Dr. Atif Debs,
Wed, 06 Oct 2004
Your good efforts to document the history of the MIT Arab Club bring to memory many of the good and sometimes sad times of a very critical era. I came to MIT as a Freshman in September 1960 and lingered around till February, 1969 after completing a full suite of degrees, S. B., S. M. and Ph. D. in Electrical Engineering. During this 8.5 years period many things happened not only in the composition of the Arab student body, but also the Arab World as a whole.
When I came to MIT, Egypt and Syria were a united country, the United Arab Republic (UAR) - a union that started in February of 1958 and which ended in the summer of 1961. At that time I actually carried a UAR passport, to be replaced in a few years by my Lebanese passport, as my family had emigrated to Lebanon in the early 1900's but could not obtain Lebanese nationality till the early 60's. In short, I was Lebanese, but with deep Syrian roots, but of course, I am now American since the mid 70's. After leaving MIT, I worked for almost 3 years with a consulting firm in Palo Alto, California. Although my field was in systems and controls, I was assigned to work on Electric Power utility control centers projects, and somehow I became an instant "expert" in a brand new field. This was indeed very exciting and led to a challenging decision I had to make in the summer on 1971 whereby I was invited to interview at Georgia Tech for a Chaired position in Electric Power. Somehow because of my age I did not get the Chair, but I did get an offer to start the electric power program at Georgia Tech. I found the task enticing and challenging, and it led to my joining of the Georgia Tech faculty in December 1971 until I resigned in 1994.
With a lot of sweat and tears, the Georgia Tech Power Program was developed along the new approaches of systems and control, more faculty were added over the years and it eventually became one of the leading such programs in the USA. In 1994, I decided to take on another challenge - leading a company I had started many years earlier. At present, I am still running our company (DSI) building on a lot of the knowledge gained during the academic years. Now during the Georgia Tech years, I had the opportunity to work in Kuwait, as Director of the Engineering Division at the Kuwait Institute of Scientific Research (KISR) from 1979 to 1983. This was actually part of an arrangement between Georgia Tech and KISR whereby I had retained my full faculty status even when in Kuwait. The Kuwait years were quite memorable for me and the family especially, that my son, Talal, tasted the Middle East firsthand during a critical period of his growth. He has by now obtained a Ph. D. in the Philosophy of Physics at Cambridge University and is a Research Fellow at the London School of Economics (LSE) Although the foregoing may not be relevant to the direct task at hand, I thought that a brief introduction would help us to know each other.
I would like to divide the history of the Arab Club during my 8.5 years into 3 rather distinct "eras," (1) 1961-'64, (2) 1964-'67, and (3) 1967 - '69. In the first era, the Arab "body" consisted mainly of two main groups of Egyptians and Iraqi's. People like myself fell in the crack, so to speak. The majority of Egyptians were graduate students while the rest were undergraduate and I believe more than 75% of both groups were scholarship students. These demographics were interesting since the scholarship students tended to favor the "socialist" agenda of Nasser or the Baath Party with the others remaining in the undecided category. Of course, the main issues of this era in the Arab World related to the rivalry between Nasser and the Baath, socialism vs. capitalism, with "Arab Unity" as the key political concept. The leadership of the Arab Club was of course mainly from the Undergraduate group and hence, mainly, non-Egyptian but with notable exceptions like the active participation of Farouk El-Baz. The most active Arab Club leader was Qais Fattah, who was majoring in Civil Engineering and who returned back to Iraq after graduation in 1964. Of course I started as a member, but eventually became Secretary. Other good club leaders were Rurik Halabi and Mr. Maalouf, both Lebanese.
Prior to the second era there was a gradual inflow of non-scholarship students, students from strong "old-regime" backgrounds from Iraq and Jordan with family names like, Chalabi, Allawi, Talhouni, Khudhairy and others. The resulting political tensions in the Middle East were reflected locally at MIT and led initially to a focus on social activities - dinners, Arabic movies, picnics, with limited cultural events. In fact, I found it to be more challenging to work with the International Student Council (ISC) as the Arab Club representative. This association became handy, when later on, in February 1966, we took on a challenging task of sponsoring a weekend seminar on Lebanon.
The background of this important seminar goes back to a similar, but smaller one, at Harvard, with a seminar on Egypt. The leaders at Harvard were mainly Ismael Serageldin (now Director of the Biblioteque, Alexandria), his sister, Mona (Professor at Harvard) and of course, Osama El-Baz. As all these were my good friends, we agreed that the MIT Arab Club should do something on Lebanon. I believe that from 1965 onward, I was the de-facto president - because of a vacuum at the undergraduate level and a few entrants at the graduate one, notably John Makhoul. What happened also, is that just prior to the Lebanon Seminar, the famous (infamous) Intra Bank, went bankrupt, causing a big tremor in the Lebanese economy. Hence, we titled the seminar, "Lebanon: Capitalism or Laissee Faire?" We ended up with a full weekend seminar that was kicked off on the Friday before with a full "Lebanon Day" at the MIT student center. I recall the night before when Osama El-Baz and I helped the kitchen staff with the cooking - despite the fact that we had given them detailed recipes of all the dishes. Somehow, they were not comfortable making Humus and Baklava! I cannot forget spending that Thursday night making Humus for 2000 people, and with Osama making Baklava for the same number! Of course we provided Arab entertainment to the whole student body with a music and dance troupe from New York.
