An odd topic, you say. Not really. Ms. Cortas’ daughter, the widow of Columbia Professor of Comparative Literature, Edward Said, has recently edited and published her mother’s memoirs.
Ms. Cortas was a very accomplished Arab woman, educated both in Lebanon and the United States, where she earned a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. Born in 1909, she became in 1935 the Head of School at the Ahliah School, a private girls school in central Beirut, a position she held for over 25 years. This school educated a significant number of Lebanon’s female intellectual and social elite, and was highly respected.
Her memoir, partially read last night at Busboys and Poets by Mrs. Said, and her daughter, talks about her childhood in Lebanon, her time in Ann Arbor, her work experiences, the effect of the 1948 end of the British Mandate over Palestine, the wars 1948, and the Lebanese civil war of the late 1970s. Completed shortly before her death in 1979, the book appears to re-create a lost world, with accuracy and sympathy.
Not knowing much about Lebanese educational policy during this time period, I asked whether the school had Moslems or Christians, and whether it was a religiously related school. I was told that the school (located in a former Presbyterian Missionary building in the center of Beirut’s Jewish area) had a very diverse student body, Moslems, Christians and Jews. Knowing what I know now about the Arab middle east, and what I think I know about Lebanon, that suprised me.
But I was more surprised at what a woman sitting a few tables in front of me said. A graduate of the school (as were several women in attendance), she said, simply, “and we didn’t know what anyone’s religion was.”
Suave, sophisticated, cosmopolitan Beirut. Where are you now?