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Beirut has regained some of its pre-war glitter.  Every month, it seems, a glossy magazine publishes a travelogue raving about the city’s restaurants, clubs, and beautiful citizens, inevitably followed by a barrage of indignant comments about how the writer visited all the wrong places.  As in the past, what Beirut lacks in infrastructure it makes up for with cachet. 

Nearly all tributes to Beirut reproduce cliches about West and East colliding, competing, clashing, and cohabitating, even those trying to undermine the genre.  Perhaps the inability to say anything original about Beirut is more the fault of subject than authorship.  There’s only so much a person can do with a place too complicated for conventional adjectives.  In turn, visitors tend to explore their most vivid fantasies of hedonism and brutality, perhaps history’s most common literary motif—authors since Homer, after all, have juxtaposed sex and war as foils or mirror images. 

I write about my experience of Beirut with great trepidation, because I know that every observation will produce hundreds of exclusions.  Instead of trying to quantify the place, I want to politicize the city.  Doing so will give readers a reason to be angry with me, which is the kind of concrete reaction Beirut has earned. 

Beirut thrives on instability.  It is a locus of chaos, a wash of human movement, always entertaining envoys of exiles and arrivals, antagonists and diplomats, expats and emigres.  It’s no surprise that the city inspires so much reflection.  It’s nearly impossible to live in Beirut without a desire to compose letters of love and complaint to faraway audiences. 


I write this on a balmy summer night, chain-smoking on my balcony, car horns and fireworks ubiquitous on the nearby corniche, mosquitoes (emboldened by Lebanon’s mounds of organic waste) circling my ankles, water from a mounted air conditioner dripping on my elbow.  Tomorrow I will board a plane to the United States, where spontaneous revelry won’t elicit merriment, just the police.  The second thing I must do upon my return is quit smoking.  The first thing I must do is re-acclimate to people who believe in the fundamental goodness of the American government. 

My story of the city begins and ends with the American University, fenced off from Beirut but exemplary of its impossibilities.  Like any elite university, AUB trades in mythologies ranging from ludicrous to fanciful.  Upon taking office two years ago, its Lebanese-American president, Fadlo Khuri, penned an operatic song called “The Abundance Plan,” which managed to be even worse than its title promised.  (Or better, if you’re a fan of good bad music.) 

The notion of abundance is central to AUB’s brand.  The university markets itself as a harbinger of development, proselytizing civility with the enthusiasm of an entry-level missionary.  To hear the university tell it, no less than the future of the Levant is contingent on its ability to compete in the brutal giving economy.  Unlike old-fashioned missionaries toting textual material and a tradition of hermeneutics, AUB envisions a technocratic redemption.  It doesn’t value a life of ideas, but the drudgery of boldness, innovation, modernity, and other neoliberal buzzwords.  AUB is an offshore exemplar of U.S. capitalism. 

These commitments have stifled intellectual life on campus.  AUB is reputed to be a great place to work, which, like anything subjective, is a question of context and perception.  But the imagery of vigorous theoretical and political debate, of young revolutionaries and liberatory rhetoric, is anachronistic, belonging to the glossy brochures of our nostalgia.  AUB exploits its reputation while disavowing the substance of its history.  Whether or not one enjoys working there is immaterial to a more pressing reality:  at the university, freedom is merely a slogan. 

AUB’s rapid enervation is impressive, if only by virtue of spectacular faculty obeisance.  Immediately Khuri and his vassals announced a disdain for shared governance by interfering in faculty searches, empowering reactionary mediocrities, cosseting the U.S. State Department, appointing leaders without meaningful feedback, exhibiting prickliness to any sort of dissent, and speaking harshly to critics, including students.  Because they faced little resistance, they felt free to carry on, a predictable outcome.  With no countervailing power impeding its ambitions, AUB management happily accepted the gift of acquiescence. 