Much more important was the seminar itself as it featured some very talented speakers: From Intra Bank itself, Professor Kamal Salibi (who was on a visiting appointment at Harvard), Basim Musallam, then a Ph. D. student at Harvard (now Fellow, Kings College, Cambridge University), local members of the community, etc. And because we were so successful, the national Organization of Arab Student (OAS), whose president was invited to the seminar, was enthusiastic about holding its 1967 annual convention at the MIT Student Center. Little we knew that history would take a turn on June 5, 1967!
The convention itself, held in August, 1967, was surrounded with the ultimate tension from all sides, and I was in the spotlight from all angles - with the Office of the Advisor to Foreign Students (Mr. Eugene Chamberlain) who was afraid of possible demonstrations and unrest on campus, the rather "radical" leadership of the OAS who found me not radical enough to their taste, and the bureaucracy of the OAS itself that wanted to control every transaction, despite flying against common sense! The theme of the convention was "The Recent Setback" in Palestine, as no one was willing to declare it an outright defeat! Fayez Sayegh, the eloquent Palestinian keynote speaker gave a very emotional address, well received by the audience, but declared inflammatory by the local press. It was quite fortunate that my girlfriend at the time (later on, my dear wife), Caroline, took time off from here senior position at the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to help me and the team. With her skills as a journalist and a public relations professional she managed to put some sense into the daily press releases. We were fortunate that the man in charge of the releases, Mr. Kashashian, an Armenian very enthusiastic about the Arab cause, was more interested in the mechanics, rather than the words, of the press releases. As a result, Caroline and I worked hard on putting a respectable face in the releases, including as I recall, the translation of President Nasser's Telegram to the convention.
The last "era" past the convention can be summarized with one focus: The Arab and Palestinian Conflict. By that time, all the local university Arab clubs, or organizations, were working together in a rare show of cooperation and comradeship. One of the key "trigger" events was a dinner organized by the Office of Foreign Students at MIT, via Mr. Chamberlain auspices, for an open discussion of the potential of "peace" in the Middle East. The invitees were the Arab Club (and their Greater Boston Area associates) and the MIT Israel Club. After consideration, our group agreed to participate in the dinner, and that was the first time I had an opportunity to "talk" to an Israeli (we had many prior opportunities of shouting at each other!). The result of the dinner (held at the Faculty Club), was an agreement to hold an evening of dialog involving some key personalities invited by both sides. I remember inviting Dr. Fayez Sayegh, Dr. Tahseen Bashir and Dr. Ismat Abdel-Mageed - all pivotal personalities at the UN from the Arab side. But the event was torpedoed upon my receipt of a call from Mr. Bashir letting me know that the Israeli daily, Ma'arif had published a front page article declaring that I (Atif Debs), was ready to sign a "peace manifesto" with Israel. It seems, our friends in New York took the matter seriously and threatened to withdraw. In a meeting in Chamberlain's office with the President of the Israel Club I told them that the "dialog event" would be dead unless Ma'arif retracts the article. But that did not happen and the project was cancelled.
But this painful experience gave me an idea, why not have our own lecture series by inviting speakers from the Israeli side to speak at our events, provided they allow us to rebut their statements? The first speaker whom we invited, however, was an Israeli but anti-Zionist and anti occupation. That did not sit too well by the Israeli Club and consequently, the second speaker was MIT Rabbi Polak. I recall that his lecture provided a lot of good ideas for discussion, and I believe, opened the eyes of some Israeli's that there is a case on the other side! The Rabbi became a good friend, as he appreciated our gesture, and eventually, held a graduation party for me (He invited my Arab friends and members of the Israel Club and Hillel Society).
John Makhoul, who was my right hand man in all of the developments during this era, continued the lecture series after I left and I believe, managed to get funding from the MIT Student Government to pay speaker and other expenses.
Of course history has continued with many notable events - but I lost touch myself with what happened at MIT. My faculty advisor, Professor Mike Athans retired several years back, and I almost had an opportunity to see him last year in Lisbon. I am quite excited about learning about the MIT Arab Student Organization past 1970. Your efforts are truly welcome and worthwhile and I hope I will get the chance to meet you if and when I travel to your area.