Magazine

All the rage

Even as Middle Eastern students hotly denounce US policies, they line up for an American-style college education. For many, it’s their only ticket up and out.

This article was first published in The Boston Globe on April 20, 2003.

HANGING ON ONE WALL IN SAMER ARZOUNI’SBeirut bedroom are posters of American rappers Emin em and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. On the facing wall are photos of the late revolutionary icons of the Arab and Latin American worlds, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Che Guevara. The morning after the United States began bombing Iraq, the 22-year-old Arzouni got up, fixed himself some Brazilian instant coffee - he’s been boycotting his beloved Nescafe for more than a year because of Nestle’s support for Israel - and made his way over to the British Embassy in Lebanon, where he participated in a relatively mild antiwar demonstration.

The next day, Arzouni, the president of the student chapter of a Lebanese leftist party, helped organize a demonstration outside the American Embassy in Beirut. This one got nasty in a hurry. Like the rest of the several thousand protesters, he chanted expletives about George W. Bush and America while trying to dodge the tear gas and water-cannon fire unleashed by local security forces. The protesters never even got close to the fortresslike embassy building.

Advertisement

Afterward, Arzouni walked past his local Burger King, where during the past year he has often found himself standing and staring, fighting the temptation to give his stomach the Whopper it has craved since he joined a boycott of the fast-food giant to protest its opening of a franchise in an Israeli settlement on the West Bank. He went home to the apartment he shares with his mother and watched coverage of the war on both Al-Jazeera and CNN. “I know Al-Jazeera keeps some things out,” he says. “ CNN keeps other things out. You have to watch them both to get the real story.”

A few days later, he was back in his Visual Perceptions 201 class at Hawaii University: Business and Computer University College in the Hamra section of West Beirut, where the five-star Commodore Hotel fronts a block of still-scarred apartment buildings, their roofs crowded with satellite dishes, their windows cluttered with drying laun-dry. Hawaii University began in Lebanon a couple of years ago with 200 students; it now has nearly 3,000. Arzouni is a graphic-design student who chose the school for the same reasons most of his classmates did: “It’s affordable. It’s close by. And it’s not Lebanese.” More to the point, it’s American, an essential selling point even for Arabs who spend the bulk of their days assailing the United States. The college draws on the prestige radiating from the American University of Beirut, the “Harvard of the Middle East” that is just a short walk away. But unlike AUB, Arzouni’s college comes with a price tag most Lebanese can manage.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

It’s not clear what kind of Maui magic parents and students expect from an education at Hawaii University. Arzouni says he assumed his school was affiliated with a main campus somewhere in the South Pacific land of leis. When I asked one of the academic directors of Hawaii University in Lebanon where the mother ship was located, he said, “Los Angeles, California,” drawing out his pronunciation of the Golden State with a certain dreaminess.

“But it’s not a real campus in LA, right?”

“Oh, yes, it’s a campus,” Louis Nabbout said. After a long pause, during which it became clear he had no supporting documentation, he added, “You should really talk to our president. He has all that kind of information.”

Advertisement

In fact, Hawaii University’s presence in Los Angeles is its law firm’s office on Wilshire Boulevard. Still, its aura of “American education” is enough to keep the students coming.

It’s just one of dozens of American-style colleges that have sprouted across the Arab world in recent years. Some have strong connections to prestigious American universities. Others are closer to mom-and-pop operations. But, amazingly, just about all of these institutions find themselves more desirable than ever to Arab students - even as Coca-Cola and Starbucks are being boycotted, McDonald’s and Burger King outlets are being bombed, and American flags and Bush effigies are being burned like never before.

A University of Maryland/Zogby International poll conducted in February and early March asked people in several Arab countries if they had a favorable view of the United States. Only 32 percent of those surveyed in Lebanon said yes, and that qualified as a resounding endorsement for Uncle Sam. The US favorability rating was 9 percent in the United Arab Emirates, 6 percent in Morocco, and just 4 percent in Saudia Arabia. Yet all of those countries are playing host to new American-style colleges that are highly sought after by locals.

