in Beirut has damaged the links between the university and its potential corporate donors.

The de-politicisation of the university after the civil war has been rapid. During the height of the conflict, and despite the university's efforts, sectarianism bred on campus. Located in the west of the city on the Muslim side of the green line, it became difficult for Christian students to attend class. Arabic replaced English as the language of the corridors and canteens and fundamentalist dogma eclipsed reasoned debate. As the war ended, the various factional interests established their own universities, allowing the AUB to follow its liberal secular tradition.

Today among the palm trees, basking in the spring sunshine, looking west to the Mediterranean, Christian and Muslim students laugh and talk together, giving little thought to war or politics. The atmosphere on campus is tranquil and carefree. For some it is almost too peaceful. "Nobody is interested in ideas any more," Munir Bashour, director of education at the university, said. He sees the new Beirut as intellectually impoverished. "The students today are very practical. They all just want to study business, engineering and medicine. Everybody is too busy trying to 'get on with it', to make a living and rebuild the country."

Beirut is in the grip of a $3.2 billion building frenzy funded by rich emigres who are now returning. Foreign workers from Sri Lanka, Syria and Sudan labour on the vast building site that will soon become the throbbing heart of the city.

The AUB was not a specific target during the war, its non-sectarian past preventing attack by any of the armed factions. Yet the university suffered almost inevitably from being in a city divided by conflict. The one building that was destroyed is now being rebuilt with the help of the government and donations from the alumni. Originally built in 1872 College Hall was the oldest building on the hilltop campus. It was destroyed by an explosion in 1991. The exterior of the New College Hall will be identical to the original, while the guts of the building will be state of the art.

The rehabilitation of Lebanon is nearly complete and the AUB is cautiously optimistic about the future. "There is just something missing," said Dr Bashour. "We are an American University without any Americans."

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