Elevate Difference

A World I Loved: The Story of an Arab Woman

Nostalgia is front and center in Wadad Makdisi Cortas’ atmospheric memoir of life in Beirut, a war-torn city once belonging to Syria and later, the capital of Lebanon. Born in 1909, Cortas died in 1979, but her impassioned account of a four-decade career as principal of the Ahliah School for Girls touches on themes that remained pertinent throughout the twentieth century—colonialism and the founding of Israel, among them.

Cortas was fiercely committed to the education of girls and sought international examples to prod her students into imagining an array of possibilities for their lives. American journalist Dorothy Thompson gave a talk on campus; so did Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, the first woman president of the UN General Assembly; Bertha Vester, a Jerusalem resident who founded a children’s hospital; and Helen Keller. “Nationalism as a chauvinist ideal never took root in our school,” Cortas writes. “Fairness, humanity, and principles of equal rights all found deep expression in our collective inner life.” 

Her descriptions of visits to Palestine before 1917’s Balfour Declaration—in which Lord Arthur Balfour promised to give Palestine to the Zionists—and following the creation of Israel as a Jewish homeland, are gripping. “For Arabs the problem of Palestine was our common denominator,” she writes. Her position was, in part, shaped by Jawaharlal Nehru’s assertion: “When the British declared that they were willing to establish a national home for the Jews in Palestine, Palestine was not a wilderness. There were Arabs and non-Arabs living there, Moslems and Christians… Zionism is a colonial movement. The generous offer of the British was made at the expense of Arabs.”

Cortas’ allies in opposing Israel included Albert Einstein, who favored a bi-national state in Palestine and condemned the violence and terrorism wrought by the Haganah and the Stern Gang against Palestinian villagers. In fact, Cortas consistently sought to include the voices of anti-Zionist Jews in her work, and her outspoken activism always included expression of distress over Jewish persecution in Europe. As the same time, she writes, she felt that it was unjust “that the Arab world was being forced to bear the consequences of Europe’s cruelty.”

Yet despite the efforts of anti-Zionists the world over, in 1949, Israel came into being. Not long after, Lebanon was torn apart by civil war and Cortas’ memoir closes with a searing account of the fighting, 1974-1978. “Hatred breeds hatred,” she concludes, “and love breeds love.”

This simple statement sums up Cortas’ philosophy toward both her students and toward political engagement. An optimist but not a Pollyanna, her example is invigorating. While I wished A World I Loved had provided a bridge between her death and today—an afterward, perhaps, about the Ahliah School and the state of contemporary women’s education in Arab countries—the book is nonetheless fascinating. Full of nuanced historical detail and rich observations, it reintroduces a foremother whose wit and grace help explicate the political quagmires of the twenty-first century.

Written by: Eleanor J. Bader, May 11th 2009