Individual faculty are implicated, but as a class faculty around the globe are increasingly disempowered, their caution symptomatic of precarious economic and professional conditions:  most are just trying to survive an insecure existence, with few viable job options and no incentive to resist.  The ambitious ones vie for security through shows of deference.  AUB’s new administration was abetted by its commitment to implementing a system of tenure, the first in AUB’s history.  Rather than safeguarding dissent, as it promises, we have an example of tenure galvanizing timidity.  By making every faculty member subject to review, and thus in competition for a valuable but limited commodity, the administration ensured across-the-board compliance.  Despite these special circumstances, the compliance accords to what we observe in general:  tenure functions as a greater disciplining mechanism the rarer it becomes. 

Elites understand two things better than their antagonists: once an unpopular figure attains power even his most adamant detractors will become sycophants, and once a community becomes acculturated to sycophancy then dissent can be regulated through vigorous peer pressure.  AUB management, well-versed in the ways of the ruling class, have leveraged these basic laws of capitalism to create the quintessence of the corporate university.  Khuri is the CEO of campus limited, festooned daily on the university’s front page glad-handing investors and guiding underlings.  He has yet to be publicly criticized by his reputedly unruly employees. 

Malaise can quickly permeate a campus, another advantage administration enjoys.  A few months ago, AUB management abruptly eliminated monthly graduate assistant and graduate teaching assistant stipends, leaving it to department chairs to share the news with their students.  Once the chairs carried out that duty, students could be forgiven for inferring they’d enjoy no institutional support should they decide to challenge the new policy.  The grad students tried to organize, but the best they could muster was a pitiful appeal for better communication.  There is no greater sign of defeat than a resistance whose goal is dialogue. 

But there’s a larger story here, simultaneously oblique and obvious:  Palestine.  What does Palestine have to do with this complex of issues?  Put it this way:  look closely at any controversy around campus corporatization and before long you’ll find Palestine.  It’s the most consequential nation in the world, ubiquitous despite being technically nonexistent. 

Palestine is no longer the rhetorical flashpoint it was in the days of Nasser and Habash, but it’s still the Arab World’s signature issue.  It looms especially large in Lebanon, which is filled with Palestinians and shares a contentious border with Israel.  Lebanon’s most populous and powerful party remains devoted to the armed liberation of Palestine.  The dream of certain Lebanese idealists is to purge the nation of all foreign elements—ie, Palestinians and Syrians—but I doubt even the most vociferous actually believes it possible.  The constant negation of Palestine and Syria ensures their permanence in the national imagination. 

AUB assumes the anxieties of the surrounding region it endeavors to transcend and civilize.  One can suffer those anxieties simply by claiming or being given an identity.  I learned this in my first week, when more than one person whispered to me that I wasn’t entirely welcome.  My hiring as the Edward Said Chair of American Studies in 2015 had apparently caused some consternation among board members, investors, administrators, and US politicians, who attempted to cancel my appointment. 

Steven Salaita. (Photo: Twitter)

I didn’t leave AUB; I was ousted, deprived by management of a permanent job for which I had been selected.  For a long time after it happened, I was shocked that Zionist pressure could succeed in the Arab World.  Having suffered that pressure in the United States, I knew the danger of aggravating pro-Israel groups, many of which make a living denying the same right to others.  The affair made me rethink some of my assumptions about Zionism as a settler-colonial project.  I realized that Zionism informs class loyalty as strongly as it does ideological devotion. 

The best thing about getting a gig in Lebanon, I figured, would be the inability of Zionists to affect my career.  That they traversed a supposedly ironclad border to do exactly that seemed to me a damning reflection on the Arab World.  I know this train of thought is distasteful because it amplifies an unjustified sense of self-importance.  My insignificance, however, remains perfectly intact, which only highlights the seriousness of the problem.  People express shock that such a thing could happen at AUB.  I forgive their incredulity.  I didn’t think it could happen, either.  It was a devastating miscalculation. 

This sort of miscalculation is common when we limit Palestine to the contours of its own geography or imagine Israel to be a mere fetish of special interest groups.  We need to understand Zionism in relation to issues of class and racism in a global setting.  Where people aspire to respectability, Palestine—as a site of liberatory struggle and not a social media brand—is a detriment, just as surely in Beirut or Amman as in New York City.  Palestine’s disrepute is a good thing insofar as the nation retains a revolutionary appeal.  Its disrepute isn’t so good for people who want to identify with it and still earn a living.  When anti-Zionist politics get suppressed in Arab countries, the obvious explanation is anti-Palestinianism, yet it’s equally likely to be the exertion of plutocratic strictures against dissent, articulated, as always, in concert with affirmations of state power. 

