Fifty years ago I was a 20-year-old college student from a small town in Kansas packing my bags to go to Lebanon. I, along with five other Americans, was anticipating the two-week trip by freighter from New York that would take us to another land, another culture — almost another world.
Upon landing in Beirut, several of us started classes at the American University of Beirut. That school year, 1956-57, transformed us all. Our year in the “Paris of the Middle East” introduced us to other languages, other religions, other foods and, most important to all, to a rich diversity of people.
At the university, I was one of 27 American students out of 3,500. My French teacher was Russian, my Shakespeare teacher from England, and my philosophy teacher Canadian. Spring semester I started a class in formal Arabic, but deciding it was more fun to learn the language on the streets, in the shops and from my dear Lebanese roommate, I dropped the class.
The hostel I lived in had neither central heating nor running water. What it did have was three floors of women students from all over the world, a cook that made delicious hummus and now and then french fries, and a watchman outside our gated housing, a little man in his 80s who taught me Arabic and let me ride his bike.
The campus of the American University in Beirut is beautiful. The soccer field overlooks the blue, blue Mediterranean Sea. Flowing trees and bushes are everywhere, and an hour’s drive takes you to the mountains.
But the best part for me was not the locale but the warm, friendly Lebanese families — Christian and Muslim — insisting I visit in their homes and eat with them, for they have a saying, “If we share salt, we will never be enemies.”
I sometimes dream of those happy days and lovely people, and today I weep for the Lebanon that less than a month ago seemed again so vibrant with promise. After many years of civil war, Lebanon was rebuilding itself. The Syrian occupation was over, and a new democratic government was in place.
Now beautiful Lebanon is in ruins, her citizens scattered in terror from their bombed homes.
I wonder what has happened to my Lebanese roommate. I wonder why so many innocent children are dying. I wonder where the survivors will go when this devastation ends.
I wonder why my government doesn’t care.
Janet Baker serves on two peace committees, including Citizens for Justice in the Middle East. She lives in Leawood.
© 2006 The Kansas City Star