Two weeks after the Association of Arab-American University Graduates' first convention in Lebanon, the local press still reverberated the event's impact, with the Daily Star, the local English-language daily, featuring an interview with three convention speakers on the damage caused by sanctions against Iraq. The article was one of several in the Lebanese press on the AAUG convention, held in Beirut in late June 2000 and co-hosted by CAUS, the Center for Arab Unity Studies, which has its head office in Beirut.
This is only the third AAUG convention held outside the United States, and the first in conjunction with CAUS. Both organizations share a commitment to academic studies of Arab issues, and both try to accommodate a diverse range of member opinions within their overall guiding principles. This year, CAUS proposed that the AAUG come to Beirut for its annual convention in conjunction with CAUS's special focus on Arab communities outside the Arab world, and in an attempt to strengthen its ties with these communities.
The AAUG, founded in 1967 by a group of professionals and academics to promote informed discussion on the Middle East and to serve as a forum for further discourse on Arab-America, chose Beirut because of its status as the cultural capital of the Arab world. Titled "The Arabs and America at the Turn of the 21st Century," the convention featured about 30 contributors from both the United States and the Arab world, and focused on issues of importance to both the Arab-American community and the Arab world.
By holding the event in Beirut, the AAUG organizers were hoping to promote greater interaction within the body of Arab intellectuals, and to improve the understanding of America and its policies by Arabs living in the Arab world.
Although about 100 people attended, only 15 were locals, despite the offering of a special discounted registration to encourage participation by the Lebanese community. This came as a disappointment to many of the visitors who were hoping for more interaction with Lebanese residents. According to AAUG member Wael Masri, who was visiting Beirut from North Carolina, the problem was compounded by differences in styles of communication and thinking between the visitors and the locals. In addition, according to Masri, none of the Lebanese or Arab participants joined in the full-day visits to the north of Lebanon, the liberated areas in the south, the Chouf, and the Baalbek-Anjar region. This low level of interest among the Lebanese public was not due to inadequate media coverage. According to Majdi Hamad, assistant director general of CAUS, media coverage was sufficient and actually increased toward the end of the convention as the local press became more interested in the proceedings.
Still, the convention was an eye-opener for many of the Arab-American participants, some of whom were visiting Lebanon for the first time. Bassem Nasser of New York, who was attending an AAUG convention for the first time, explained that he decided to participate in this year's conference mainly because it was being held in Lebanon, and that his trip to Lebanon brought him in direct contact with issues he had only heard about before.
The main focus of the convention was the daily speaking program featuring panel speakers and lengthy discussion sessions. Lebanese Prime Minister Salim Hoss made the opening address, emphasizing that the much-discussed globalization phenomenon was nothing but a false term for the underlying reality of Americanization. A panel about the Arab-Israeli conflict followed, then a panel on "Arab America and the American Political Arena."
The next day's session opened with a discussion of Islam and America. Next came a heated panel on Iraq featuring Denis Halliday, former assistant to the secretary general of the UN, Naseer Aruri of the University of Massachusetts, and human rights activist Rania Masri. The session ended with a resoundingly clear message: the Gulf War sanctions against Iraq must stop; mass murder is being committed in Iraq with over 5,000 children dying monthly; and that all who sit silently, individuals and governments alike, share guilt for the suffering of the Iraqi people.
The last day featured a session on the Arab Maghreb chaired by Ali Abdullatif Ahmida, one on "Globalization, Oil, and Technology" chaired by Ashraf el-Bayoumi, and finally "Lebanon Today" with Hizbullah Politburo member Nawaf Mussawi as the guest speaker. Mussawi focused exclusively on the recent Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, pointing out that they had not left Lebanon in compliance with U.N. resolutions, but rather only after they had given up hope of breaking the spirit of the resistance and of the Lebanese people. He emphasized that the withdrawal was therefore a defeat of the Israeli army, its government, and its society.
As a final word, the association released a statement calling for the end of the sanctions imposed on Iraq. The AAUG faxed a copy of the statement to Arab foreign ministers and delegations attending the convention of Islamic foreign ministers in Kuala Lumpur, urging them to take immediate action. The statement must have made an impact - if not on the foreign ministers then at least on the Lebanese media and local organizations. Two days later, three convention speakers were invited for a special unplanned press conference on Iraq. This may be one reason why the convention organizers described it as one of their most successful.
ADS Meets in Beirut
For the first time since 1973, the American Druze Society held its annual convention in Beirut this July, having scheduled the event as early as 1999 as a show of support for Lebanon - long before the Israelis announced plans to withdraw from occupied southern Lebanon.
The convention program was extended a week to allow for a visit to the liberated areas of south Lebanon, including the notorious Khiam prison, Beaufort Castle and Hasbaya.
The convention drew over 200 immigrants from the United States, Canada, Venezuela, Brazil, and Australia, with more than 500 participants at some events. Holding the convention in Beirut proved to be a valuable experience, especially for those visiting Lebanon for the first time. Many parents, concerned with passing on their heritage to their children, found the convention a valuable hands-on learning experience. The visiting youths and young adults seemed sadly ignorant of the socio-political realities of recent Lebanese history; others had an exaggerated idea of the existing schisms within Lebanese society. For this next generation, the convention experience reduced the polarities and oversimplifications they harbored.
The learning experience, however, was two-way, for some of the panel discussions allowed Druze immigrants from North America, Britain, and Australia to share their experiences with their Lebanese cousins. Because Lebanese civil society continues to be ineffective, the local participants learned much from these sessions; a recurrent theme was the success of the civil rights movement in the United States. Since the ADS also functions as a charitable organization, often providing donations to the Lebanese Red Cross and other groups, it was important for the Druze immigrants to learn more about Lebanese realities and precisely where the need for funds is greatest. According to a convention attendee employed at Lebanon's Ministry of Agriculture, "ADS aid to Lebanon should target rural areas and should focus on those elements of society whose needs are not met by the Lebanese public sector or by other charities. In the past, the ADS has wasted a lot of valuable resources by contributing extensive funds to inefficient and failing organizations."
According to Fadi Zuhayri, ADS president-elect, the function of the ADS extends beyond socializing, networking, education and fund-raising within the Druze community, spilling over to all segments of the home societies. "Concern for our community," Zuhayri said, "does not mean the exclusion of others." In fact, one of the convention sessions focused exclusively on the likelihood of achieving global peaceful coexistence and included speeches by Orthodox Bishop George Khudor and Hisham Nashabi, director-general of the Makassed Foundation schools. Rabih Aridi, the first Arab to be elected to the board of directors of Amnesty International, preceded that session with a speech on human rights. AJ
This article appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 6, No. 32 (Summer 2000)
Copyright © 2000 by Al Jadid