Despite the political and economic turmoil that Lebanon has endured for many years – which culminated in violence weeks before the recent Doha accord – I recently noticed that the number of international students around the American University of Beirut (AUB) campus has grown. One only has to attend a course on Middle Eastern studies to notice the diversity of nationalities, with students coming from the United States and throughout Europe.
In addition to their obvious interest in learning more about Middle Eastern culture through studying abroad, most foreign students have very openly embraced and adapted to life in Beirut.
I must admit that I was surprised why anyone would voluntarily choose to come and live in Beirut, especially given Lebanon s seemingly constant conflict and the fact that some of the best universities in the world exist in Europe and the United States. But when I asked students what was so attractive about Lebanon I received a recurrent and rather simplistic answer.
Kevin describes his story succinctly: I came here in 2006 for a short visit, and I loved it. It s so vibrant. As soon as I graduated from college in the United States, I decided to return to Beirut, so I applied to AUB for my masters, got accepted, and moved here.
Most international students live close to the university in the Hamra area, and become familiar with the rhythm of the city within months of arriving. Surprisingly, they do not need help getting around and know places that we Lebanese are not even aware of.
Another student, Francis, told me that he had become a regular at a local pub and that the owner now depends on him to stay updated with the latest music trends. Sarah, another student, told me that she had been to beaches all over the Lebanese coast except those in the South, which she is anxious to discover this summer.
Many students enroll in classical Arabic courses and some achieve a high degree of fluency. They develop an undeniably adorable accent in the process and greet fellow students with a heart-warming Marhaba.
Sometimes I have even found myself in the unique situation of asking for help from them on technical terms, though we speak a Lebanese dialect from birth and are instructed in classical Arabic at school.
When you ask students here if they have made friends, they remark how easy it was, how booming the social life is, and how friendly and embracing people are towards them. People are very amicable here, said Dan, as soon as they find out I am from New York, they want to get to know me.
Most people admit that they carried prejudices when they first came, but they have since been proven untrue. As James jokingly told me, There are no crazy Arabs; they were just a figure of my imagination!
Others say that while they knew before arriving that they would not be living in a place radically different from the one they called home, friends and family had warned against coming to Lebanon. I m glad I came, said Dan, now I know not to blindly trust what people tell me.
Looking at the story from individual perspectives, you see a tale of different cultures living together, learning from each other and accepting each other.
On the international level however, a different story exists. Listening to the evening news provides a glimpse into the constant debates and conflicts between the United States and the Middle East, the endless visits and conversations of various political figures, and the constant turmoil of focusing on differences rather than a common understanding.
That these two accounts are so different, I think, is worth pondering.
I ask myself why I found it hard to imagine that international students would come here willingly, and adapt so quickly. Why was I surprised to learn that they knew places in my own country that even I didn t know about, or that they knew Arabic as well as I did?
I think that there is a tendency on both sides to classify the opposite side as a distinct other, someone so culturally different that the differences are impossible to overcome. A closer in the field look however, reveals that West and East get along just fine.
I am not advocating for anything here, except that people postpone their judgment until they have gotten to know the other. Often, they will discover that they are not so different after all. As the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty said: How can we understand someone else without sacrificing him to our logic or it to him?
I realise that my argument may be a little naïve, for I am well aware that love is not the only thing that makes the world go round; there are international powers at play, politics of nations and the like, things of which I am no expert. However, in the midst of such conflict, it is a breath of fresh air to see West and East get along, at AUB at least.
Nathalie Nahas is a graduate student majoring in anthropology at the American University of Beirut. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.