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Elie Salem: From the Platform of the University

“I am an existentialist. I am a Greek Orthodox existentialist. I follow Dostoyevsky and Berdyaev and I am obsessed with Heidegger. So, the book is a philosophical essay.”

So, indeed it is.  There is quite a lot of intensity in this 2013 edited collection of salient ideas from speeches made over the last two decades. The title of the book is “Al Afez Fawq al Hawajez,” or, roughly, “Jumping Over Obstacles.” The author is Elie Salem, writer, academic, formerly Minister of Foreign Affairs, and currently very much president of the University of Balamand.
 
“I have been president of Balamand for 21 years and I have spoken on many occasions, but always as the president of the University. All of my positions have been from the platform of the University and have to do with the role of the University.”
 
Known around campus for his jovial character and sense of humor, Elie Salem says that when he speaks as the institution’s curator he is always “dead serious.” On those occasions, “I was never flighty and did not address issues that are nothing to me.” 
Read "Al Afez Fawq Al Hawajez"

Even when circumstances may have allowed for simple platitudes, Elie Salem chose to deliver a message. He looked at every occasion, and indeed at every obstacle, as an opportunity to marshal a point.
 
One such occasion was his welcoming address to the conference on “Francophonie: Conflict or Complementarity?” held at the University in 2007, and billed as a “profound colloquium over the different aspects – literary, philosophical, sociological and political – of the current state of the French language.”

Welcoming the audience, among them  Ambassador Bernard Emié, Elie Salem started by admitting to a reputation among colleagues for being a “merciless assassin of the French language,” although that did not prevent him from an occasional use of bon mots in his speech. While maybe not an exemplary francophone, Dr. Salem told his audience that he was certainly and unabashedly a Francophile, an admirer of French culture and French history.
 
In his address, he recounted that as an elementary school student he had the distinctive opportunity to recite a poem, in person, to the bigger-than-life General Charles de Gaulle when the Free French leader visited the nearby village of Abra. The young Elie Salem delivered the poem – in French! –   the general then:

“ Lifted me up to his Olympic heights, deposited a kiss on each cheek, praised my poetic flights, and deposited me to the ground. I was instantaneously transformed from an average pupil in an average school into a mythic figure.” He tells it and roars with laughter. 
 
Despite his admiration for De Gaulle and the great generals of history, Dr. Salem told the audience that what France had best contributed to world civilization were that country’s writers, poets and philosophers, those who create ideas that eventually change the direction of society. French thinkers had offered humanity “the ‘Rights of Man’ and the great trinity of the French Revolution – Liberté, egalité, fraternité.” Other cultures, he said, “have had their coups d’état, their wars of independence, but France had a revolution in the name of mankind.”

It was the early 20th century enamorment with all that was French, Dr. Salem suggested, that led to him being named Elie, rather than Ilyas.  “Umm Elie sounded more palatable to modern ears than Umm Ilyas, and definitely put the new born in a more contemporaneous context.  Names could have an ontological impact.” It seems to have been true in his case.
A message that runs throughout the book is on the importance of being contemporaneous, on the need to look at the world constantly with fresh and critical eyes. It is the business of a university, says Dr. Salem, to encourage that practice.
 
“The university is an inquisitive institution where one comes not just to get a degree, but it’s a place where you will decide what and who you’ll be.” Socrates, he says, “was absolutely right when he said that the unexamined life is not worth living.”
 
“This is where there is freedom to inquire, to search for truth, to observe and examine the conflict of ideas.” The Islamic theologian Abu Hasan al Ash’ari and the Apostle Paul, says Dr. Salem, “both said that faith is about not asking why, while the basic existence of a university is premised on the why and the what for.”
 
So how does Dr. Salem reconcile between faith, as a Greek Orthodox, and reason, as a believer in the message of the university?
 
“When people ask me about my faith, I always quote from the Gospel. When Christ asked someone ‘Do you believe?’ the man replied ‘Oh Lord I believe. Help Thou my unbelief.’  There are miracles, and mysteries in this world, and no intellectual can understand or explain them all. Every intellectual will reach a stage where he is confronted with a mystery and must answer it in one way or the other. I accept the mystery and follow it as my Orthodox faith.

“As an intellectual, my Christianity takes on the extra dimension of critical thought that tends to bend belief into action that promotes the life of man, deepens his existence, and broadens his world. To me, thought deepens faith, and I always fear lest blind faith hinders thought and arrests progress. Prevailing fundamentalism in religion is a case in point.”

The university should offer an opportunity for all to present and argue their cases and explanations on how to explain this world, says Dr. Salem. The Church, he argues, should be given the opportunity to teach itself in the Faculty of Theology. “We also have a program in Cultural Studies that teaches what Christianity is, what Islam is, what Buddhism is, and so forth.”

The freedom to do this in the Arab World is largely the privilege of Lebanon. “This is why I am very much with Lebanon, with preserving this freedom," says Dr. Salem. 

"As a Greek Orthodox who lives in Koura, I wanted to know who the neighbors are. And so I am deeply rooted in Christianity and Islam.  I read the Bible a number of times and read it deeply, and the Koran. And I think it is important to know the other and love him as he is. Knowing the other should not weaken you, it should strengthen you.”  

So this book, divided into six thematic sections, edited by Professor Georges Dorlian, Dean of the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, tells of the principles that have guided Dr. Salem over more than two decades in his stewardship of the University.

He is proud of what he has done. “I am accountable for what you see, whether you approve of it or not, from the landscape of the gardens to the scholarly programs. I was lucky to come in when the University was still very young, and was able to help shape it and give it direction.” Lebanon, he says, is the only place in the Arab World where a university president has the privilege of acting on his beliefs and choices – and he did so, enjoying the support of the Church, of the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, and his colleagues.

But he is also apprehensive. “The two biggest problems facing Lebanon today are ignorance and the almost unconscious willingness of some to follow blindly their leaders, a mob mentality. I get really mad when I hear students saying they follow this person or that person. I tell them of what Plato taught: ‘One should be the one whose praises are sung, not the poet who sings them’.”

Part of the mission of the University of Balamand is to make sure that its students become leaders, and not followers – and this is one of the many messages of this rich and philosophy-laden book, which can hardly be covered or explained in a short article.

“The book,” says Dr. Salem, “is me.” And no follower of Dostoyevsky and Berdyaev, who is obsessed with Heidegger can be summarized in a few paragraphs.

Ramez Maluf
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