In the sinkhole of anti-Americanism in the Middle East, higher education is the last untainted American export.

“I’m proud that I’m getting an American education,” Arzouni says. “We all know an American education is much better. With it, we can work anywhere in the world. But at the same time, the American government has done lots and lots of massacres, gives blind support to Israel, and is interfering in the governments of the Arab world. We cannot not see that, we cannot not hate that.”

THERE WAS AN AMERICAN UNIVERSITY IN LEBANON BEFORE there was a Lebanon. In 1820, when the land that is now Lebanon was part of several Ottoman jurisdictions, Americans arrived with a mission. They were Presbyterians who had come looking for converts. But over time, they realized that they weren’t going to convert many Muslims and that they could have a greater impact by setting up schools to fill an educational vacuum. In 1866, a Vermont-born, Amherst-educated minister named Daniel Bliss opened the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut, an American-style institution that was set up independently of the Protestant mission. “This college,” Bliss declared, “is for all conditionsand classes of men without regard to color, nationality, race or religion. A man white, black or yellow, Christian, Jew, Mohammedan or heathen, may enter and enjoy all the advantages of the institution.”

The name would be changed, and there would be a couple of moves before it found its current home, a breath taking campus in West Beirut overlooking the Mediterranean. But this modest enterprise, which began with 16 students, would go on to become a thriving university where the Middle East’s brightest minds and wealthiest scions would be educated. In the proc ess, the association between “American” and excellence in education would be fixed in the Arab psyche.

By the end of World War I, when Britain and France were carving up the spoils of the Middle East, at times whimsically drawing country boundaries and plucking pliant Arab leaders from one part of the region and installing them on thrones in another, the Americans were more content to be expanding their educational reach. In 1920, the same year that France cobbled together the territory of modern-day Lebanon, Syrian Protestant College officially became the American University of Beirut. Around the same time, the American University in Cairo was born, drawing on the success of AUB and another American-style offering, Robert College in Istanbul. Other American colleges followed.

The American role in the Middle East for the first half of the 20th century could not have been more different from the one played by the European powers. Americans were by and large seen as being above colonialism. They were about giving rather than just taking. Instruction was in English, but the goal was to help Arabs appreciate their own rich history.

Things changed around World War II, when oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia, and America’s support for the new state of Israel and its emergence as a superpower obsessed with containing another superpower ended its aura of neutrality in the Arab world. Still, the Middle Eastern institutions Americans had nurtured continued to grow.

Today, AUB, which has 6,500 students, and the American University in Cairo, with 5,000, remain the most elite universities in the Arab world. Among the graduates of AUC is Gamal Mubarak, son of long-serving Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and, many Egyptians believe, his likely successor. But so much outside the gates of these American universities has changed.

The AUC campus, built around a former pasha palace and featuring an elegant courtyard, manages to remain gracious despite the smothering congestion that is Cairo. In a few years, the university will move to a spacious new campus it is building in the suburbs.

Few average Arabs have the same options. Across the Arab world, the combination of accelerating birth rates and collapsing economies means there are more students than ever in need of education and more governments less able than ever to provide it. So class sizes bulge to absurd levels. In Egypt, where more than half of the population of nearly 70 million is younger than 25, Cairo University now has upward of 200,000 students. It was built for 50,000. Meanwhile, government funding continues to shrink, the best and brightest faculty get cherry-picked by Western universities for their ever-multiplying Middle East and Islamic affairs centers, and diplomas increasingly become evidence of little more than time served.

