Cultures Without Borders is the story of a Lebanese woman who defies the stereotypes that the West has about Arab women. It is the story of a young girl who grew up during the golden years of Lebanon from the 50s through 1975 when Lebanon was considered the only democracy in the Middle East where the media could criticize the president of the country, and many other presidents and no one went to jail for being critical, and where Christians and Muslims lived in peace.
This is also a story of the discovery of common ground among cultures. The author, who lived in France and the US, and who traveled and worked in more than 40 countries, discovered that the common ground among cultures is by far more important than the apparent differences, and that the more human beings understood, acknowledged, and valued the common ground, the more they became global citizens. The book deals with the US and Arab cultures and describes where they meet and overlap, and where they diverge. The writer believes, however, that as a result of acknowledging that borders of cultures are porous, the possibilities of wars diminish and the likelihood of peace increases.
The memoir also focuses on the transformative power of girls’ education and why it is now increasingly being recognized as the cornerstone of women’s empowerment. The book draws examples from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Morocco, Mali, Malawi, and the Congo where the author worked, and where positive transformation of societies has a chance due to girls’ education.
This book is extremely timely given what is happening in Nigeria, regarding girls and their education, and given what has been happening in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen in the past few years also regarding girls’ education.
Cultures Without Borders is the story of a unique woman who has found and embraced the Other within herself.
May Rihani’s book is proof of the emptiness of three stereotypes: she challenges the idea that Arab women are submissive, that there are no democracies in the Middle East, and the notion of a “clash of civilizations.” Her life demonstrates global leadership by a Lebanese Arab woman, and her memoir describes a golden age in Lebanon when democracy and freedom of expression were taken for granted. Perhaps most importantly, Cultures Without Borders finds the common ground among cultures despite apparent differences. This is an eyewitness account of the rich and profound goodness in humanity.
H.E. Amine Gemayel, former President of Lebanon
Cultures Without Borders contains important lessons for all those who aspire to live as productive global citizens in the twenty-first century. On the macro level, May Rihani’s book demonstrates the falsity of the “clash of civilizations” theory that posits inevitable conflict between peoples of differing cultures. Instead, through personal anecdotes and authoritative evidence drawn from real-world experiences, she demonstrates the universality of the impulse to transcend frontiers of the mind and connect peacefully with “the other” through education and dialogue.
Suheil Bushrui, Professor Emeritus, University of Maryland
Cultures without Borders is a historical and memoiristic account of several journeys, through time, place and the life of a remarkable woman. This beautiful and moving story starts with a young girl’s childhood in the multi-confessional and multicultural Lebanon of the 1950s and 60s, and proceeds through the turmoil of the civil war that tore up the jewel of the Levant, and takes us up to the present in the United States where even as she succeeds richly in her new country she continues to keep a watchful and loving eye on her birthplace. With this book, May Rihani, who hails from one of Lebanon’s great literary families, stakes her claim to her own unique vision, strong and triumphant.
Lee Smith, author “The Strong Horse: Power, Politics,
and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.”
I have never met anyone who so adeptly mixes academics, philosophy, technical know-how, advocacy, and common sense like May Rihani. I have watched with awe as she has applied her unique set of skills and made a difference in the lives of women and girls around the world.
Stephanie Funk, USAID Mission Director, Zimbabwe
Weaving between poetry and politics; evoking the intimacy of family and the openness of public service; at once struggling for local girls’ education/poverty alleviation and negotiating with World Bank and UN officers; laboring every day for economic development for women and yet running high romance with Romeo lovers; conversing equally with illiterate village friends and global leaders – May Rihani invites us into a Lebanese and American garden throbbing with its unfolding mystery; enchanted by fragrances of East, West and South; and exhilarated by the empowering possibility of a life lived fully every moment and yet always with an eye to the possibilities ahead. She humbles, she empowers, she inspires.
Suad Joseph, Distinguished Research Professor,
University of California
May Rihani makes beauty, love, and life shine through profoundly sad tragedies. Tracing her life through the enchantment of a child’s eyes and later a woman’s, we feel her wonderment, and champion her struggles in the blossoming of possibilities in Lebanon in the 60s and in African countries in the 80s, 90s and 2000. Written with economy of style and yet highly evocative, her interesting autobiographical approach pairs down to the essential, while drawing the reader in to her shared world: illumined by the quality of her writing, that doesn’t draw attention to itself but offers a clear transparency into the place and event and their meaning.