In fact, a token of maturity in Arab countries, as defined by Western politicians and the local elites in their employ, is the willingness to overcome archaic tribal mentalities and support normalization with Israel.  Formal and under-the-table alliances with the venerable Zionist enemy are now common in the Arab World.  As a result, normalization doubles as rationality; achieving the status of modern is contingent on accepting Israel’s validity.  One of the greatest achievements of the old colonial powers is the reproduction of their influence in former possessions by orchestrating economies that attach material rewards to consent. 

This influence permeates campus managerial cultures.  To upper administrators, Zionism isn’t necessarily a supremacist ideology of settler colonization and ethnic cleansing or an inspiring liberation movement of persecuted underdogs.  It is neoliberalism.  It is deference to power.  It is normativity.  It is civility.  It is repression.  It is capitalism.  It is conformity.  It is, above all, a devotion that pleases the American master, something to which all good clerks aspire. 

AUB doesn’t want to banish people for supporting Palestine’s liberation, but for refusing to decontextualize Palestine’s liberation from global frameworks of anti-racism, anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, and anti-colonization.  Few campuses tolerate this sort of commitment.  Ideologies collaborate with political identities to produce bankable skillsets.  Zionism is a foolproof path to a safe identity.  No Lebanese, even those who perform operatic conformity, would identify as a Zionist.  Plenty, however, maintain the conditions that allow ethnonationalism to flourish. 


In its own strange way, “The Abundance Plan” makes perfect sense.  Its main problem isn’t terrible composition, but terminological confusion.  AUB doesn’t seek abundance, something that implies shared access; it pursues accumulation on behalf of those who safeguard the brand. 

Reflecting the cultural habits it purports to transcend, AUB employs a circuitous process to arrive at a simple desire.  Look at a map of Beirut.  There are few right angles.  The streets loop and curve in ways that make little sense in two dimensions.  Walk the city, though, and you realize that the curvatures represent hills and gullies—the streets devise a kind of asphalt terracing hosting high-rises instead of crops.  These cartographic undulations typify the city’s disposition. 

While inequality, especially of income, is everywhere visible, it rarely gets featured in paeans to Beirut’s gritty exoticism.  Most writers choose to ignore the city’s multinational subculture of slaves and refugees.  Thousands of outsiders (and some locals) are captive to putative employers who rarely face sanction because they represent the state.  Stories of ungodly abuse circulate, but never in polite company.  Lebanon’s ballyhooed modernity, as in the old countries its devotees adore, achieves solvency through the exploitation of foreigners. 

I could never expunge this aspect of Beirut from my consciousness.  What connections, I often wondered, exist between the nearby horrors of Zionist colonization and the racial and economic iniquities within Lebanese society?  (While I focus on Lebanon because of my time living there, it’s important to recognize that the same questions apply to nearly all nation-states.)  The two problems seem discrete, but I could never shake the sense that they are related.  I’ve been cautious not to subsume or minimize the seriousness of racism and labor exploitation in Lebanon.  Still, the question nagged. 

AUB enabled me to discern the linkages.  Befitting the self-image of a benighted institution, AUB is awash in discourses of tolerance and humanism, a rhetoric of invention painstakingly calibrated for the educated consumer, but the university’s essential function, consecrated in the same discourses, is to maintain a class order that engenders injustice.  If faculty cannot, or will not, resist, then they become complicit in administrative machinations that abet ruling class imperatives (something many faculty see as their own). 

If we displace AUB from West Beirut, then we can discover its relationships with political parties, multinational conglomerates, dictators and potentates, real estate bosses, and other wealthy universities.  These are not networks, a word that suggests discreteness, but a sort of corporate kinship.  AUB serves the interests of the social and economic classes that instigate migration of the poor and thereby produce the conditions for transnational slavery.  Israel enforces those conditions. 