For graduates with few marketable skills and few private-sector job options, the government becomes the employer of last resort, seeding its offices with throngs of low-paid workers. Walk into any major office building in Cairo today, and you’ll be met by three guys who usher you through the metal detector, three more on the other side who direct you to an information table a few yards away. The trio sitting at that table tell you what floor you need to go to, and point you to the elevator, where there is a guy standing inside to push the button for your floor. On each floor, there is a guy at a TABLE TO POINT YOU LEFT OR RIGHT. WHEN YOU GET TO THE OFFICE YOU’RE VISITING, THERE IS OFTEN AN OUTER OFFICE STAFFED WITH A FEW GUYS WHO DIRECT YOU TO AN INNER OFFICE, WHERE YOU MEET, AT LAST, THE GUY YOU CAME TO SEE. THE FIRST THING HE DOES IS CALL IN A GUY TO BRING YOU TEA.

Most of these guys have university degrees.

“It’s a race to the bottom,” says John Waterbury, the president of the American University of Beirut. A trim man graying at the temples, the Princeton-educated Waterbury is sitting in his spacious corner office in the university’s iconic clock-tower-capped College Hall, which offers a panoramic view of the wooded, seaside campus populated with well-dressed, cell-phone-toting students.

In many ways, this university, with its $11,000-and-up annual price tag and its private beach, is insulated from the hardships most Arabs face. Then again, in this region, insulation goes only so far. Waterbury sits in a rebuilt version of a building that was blown apart in 1991, just as Leb anon’s vicious 16-year civil war was winding down. And Waterbury is the first AUB president to live on campus since one of his predecessors, Malcolm Kerr, was assassinated in 1984.

Arab parents are like parents everywhere: They want better futures for their kids. When they see how the public universities have become diploma mills turning out graduates with the dimmest of job prospects, they look around for other options. “ AUB and AUC grads generally don’t have trouble finding jobs. Grads of Cairo University do,” says Waterbury, who wrote recently on the issue for Foreign Affairs magazine. But financially and academically, the top schools remain out of reach of most students. That explains the flood of new American-style institutions offering their instruction in English, which is recognized in the Arab world, as elsewhere, as the language of opportunity.

Waterbury says that in many Arab countries the arrival of these institutions has been made possible by the government’s ac cept ance that it can no longer provide adequate funding for its state-run educational system, so it might as well open it up to private outfits - either entrepreneurial or religious in nature.

And depending on how good the American school’s sales pitch is, it can attract the most unlikely of customers. Augustus Richard Norton, a Boston University professor of international relations and an authority on Hezbollah, says he knows prominent members of the avowedly anti-American organization (it is on the US government’s list of terrorist organizations) who have sent their children to American-style high schools in Beirut. “Education,” Norton says, “is, in a sense, neutral - a market choice.”

Look at it dead-on, and you think of Jefferson’s Monticello, with its domed roof, neo-classic style, and immaculate grounds. But let your eye wander just a smidge to the left, and you think of, well, a pair of three-story-high electric guitars. That’s because the freshly minted American University of Dubai happens to sit right next to the Hard Rock Cafe, the Dubai outpost of the once hip but now passe restaurant chain, which itself sits in front of that other symbol of early 1990s celebrity chic but more recently of Chapter 11 fame, Planet Hollywood.

AUD, an independent college located in the commercial hub of the United Arab Emirates, typifies the Persian Gulf region’s approach to American education, which is a lot like its approach to architecture: Everything should be shiny and new and an homage to something already established somewhere else in the world. In the neighboring emirate of Sharjah, a thriving new university is being run in conjunction with American University in Washington, D.C. New Jersey’s Stevens Institute of Technology is designing the curriculum for what will be Saudi Arabia’s first private university. The American University of Kuwait is slated to open next year.

But the mother of all American education efforts in the Gulf is Education City in Qatar, a dazzlingly ambitious government effort to coax respected American universities into setting up authentic satellite campuses in the tiny but extremely wealthy nation. Under the Qatari initiative - the ultimate example of buying top-shelf - Cornell University has established a fully accredited medical school campus there, and Virginia Commonwealth University has replicated its highly regarded fashion and interior design program. Government officials are in talks with Georgetown University to do the same for foreign service, Carnegie Mellon for business and technology, and Texas A&M for engineering.