Patricia Flederman, International Development Advisor
Cultures Without Borders is a deeply personal and profoundly political account of a lifetime of development action. May Rihani made a positive difference in the lives of women and girls throughout the world. The book is a fascinating exposé of development ‘moments’ and illustrations of good practice in girls’ education across a wide range of cultures and countries, intertwined with personal reflections and experiences. Cultures Without Borders is also a rich record of efforts to advance girls’ education by a wide range of actors from the Global North and Global South.
Nora Fyles, Head of the Secretariat of UNGEI, the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative
May Rihani has worked tirelessly to improve the lives of girls and women, particularly through girls’ education and gender equity. Her book Cultures Without Borders is required reading for policymakers, educators, university students and all those who share her important — and reachable — goals.
Elaine M. Murphy, Visiting Scholar, Population Reference Bureau
The ease with which you engaged with so many different cultures made me think that what makes you unique in this field among many things, is this dichotomy of insider/outsider, easterner/westerner, Christian/Arab, etc. It allows you to reach far beyond others.
Dr. Mona Maksoud Naufal, London, UK, April 27, 2015
Many people would feel you are talking to them … I felt you wrote it for me! In fact, without knowing it, when you were explaining what you did with your students at the College to make them appreciate Arabic … you were talking to me! I was one of those complexed youngsters who had dismissed Arabic as a dead language and culture, and worst, “ugly!” You had the natural love and talent to make me aware of its beauty, through the greatest door: Feyrouz and some great Lebanese writers and poets!
Fatiha Bedran, March 21, 1915, Lebanon
You are probably the one person who influenced me most. You taught us to love our country, to care for our fellow man, you taught us principles, ethics and modesty, you gave us a sense of pride as women and as citizens of the country and of the world. You set us up for life. We were young at the time, and some of those concepts may have been hazy, but today, looking back, it was you who molded us and I thank you for it. Thanks to you I do not lose hope, I still believe in the goodness of mankind.
Leila Musfi, March 12, 2015, Beirut, Lebanon
May evokes in the reader the love of life, love of beauty, love of the arts, love of humanity… She shows us that every minute of our life must be used effectively, productively, actively…idleness does not exist in her dictionary.
Nadia Salim Assaf, Jan 24, 2015, Washington, DC
Your book is absolutely wonderful, I don’t have words to describe how much I am enjoying it. All of the wonders of the world you grew up in are conveyed with such sensitivity and beauty that I can literally feel the gentle breezes on the balcony and smell the ripening fruit.
Craig Anderson, Jan 14, 2015, Washington, DC
I can assure you that I have never had such a nice and touching gift as Cultures Without Borders. This fantastic book is now my bedside book. All I know that I learned the following: You have dismantled all borders, you have managed to ally Love, with Culture, with Poetry, with Civilization, all that anyone could dream of.
Souheil Sader, Dec 21, 20014, Paris, France
Perhaps most powerful for me — given how much I already knew about your girls education/women’s empowerment efforts — was your unshakeable depth and passion regarding Lebanon’s exceptionalism and how much you’ve made that the cornerstone of your wider beliefs about cultures and civilization.
David Levine, Dec 17, Washington, DC
What a remarkable and attractive work of literature! This is a monumental work of literature, not only of East and West but also of North and South, covering, through a personal intellectual experience, the four corners of the planet: a unique rich life, crossing boundaries with open arms to the four corners of the world through a remarkable, outstanding book.
Dr. Fares Schoucair, Dec 17, Beirut, Lebanon
Culture Without Borders has been a great delight to read and to learn from. Every page was pulsing passion into my life, but especially “The Freike home”, that chapter has a great meaning for me, because I was there. How could someone forget the most special summer of his life!? to be in a place that kills all our worries, a place that show us our past, our present, and throughout the amazing balcony, that overlooks the ocean and of course the mountains we can hear about our future, that place is Freike! That balcony meant everything for us, in the summer of ’98, it received us with love, in a land where we have never been before, but it felt like home. I love Lebanon, I love Mexico, and I love that mix of blood that make us unique.
Ramsi Badui, Dec 16, Merida, Mexico
It’s a wonderful book, so enriching and so inspiring. It was a delight reading it and I am glad that you have decided to share your experiences.