Global inequality wouldn’t exist in its current manifestations without settler colonization.  Neither problem will be solved in isolation.  My analysis elides significant differences, and these issues require a more careful discussion than what I’ve provided, but a good starting point is recognition that anti-Zionism must supersede a provincial understanding of Israel’s role in the world.  It’s important to quit thinking about Zionism as a problem exclusive to Palestinians, though they most directly suffer its violence.  Israel is nested in systems of racial capitalism from which Zionism emerged and to which it attaches itself in return. 

Here’s why the corporate university, even one in a country hostile to Israel, sees anti-Zionism as inherently threatening. 


Now I am writing from northern Virginia.  I can’t quite get accustomed to artificial lakes and walking paths, apartment complexes surrounded by parking spaces, or the verdant musk of freshly-cut grass.  Everywhere I drive, I see American flags pasted on the storm doors of suburban homes, humble little significations of civic virtue.  I’d forgotten the importance of displaying patriotism in the United States.  I miss Beirut. 

But longing doesn’t ameliorate intellectual and economic alienation.  The same limits of political imagination exist in both Lebanon and Virginia.  The two places share few similarities of culture and topography, but each in its own way acclimates denizens to capitalist indignities.  In whimsical moments, we talk about our movements across the globe, wanderlust forever colliding with physical limitation, but stress and restlessness are constant because their sources await wherever we travel. 

AUB taught me that lesson.  I moved to the Middle East to escape Zionism, but encountered it upon my arrival.  Some ideologies cannot be evaded, only destroyed.  This is especially true of ideologies that portend destruction. 

Yet there’s been great value in these journeys across the Atlantic.  I’ve come to understand that there’s wisdom in humility and lightness in abundance.  And so as I sit among the elegant shrubbery and boxy shopping centers of the DC suburbs, where bureaucratic surplus nests in generic housing, I take solace in the rhyme schemes of a great composer who tried, but couldn’t save me:

The world was rarely darker,
when a wise man crossed the seas
The mission he was seeking,
would almost bring him to his knees
He saw the Levant darkening,
its people in distress
The last thing he was thinking,
was whom he might impress.

Steven Salaita

Steven Salaita's most recent book is Inter/Nationalism: Decolonizing Native America and Palestine.

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25 Responses

  1. philweiss on August 21, 2017, 10:20 am

    Mordant and wise. Salaita’s understanding obviously extends to not just American elites but the reigning neoliberal ideology in corporate/political life. You dont have to be a Zionist, but Zionism is embedded in that ideology and if you openly question it, your membership gets spindled.

  2. Citizen on August 21, 2017, 12:40 pm

    “The same limits of political imagination exist in both Lebanon and Virginia”

    This river runs back to Balfour & Lord Rothschild.

  3. Jackdaw on August 21, 2017, 4:29 pm

    This sad sack…sees Jews under his bed.
    Better to see an imaginary bete noir than to look in the mirror and see the uglier reality.

    • eljay on August 21, 2017, 5:17 pm

      || Jackdaw: … Better to see an imaginary bete noir than to look in the mirror and see the uglier reality. ||

      That is a perfect description of Zionists. Thanks for nailing it.

      • Jon66 on August 21, 2017, 10:17 pm

        Next time try:
        “I know you are, but what am I?”
        It’s more poetic.

      • eljay on August 22, 2017, 8:53 am

        || Jon66: Eljay,
        Next time try:
        “I know you are, but what am I?”
        It’s more poetic. ||

        I get it: You’re afraid to look in the mirror.

      • Mooser on August 22, 2017, 12:22 pm

        “I get it: You’re afraid to look in the mirror.”

        “eljay”, whenever “Jon 66” looks in the mirror, he sees another Zionist.

    • JosephA on August 21, 2017, 7:13 pm

      Mr. Salaita,

      Thanks for sharing such a thoughtful article. May the likes of “Jackdaw” one day see the light.

      • Jackdaw on August 22, 2017, 11:23 am


        Please show me where in Salaita’s article he offers any proof that ‘Zionists’ were behind his termination from the American School.

      • Emory Riddle on August 25, 2017, 9:30 am

        Steven Salaita will not be reinstated under the terms of an out of court settlement with the University of Illinois.

        The deal will pay Salaita $875,0000 – about ten times the annual salary he would have received as a tenured professor in the American Indian Studies program at the university’s flagship Urbana-Champaign campus.

