In many respects this poignant and moving personal memoir is the latest and perhaps the last in a long succession of accounts about a life spent in the Middle East. First penned by American and British missionaries like Grant, Perkins, Jessup, Goodell and the various Blisses and by travelers like Pococke, Burckhardt, Came, Burton and Oliphant, they were taken up by diplomats, literatti and academics like Irving, Twain, Cox, Sykes, Badeau and, my own personal favorite, Lawrence Grafftey-Smifh in his masterful example of the genre, Bright Levant (John Murray, 1970). The background and career of Malcolm Kerr, the author's husband, drew on and reflected the whole spectrum of such sagas. Born in Beirut to Presbyterian missionary and academic parents (his father, Stanley, wrote a memorable account of the massacre of the Armenians of Marash in the period immediately following World War I), he grew up in the Middle East and spent most of his adult life either working there or lecturing on its problems of political development in the United States.
When the position of president of the American University of Beirut was offered to him during some of the darkest moments of the Lebanese Civil War in 1982-a job for which he seemed almost destined-he readily accepted despite the dangers it posed for him and his family. In the event, he served fewer than two years m the place he clearly had hoped to spend the remaining part of his professional career. That his life was cut so tragically short at age 52 was a serious blow not just to his wife and children but to the university to which he was so devoted and which had been so much a part of his own persona.
Ann Kerr's memoir is primarily about her husband's career and the hopes he had for the Middle East and A.U.B. in particular. It is a very personal account, and for those of us who knew Beirut before 1975 a touching and painful reminder of a world irrevocably lost. For those who did not know Lebanon in the 1950s and '60s, much of the narrative may well come across as overly sentimental and oblivious to the problematic social undercurrents that were to lead to the outbreak of civil war in 1975. But to a young American woman from Southern California who came to Beirut as a junior-year-abroad student, met her husband-to-be and raised her family in the overly protected cocoon of the A.U.B. campus and adjacent Western cultural bubble of Ras Beirut, hard realities did not easily intrude.
To such American families this environment was pleasantly-not threateningly exotic, peopled by a myriad of quaint sects and tribes whose intricate family rivalries laced with political corruption and sexual imbroglios provided material to titillate their imaginations and enliven cocktail gossip. The desperate underside of this world, especially that of the poor and the refugee and their manipulation by local and external interests, would have been more clearly visible to Malcolm Kerr, born and raised in this environment. But in the end even he miscalculated the intensity with which seemingly trivial ambitions were fanatically embraced by deadly rivals. So did many, many Lebanese.
The author's account of her husband's final career assignment makes the most interesting reading. Quoting liberally from her own diary, she writes evenly and with considerable control as events begin to overtake and finally sunder the challenging life that the two of them had long looked forward to and for which he was as prepared as anyone could have been. With the assassination of Malcom Kerr, an era of American involvement in the Middle East-one marked by devotion to ideals and concern for the educational, medical and spiritual welfare of its indigenous peoples-came to an abrupt end, to be displaced by a more cynical, amoral involvement based on the reality of wider international concerns and the importance of pleasing the powerful Zionist lobby as well as other domestic interests in the United States. As those faculty members and alumni of A.U.B. who can remember the pre-1975 days of chapel services and the Protestant work-ethic morality that used to prevail grow older, retire and die, an era will have passed forever. We should be grateful to Ann Kerr forgiving us a sympathetic portrayal of how it was.
For some readers such an account might seem a throwback to the old style of thinly veiled imperialist condescension, white do-gooders writing de haut en bas about the natives. In this they would be mistaken. As much as Malcolm Kerr represented the old missionary and academic tradition of American presence in the Middle East, he also embodied the second- and third-generation view that, once goals had been achieved, it was time for the founding order to fade into the background. It is, therefore, fitting that his successor should be an American born to Syrian Arab immigrants.
The book is divided into four parts and nineteen chapters, with a foreword by the late Albert Hourani, who must have died shortly after writing it, and many photos of the Kerr family at various times and places. It begins with the terrible events of January 18, 1984, and flashes back to the earliest years of Malcom's and Ann's lives, progressing chronologically to the present. The style is relaxed, even chatty, but at the same time organized and informative. The author knows Lebanon well and also its history, but there are the occasional glitches. The villages of the Shouf region are not mixed Christian and Muslim (p. 69) but Christian and Druze. There are several Muslim (both Sunni and Shia) settlements in the Shouf foothills south of Damour, but no Christians (or Druze) live there. The Muslims of Ras Beirut, at least at the time the author was writing about, were almost exclusively Sunni, with a small number of Druze but few if any of the Shia she informs us lived there (p. 145). The Druze khalwa or religious meeting place, is never referred to as a 'temple" (which in Arabic is haykal), and the Druze religious movement emerged in the eleventh, not the twelfth, century(p. 72).
The "huge old pipe organ" which accompanied the academic procession in November 1992 for Malcolm's inauguration as A.U.B. president in the university chapel (p. 215) is not old at all. It had been installed, new, only ten years earlier in 1972 by the Danish firm of Marcussen. The "old organ" the author remembers from her student days had long since been related to the local Protestant community, its pipes soon to be seen adorning squatters huts near the airport as make shift chimneys once the downtown Evangelical church was destroyed in the fighting. Happily this was not the fate of the A.U.B. organ, still very much muse as the only instrument of its equality in the Middle East. I know this to be a fact because I play it regularly.
On most occasions Ann Kerr gets things right. All readers will profit from this lively account of a man who, according to the epitaph on his simple memorial stone next to the old college chapel (now, for reasons of religious sensitivity, referred to as the Assembly Hall-no chapel services have been held there since 1976) "lived life abundantly,' a direct reference to the university's famous motto taken from St. John's Gospel. It is fitting that he should be remembered for his achievements in life, not for the tragedy of his early and senseless death. We should thank his wife forgiving us, from the perspective of a decade afterward, this worthy remembrance.