BEIRUT: One hundred years after they were painstakingly written out by hand, the spirit of mischief still wafts off the pages of the Student Union Gazette.
“Thou shalt not smoke a cigarette, or any likeness of it, neither in your hermetically closed special room above, nor in the toilet beneath, nor under the big Kharoubi below,” reads the satirical “Ten Commandments,” written by the editor and handed down by “thy Dean, which have confined thee within the walls of the campus, the house of bondage.”
“Nor shalt thou hide the cigarette lit in thy pocket when I pass by,” it continues, “for I thy Dean am a remarkably powerful Dean, smelling the smoke.”
This week, the American University of Beirut’s President’s Club celebrated the rich history of campus life with the launch of A More Abundant Life, an exhibition of student publications from 1899 to 1933, when the university was the Syrian Protestant College. Lacking a printing press, the students produced each copy by hand – one for the library’s archive and one to be shared among the students.
The exhibition, on display in West Hall through June 5, offers a rare glimpse into student life at the beginning of the 20th century through political writings, satire, editorials, illustrations, advertisements, sports, and more than a few love poems.
Curator Mona Khalaf said she was impressed by the breadth of subjects and genres covered in both Arabic and English, with even a few contributions in French.
“I was struck by the richness of what they had done, not only the variety of topics, but that they did the job very thoroughly,” she said, adding that the illustrations were also beautifully done.
Above all, she said, the content of the magazines reflects the values of the liberal education promoted by the Syrian Protestant College.
Considerable ink was devoted to women’s issues and co-education (the Syrian Protestant College began enrolling women in the 1920s after accepting women to the nursing school during World War I). The pieces range from lighthearted marriage advice reflective of the times, to more serious manifestos on the equality of the sexes.
“The women’s movement in the East will not succeed until Eastern girls fill the schools so they may know and demand their rights,” read one article in Arabic from Al-Zahrah, 1927. “The educated Eastern man’s heart would break ... if he were obliged to marry an ignorant woman. Once reform is widespread and accepted, fears over women’s education will subside.”
As to whether students today might recognize themselves in the publications of their predecessors, Maria al-Hajj, a 21-year-old double biology and food science major, found the student magazines of yesteryear more impressive than today’s offerings.
“I loved it,” said Hajj, who was working as an usher at the exhibit as part of her work-study scholarship. “Now they just expose very trivial things – movie reviews, food, restaurants – but back in the day they used to write about things that are important, for example poetry or politics.”
Kawkab Chebaro, head of archives and special collections at the university’s Jafet Library, hopes the exhibition will bring attention to the importance of preservation. The university’s archives include not only the documented history of the institution from its founding in 1866, but many rare books and manuscripts, mostly in Arabic and some dating back to the Fatimid and Abbasid periods.
“I hope people will become more aware of the fragility and importance of documents and think about depositing what they have, because everyone has an archive,” she said. “I hope people will think about donating or preserving this ... and reach out to us and to other institutions.”