By Jacques d’Nalgar, October 11, 2004
1974 was the year I graduated from ACS. We were one of the last classes from those strange days between the wars of 1967 and 1973 and the horror that almost erased Lebanon, a time and place that 30 years later, still weaves itself into my thoughts and dreams every day. By my senior year there were only two or three of us left who had started out together in the first grade; many families left after the wars and during the preludes to civil war that followed. Those of us who remained were the first witnesses to the end of ACS as an island of Americana in a foreign land, and the beginning of an evolution for the school that continues to this day.
As young children, we grew up in a time when the US embassy hosted Fourth of July celebrations at the beach, complete with twist contests, fireworks, and free Cokes and hot dogs. Streets were named after American presidents. American sailors were a common sight in Beirut when the Navy fleet visited each year. By the time we graduated, the fleet visits were a fading memory, Coca Cola was banned, and tear gas from anti-American riots at AUB wafted over our beloved ACS campus.
As teenagers, we were never preoccupied with the great political and military upheavals that were playing out in the region. In some cases, we followed them as you would an athletic spectacle; I still have a collection of Arabic newspapers from the “Ramadan War” of 1973. If we had bothered to notice, we’d have seen suffering and humiliation beyond comprehension, but we were far more concerned with homework and pop quizzes and acne and the traumas of real and imagined romances. During my senior and junior years at ACS, Larry David (our wonderful band director, now deceased) hired a train to take us to a beach near Sidon. Coming and going, the train would stop to board PLO escorts, armed with Kalashnikovs, for safe passage through refugee camps. We were more interested in the machine guns than we were in the men who carried them.
As Americans, we were typical creatures of our popular culture and we pursued hamburgers, pizza, and rock and roll with the same intensity as our stateside cousins. We were the sons and daughters of straight-laced missionaries, diplomats, and petroleum engineers, but we were growing up during those strange days when the facade of Norman Rockwell’s world was crumbling around us. We wanted to look like the hippies and Vietnam protesters we saw on television, so we grew long hair and wandered the ancient suqs to find used Army jackets. We rolled up notebook paper and pretended to smoke pot; some did more than pretend.
We came from different parts of America and Europe (there were few Lebanese students in those days) and were thrown together in the mélange of cultures that defined life in Beirut. As diverse as we were in terms of our geographical and economic backgrounds, at ACS it all boiled down to two distinct tribes – “day students” and those wild people who lived in the BD. Ours was, by comparison, a relatively normal existence. We went home each night to mothers and fathers, dinners around the kitchen table, and all those sundry little things you never again take for granted once you’ve left the sanctuary of home and family. We envied boarding students, with their seemingly bohemian lives, unfettered by the watchful eyes of uncool parents. I now suspect many would have traded their freedoms for our drab routines of home life – and some home cooking.
My last visit to Beirut was in 1978. In four short years everything had changed. The suqs were abandoned, their stone columns deeply eroded by bullets and shrapnel. I nearly wept as I stood in the ruins of Community Church; our baccalaureate service and countless others before it had been held in that majestic old structure. We used to walk home late at night and now we were afraid to be out after the sun went down. The neighborhood rooster had been replaced by a too-close 50-caliber machine gun. The Lebanon I had known was no more. ACS was empty. A few of the caretakers looked familiar and the banyan tree in front of the high school was a bit larger, but the courtyard and playgrounds were strangely silent.
Three decades have passed since graduation. By all accounts Lebanon and ACS are again thriving. But they are not the places of my youth, the sights and sounds and smells that still haunt my dreams and color my perceptions of the world around me. I now live in Hot Springs, the same small Arkansas city where Bill Clinton grew up; his stepfather sometimes sits behind us in the catfish diner down by the airport. About 20 miles from here is a small community that exists in name only. All that’s really left is an old church building and a cemetery. Everything else has disappeared under a lake built by the Corps of Engineers. Once a year, the descendants of the town’s residents gather for a picnic in the churchyard, to take care of the graves, sing a few hymns, and swap stories. For me, ACS is a lot like that. The buildings are still there, but the school that we once knew so intimately has vanished like the strange times we lived in. Thirty years later, we use e-mail and reunions to seek out our classmates and other alumni as touchstones, confirmations that those fleeting days, however strange, were real and still somehow meaningful…
For today’s students and teachers: whether you are there for many years or only a few months, ACS will have a profound affect on you that you may spend the rest of your life trying to understand. Embrace your culture, breathe deeply the history and humanity that surrounds you. There is no place on the planet as enchanting and exhilarating as Lebanon. May your ACS days be as strange as mine were, but in ways unique to you and the times you live in.