Zeina Kuzayli Powell, Dec 14, Hong Kong, China
Thank you for bringing the golden years of Lebanon to life. I loved learning about the open platforms and debates that the AUB students held outside West Hall. I hope that we can go back to that time where freedom and diversity were the norm.
Patricia Viala, Nov 30, McLean, Virginia
I just finished reading your book. WOW — it was wonderful to learn more about your growing up — and all the many contributions you have made — the impact you have had worldwide on girls’ education. It is an honor to know you. Thanks for sharing your wonderful, powerful story with me and the world.
Judith Katz, Nov 30, Washington, DC
I have finished reading the book and will be re-reading as soon as I get back from Indiana. Through many passages couldn’t stop the tears.
Fadia Maalouf, Nov 25, Indiana
Your book drew me in from the first few pages with your detailed, almost lyrical descriptions. Your words so easily created an image in my mind and the feeling that I was seeing what you were seeing, while standing on the balcony with your father. That was a gift.
Linda Rheem, Nov 19, Potomac, Maryland
What an incredible journey. Reading of your family brings back many memories in being raised by my mother, grandmother and grandfather. Reading about your mother in this chapter really hit home for me and you know the rest.
Ed Rahal, Nov 15, Washington, DC
What a beautiful influence you have experienced. You were truly lucky to have such parents who lived at the epic of intellectual life in Lebanon and most importantly shared that life with you. Not many children who were raised by intellectual parents have taken advantage of these opportunities.
George Tannous, Nov 14, Bethesda, Maryland
I am very moved, grateful that you wrote this book and that you share your life in this way with all of us. I enjoyed reading about your childhood, your parents, your family and friends. Your Lebanon…. I can now see in the broader tapestry or account of your life…. Your account of your mother, your relationship and inspiration are the most moving aspects to me.
Dr. Bettina Moll, Nov 9, Uzes, France
Thank you for taking us on the amazing journey of your life! You have accomplished so much and given so much–it would take 100 people or more to equal your outstanding contributions to humanity. Yet, in spite of this reality, the final words of your memoir capture the response of your generous soul to the knowledge that there are still millions who live in poverty and who are denied the blessings of education, especially the girl child: “I still have a lot of work to do.” I could not help thinking that you, a poet, join another poet, Robert Frost, in saying, “But I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.”
Dr. Elaine Murphy, Nov 3, St. Petersburg, Florida
Some days a bright light shines from the heavens to rest on the balcony of our lives. I have finished your book which was like an endearing conversation with a fine glass of wine while overlooking your family’s land in Freike. Thank you for this precious time.
Lisa Wiggins, Nov 1, California
My whole being got immersed in your book and travelled through your path of evolvement. It is very inspirational. You capture your reader in web-like moments … there is no putting down the book. I just loved reading it.
Randa Mufarrij, Oct 29, 2014, Montreal, Canada
Keeping the Promise highlights the barriers and challenges that girls face when they decide to enter secondary education, and the five main benefits that accrue to them and their families if and when they enter and complete secondary education. It was published by the Academy for Educational Development in 2006.
Learning for the 21st Century analyses the status of education for girls and boys in the Middle East and North Africa and proposes 20 different and complementary strategies to advance girls’ and women’s education in the Middle East and North Africa. It was published by UNICEF in 1993.
Strategies to Promote Girls’ Education: Policies and Programmes that Work, with Khadija Haq. Despite significant progress in the state of education worldwide, in 1990 an estimated 948 million adults–about a quarter of the world’s population–were still illiterate, the majority being girls and women. This book was written to highlight effective strategies that advanced girls’ education. Published by UNICEF in June 1992.
Yalouffou Khasr al-Ard (Encircling the Waist of the Earth) is a collection of free-verse poems that reflect May Rihani’s views on love, global society, language, and her beloved Lebanon. It was published by Platform International in 1992.
Development as if Women Mattered is an annotated bibliography that gathers a large number of documents that focuses on the important role that women play in advancing the development of their communities. A number of these documents are written by authors and researchers from the developing countries. Published by the Overseas Development Council in 1978.
Ismi Siwaya (My Name Is The Other) is a free verse poetry collection in Arabic addressing suffering and the less privileged. Published by Dar Rihani in Lebanon in 1974.
Hafrun ’Ala Al-Ayyam (Engraving on Time) is a Collection of essays in Arabic dealing with existential issues. Published by Dar Rihani in Lebanon in 1969.