        “This settlement is a vindication for me, but more importantly, it is a victory for academic freedom and the First Amendment,” Salaita said in a release from his legal counsel, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the law firm Loevy & Loevy.

        The settlement brings an end to Salaita’s breach of contract lawsuit against university trustees and administrators over his August 2014 firing because of his tweets excoriating Israel’s attack on Gaza.

        Salaita had sought reinstatement as well as financial damages.

        The terms of the deal will come as a surprise to some supporters. His lawyers had said all along that Salaita was willing to settle, but that his primary goal would be to get his job back.

        The university has been adamant, however, that it would not allow him into the classroom.

        “This is an important victory, even if the bigger fight isn’t over,” Salaita added in a post on Facebook. “At this point I am ready to move beyond this particular matter and continue doing what I love – teaching, writing, organizing, and contributing in whatever way I can to struggles for justice.”

        “The University believes that reaching a settlement with Dr. Salaita is the most reasonable option to fully and finally conclude all of the pending issues,” Urbana-Champaign Interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson said.

        “Although the amount is significant, it is less than what we would spend if the case were to continue and proceed to trial over the next year,” she added.

        The university statement said Salaita would receive a lump sum of $600,000, while the remaining amount would cover his legal fees.

        Cause celebre
        Salaita’s case became a cause celebre for academic freedom, highlighting the role of pro-Israel donors in pressuring university administrators.

        Thousands of academics pledged to boycott the university until he was reinstated.

        The Salaita affair devastated and demoralized the university’s celebrated American Indian Studies program, leading to the departure of several faculty.

        His firing also earned the University of Illinois a formal censure from the American Association of University Professors for violating academic freedom, a rare rebuke and severe blow to its reputation.

        “The petitions, demonstrations, and investigations, as well as the legal case, have reinvigorated American higher education as a place of critical thinking and rigorous debate, and I am deeply grateful to all who have spoken out,” Salaita’s statement said.

        The university has undoubtedly paid a high price by bowing to Israel lobby pressure. The settlement with Salaita deals only with the legal aspects of the matter but not with questions of ethics and academic freedom which will tar the university’s reputation for years to come and could discourage academics and students from applying there.

    • RoHa on August 21, 2017, 8:24 pm

      Unlike the plethora of sad sacks who see anti-Semites under their beds.

    • kma on August 22, 2017, 4:38 pm

      scary Jews under the bed? “uglier” Palestinians in the mirror? somebody sounds a little racist!

      wish the “bete noir” were imaginary, but the reality is our nation is staring at Donald Trump in the mirror, and though some just don’t like the reflection (and the Jackdaws take pride in it), most of us are struck with shame because we know that our country needs to change its ways.

  4. Keith on August 21, 2017, 5:02 pm

    STEVEN SALAITA- “For a long time after it happened, I was shocked that Zionist pressure could succeed in the Arab World.”

    Zionist pressure, I would suggest, which is centered in the US not Israel. In a globalized world run (more or less) by a globalized corporate/financial empire, there is no running away. You were made an example of and still are. You are the face of what happens to those who get uppity with those in power. I thought your analysis was good and the article well written.

  5. JLewisDickerson on August 21, 2017, 7:43 pm

    RE: “People express shock that such a thing could happen at AUB. I forgive their incredulity. I didn’t think it could happen, either. It was a devastating miscalculation. This sort of miscalculation is common when we limit Palestine to the contours of its own geography or imagine Israel to be a mere fetish of special interest groups.” ~ Salaita

    A NICE COMPANION PIECE: “The Story of Charlottesville Was Written in Blood in the Ukraine” | by Ajamu Baraka | | August 17, 2017
    LINK ➤

    P.S. BREATHTAKING: “I know this train of thought is distasteful because it amplifies an unjustified sense of self-importance. My insignificance, however, remains perfectly intact, which only highlights the seriousness of the problem.” ~ Salaita

  6. wdr on August 21, 2017, 10:48 pm

    Sounds like paranoia. If the AUB is under Zionist influence/control, how was he hired in the first place? They knew why he had to leave Illinois, so why did they hire him? Nor does he explain the nature of his contract- tenure-track or not, full time or not, or who voted on keeping him. Was there a committee? The notion that “Zionists” are in control of a university in Beirut would be laughably idiotic, if it did not come straight from the “Jews control the world and also poison the wells” variety of anti-semitic nonsense.

