American Sheikhs is the story of a great institution—the American University of Beirut (AUB)—and the families who created and fostered it for almost 150 years. Author Brian VanDeMark’s vivid narrative includes not only the colorful history of AUB and many memorable episodes in a family saga, but also larger and more important themes. In the story of the efforts of these two families to build a great school with alternating audacity, arrogance, generosity, paternalism, and vision, the author clearly sees an allegory for the larger history of the United States in the Middle East.
Before 1945, AUB’s history is largely positive. Despite American nationalism and presumptions of Manifest Destiny, Middle Easterners generally viewed the school as an engine of constructive change and the United States as a benign force in the region. But in the post-World War II era, with the rise of America as a world power, AUB found itself buffeted by the strong winds of nationalist frustration, Zionism and anti-Zionism, and—eventually—Islamic extremism. Middle Easterners became more ambivalent about America’s purposes and began to see the university not just as a cradle of learning but also as an agent of undesirable Western interests.
This story is full of meaning today. By revealing how and why the Blisses and Dodges both succeeded and failed in their attempts to influence the Middle East, VanDeMark shows how America’s outreach to the Middle East can be improved and the vital importance of maintaining good relations between Americans and the Arab world in the new century.
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Brian VanDeMark is the author of Pandora’s Keepers: Nine Men and the Atomic Bomb and Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War. He is the coauthor of the number one bestselling memoir of Robert McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. He teaches history at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.Review:
"A highly original contribution to our understanding of America’s troubling relationship with the Middle East. VanDeMark . . . tell[s] a multigenerational story about the founding and growing influence of the American University of Beirut (AUB) over the last one hundred fifty years. It is the story of a turbulent and complicated love affair between America’s earliest Christian missionaries and the Arab world. . . . VanDeMark has written a concise and highly accessible history of the American missionaries and their political and intellectual legacy."
Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian and author ofCrossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956–1978
"An enlightening history centered on the AUB and its influence in the Middle East. . . . Setting the university against the backdrop of . . . conflicts and political power struggles . . . VanDeMark’s closing chapters skillfully document post-9/11 anti-Americanism in the Middle East."
"An excellent study of a neglected subject. It should be of interest to anyone concerned about US relations with the Middle East and the continuing difficulties we face in the region."
Robert Dallek, Presidential historian
"With the fastidious care of a historian and the passion of one who understands the significance of the AUB to the United States and the Middle East, VanDeMark tells the fascinating story of the intertwining history of the university and its founding families with America’s diplomatic and political involvement in the region. In a style that is both accessible and absorbing, he concisely traces the evolution of one hundred fifty years of history that is a prerequisite for understanding America’s challenges in the Arab world today and posits that the AUB can still offer, rather than impose, the best of American values."
Ann Kerr-Adams, Former student, teacher, and member of the Board of Trusteesof the American University of Beirut and author of Come with Me from Lebanon
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