Once you move out of the oil-rich Gulf, however, the demand is even greater, even though there are no resources to build massive paeans to American education. So the approach is more improvisational. “Most countries can’t build capacity fast enough,” says Allan Goodman, president of the New York-based Institute of International Education. “Just about everywhere, people are out of seats and out of faculty.”

The Lebanese government has licensed about 20 new colleges in the past few years, many of them advertising their “American” style. Most are small, though a few have grown rapidly, moving to new quarters to house the larger classes. Samer Arzouni says there’s a controversy swirling among his classmates at Hawaii University about what kind of diploma they will get. He says they were led to believe they would get a degree carrying “university” status. But, he says, they found out recently that that might not happen. The distinction is not academic. “In Lebanon,” he says, “a university degree is much more trustable by employers, so they pay you much more.” It’s also a requirement for many government jobs.

Still, he’s not too worried. Now that Hawaii U has nearly 3,000 students, he says, there will be lots of pressure on the government to grant it university status. That’s how other colleges that began without a license were eventually legitimized by the government, he says.

“So, that’s the pattern?” I ask Arzouni. “Expand to a point where so many lives would be affected that the government will have no choice but to give in?”

He laughs. “That’s Lebanon, man.”

Ziad Bekdash, the dean of students at Lebanon’s Hawaii U, declined comment.

While there may well be excellent education going on in these new colleges, with no reliable, uniform accreditation proc ess, it’s virtually impossible to tell. That’s why AUB and Leb anon’s other established universities don’t accept transfer students from these new colleges, says Waddah Nasr, AUB’s associate provost.

Nasr sits on Lebanon’s equivalency committee, a group of professionals who determine how degrees meas ure up to national stand ards. He calls the process by which these new colleges were licensed “scandalous.”

Tapping into widespread desire for an afford able American education, these new mostly for-profit ventures, which call themselves universities but are not licensed as such, are misleading students and parents, Nasr says. His equivalency committee has yet to grant “university” status to a single diploma awarded by these new American schools.

Another Lebanese offering of the Polynesian variety is Honolulu University: The American Academy of Technology. Its website home page carries this disclaimer: “Honolulu University is not accredited by an accrediting agency recognized by the United Stated (sic) secretary of education.”

Arzouni says he assumed his college had a campus full of students in Hawaii. In reality, it has a loose affiliation with a distance-learning operation in Maui that itself is not accredited. But that’s not a major concern for Arzouni or his classmates. “We have much more on our minds,” he says, “how to afford the tuition, whether we’re going to get a university degree.” He says it’s more important that Hawaii University offers American-style classes in English, affordable tuition (about $125 per credit), and a flexible schedule that allows students to work part time.

Those are the reasons why Hicham Fayed, a 23-year-old computer science major, chose the American University of Science and Technology in Beirut, which itself is an outgrowth of the American University of Technology.

Fayed spent two years at the public Lebanese University but thinks a diploma with “America” in it will give him a leg up when he goes to North America or the Persian Gulf to find work. “In Lebanon,” he says, “to find a job, it is not easy at all. You have to leave.”

Still, even as they use American textbooks and American computers, the students crowding into the classrooms of these new American colleges are increasingly filled with antipathy toward the American government and its policies. Even AUB and AUC, which, as the Harvard and Yale of the Middle East, have long been dismissed by average Lebanese and Egyptians as havens for aloof rich kids, have seen a sharp spike in anti-American demonstrations during the war with Iraq. Even the elite, who in the past wore their familiarity with America as a badge of prestige, who speak English with as much ease as Arabic, and who have long been as comfortable in the cafes of Cambridge as those of Cairo, can’t afford to sit out this round of rage against America.

Neil Swidey is a member of the Globe Magazine staff.
Loading comments...
Real journalists. Real journalism. Subscribe to The Boston Globe today.