    • Qualtrough on August 22, 2017, 12:33 pm

      Did he write that Zionists were in control of the University? I must have missed that part. Much more likely and plausible is that influential donors, including the US government, made it clear that he was an unwelcome addition to the faculty. That’s pretty much how he lost his last job, isn’t it?

      Having said that, and not agreeing with anything you wrote, I do wish he had offered some specifics of the nature of his dismissal.

      • wdr on August 22, 2017, 8:36 pm

        Possibly you might wish to name the “influential donors” who did this. Name names. I would be very interested to see your list.

    • kma on August 22, 2017, 4:09 pm

      wdr, in case your comment is sincere, you should re-read the article. Salaita was ousted from AUB and writes a very good essay on the bigger problem: a socio-economic power structure that depends upon consumption of the lives of other humans.

      I look forward to the next chapter! and I have no doubt that there is a position for Steven Salaita, hopefully in the US, because his talent and expertise in his field is too much to waste! The department that hired him in Illinois knows that – every single one of them. Students are missing out.

      • Qualtrough on August 23, 2017, 2:47 am

        @wdr – I have to assume your Google is broken because it took me all of 0.15 seconds to find their donor list:

        I also did not say that it was from donor pressure, I said it was likely and plausible.

      • wdr on August 24, 2017, 3:53 am

        Qualtrough- You might tell me which of their donors won’t contribute or threatened not to contribute unless Salaita was sacked. Which ones?
        The claim that an academic lost his job at an Arab university in Beirut because he was too pro-Palestinian and too anti-Zionist is just plain preposterous.
        In probably 98% of cases where an academic loses his job, is not given tenure, or isn’t promoted, there are two reasons- no money, or the academic hasn’t published enough.
        PS- Did you murder Julia Wallace?

      • Jackdaw on August 25, 2017, 1:08 pm

        Just look at that donors list. A veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of Zionists.

        Salaita was let go by two universities because he is a ‘pop off’. No administrator needs them.

  7. YoniFalic on August 22, 2017, 10:58 am

    Zionist manipulation tends to be reactive, and it might take some time to find the right buttons to push. Jewish bigots have been playing this game for some time. The bigots were not able to ban Entdecktes Judenthum immediately.

    When we review more contemporary racist Jewish/Zionist attempts to control discourse on campus, we find fairly poor success from the David Project and the Israel on Campus Coalition a few years ago. The failures were followed by more recent wins for the bigots and Zios.

    Joseph Massad and Nadia Abu el-Haj were targeted without success, but Jewish bigots/Zios have had more success in targeting Normal Finkelstein and Steven Salaita.

    Jewish bigots/Zios learn from their failures and then retune their tools of controlling discourse — why I take part in this forum under an assumed name. At this point the Jewish bigots/Zios seem to have found the right buttons to push at a leading American-Arab university.

    • Jon66 on August 22, 2017, 12:23 pm

      Eisenmenger according to your source advocated that the government act towards Jews by “restricting their economic liberties and rights, banning them from writing criticisms of Christianity, and proscribing both their synagogues and law courts.”
      And you are comparing the professors advocacy to this?

    • DaBakr on August 22, 2017, 3:55 pm


      So, when I apologized for making a play on your name it was really a play on your fake name? Hmm. Ok. Maybe yf is more like your alter ego more then an assumed name. I even remember you discussing your first name once.
      Anyway, your bringing up eisenmenger shows mainly how far out on the fringe you are. it takes a lot of work to dig up the most obscure jew haters from the four corners of the continent.
      And, it still does nothing to prop up saliata’s paranoid case of jews I the woodwork. even the angry Arab-who skewers his home county, I don’t think, proposes the aub is controlled by zionists. If the zionists do control the Arab world, America, Europe, Africa,etc., Isn’t it game up?

      • Mooser on August 22, 2017, 4:54 pm

        ” case of jews I the woodwork”

        Who must contend with “Hophmi’s” ‘antisemites in the woodwork’. Must be hell in the wainscoting.

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