Wed, 06 Oct 2004

Dr. John Makhoul

I arrived at MIT in February 1966. Atif Debs was president of the MIT Arab Club and I believe remained so until he left MIT in early 1969. I took over as president until my graduation in June 1970. After that, Mujid Kazimi took over as president.

I believe Atif played an important role in making the MIT Arab Club a vibrant and active organization. For example, in 1966, Atif and the Arab Club organized a weekend workshop on Lebanon at the MIT Student Center, with many invited speakers. Atif even arranged for the Student Center cafeteria to serve Lebanese food for lunch on Saturday.

In early 1967, before the June War, we invited Noam Chomsky to speak on the Middle East. At the time, Chomsky had never spoken on the Middle East, so no one knew what he would say. The talk was held in the Student Center and the room there was overflowing with people. I chaired the event. To everyone's surprise, Chomsky said that we should be supporting Arafat and the PLO. That talk generated a lot of attacks against Chomsky, including threats on his life. Chomsky would never again come out in favor of supporting the PLO, although he has always been for a two-state solution. (This was Chomsky's first public talk on the Middle East.)

In the summer of 1967, MIT hosted the annual convention of the Organization of Arab Students (OAS). It was an important meeting because it came soon after the June War. The keynote speaker was Fayez Sayegh, perhaps the most eloquent spokesperson on the Palestinian issue ever. Sayegh was Palestinian, but he served as the Permanent Representative of Kuwait in the United Nations for many years.

After Sayegh's keynote speech, I felt like I had gone through a "conversion" of sorts. I could no longer be complacent about what was going on in the Middle East. I had always been apolitical before that, but after that conference I took it upon myself to learn about the history of the establishment of Israel, so I read many books on the subject. A number of us in the Arab Club were called upon to give talks in various places, often with Israeli students in the same forum. We held study groups to educate ourselves on the politics of the Middle East.

We organized a number of lectures on the Middle East at MIT. One of the most notable set of lectures was a lecture series for Jewish speakers, including Rabbi Pollack, who was the MIT Rabbi at the time. A few of us, including Atif and myself, plus some students from Harvard, held a series of meetings with Israeli students to see if we could reach a better understanding of each other's positions.

During the late 1960s, the MIT Arab Club was one of the most active clubs at MIT. As one sign of its activity, I was elected to serve as a representative of foreign students to the MIT Graduate Student Council at one point.

In the late 1960s, the various Arab clubs in the Boston area (notably MIT, Harvard, and BU) formed a Greater Boston Organization of Arab Students in order to coordinate activities. The organization elected an excecutive committee. I served as secretary of the organization at one point. Ismail Serageddine and Usama El-Baz (Farouq's brother) were two of the leaders. (Usama continues to serve as advisor to the President of Egypt.)

The Association of Arab-American University Graduates (AAUG) was established in 1968, and they held a couple of early organizational meetings at MIT. Mujid Kazimi and I subsequently served as presidents of AAUG.