I first met Dr. Souheil Bushrui in 1970 when I was a student at AUB, and then as a friend of my father Albert Rihani. It did not take more than two or three encounters with him to recognize that he was an erudite renaissance man, a mentor, and a world citizen.
We became very good friends. Many things connected us: our love for literature, our recognition that small countries often have big destinies, a belief that the East and West are linked, that there is common ground among religions, but what really made our friendship so strong, and what bonded us, is our deep existential connection with Lebanon and its legacy.
In the late 70s I migrated to the US, in the 80s he did too. When we met again, in this vast and powerful land, our encounters increased and our topics of discussions became more diverse: Irish literature; Arab literature; the publishing scene in London and New York; the politics of the Present and the politics of Eternity; the common ground among religions; interpretations of the Koran and the real meaning of Jesus’ sayings; mysticism; and many other topics. The constant, however, in all of those encounters was Lebanon, and in particular its legacy.
Sometime in 2005, during one of these encounters, he asked me with anxiousness in his voice: “Would you establish with me an organization to help raise the awareness of the American new generation about the important contributions Lebanon gave to the East and West?” I was intrigued. He continued: “I want university students in the US to understand how important Lebanese thinkers like Gibran and Rihani are, and how their contributions helped shape the minds of the intellectuals of the East and West. I want the American students and the international students who come to the universities of the US to study Gibran and Rihani, I want them to understand these visionaries, these global citizens, who came from Lebanon.”
I challenged him: Why do you want that, and why is it important?
“It is important because they are pioneers, because they totally believed in concepts that we are still struggling with today. They wrote and advocated during the very early phase of the 20th Century about the major issues that we are still, in the 21st century, trying to fully understand and address. These two giants from our Lebanon –(he loved to call them that) –wrote about the separation of religion and state, the equality among humans, tolerance and equity, common ground within diversity, bridges and not walls, positive proactive thinking, the power of the people, the right to self determination, the utmost importance of justice, and the imperative equality of women and men.” He would repeatedly point out that these two visionaries from Lebanon had enriched the world.
He became reflective, went silent for a while, and then looked at me steadily and with a persuasive voice said: “You cannot say no to such an idea. You just cannot say no.”
He added, “If you accept to create this organization with me, and if you accept to chair it, we will call it “Min Ajl Lubnan”. I know we will become the advocates for the legacy of Lebanon, and we will inform the university students in the US, starting with Maryland University, about the powerful role the thinkers of Lebanon played in promoting a vision that continues to be so needed in our global village.”
I could not refuse such a challenging proposition.
I went to work and gathered about 20 Lebanese-American leaders in Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Together, we wrote our vision and planned our activities.
We supported academic programs about Gibran and Rihani, we co-sponsored international conferences, university courses, analytic research, annual lectures, seminars, and workshops about these two giants that hailed from Lebanon. We supported translations of their works and we encouraged university professors as well as students in the greater Washington area to study the role that Lebanon played through these two giants. We facilitated seminars on how these two thinkers diligently worked on translating the culture of the East to the West and vice versa, we organized workshops on how they did not allow their belonging to a country to be a limitation in understanding the rest of the world, but the raison d’etre of understanding the whole world.
Suheil Bushrui was a tireless advocate for Lebanon and its legacy. He was passionate about our geographically small country but absolutely large when it comes to its message.
Suheil Bushrui was inspired and energized any time we worked for Lebanon. He wanted the world to learn about the enlightenment that comes from Lebanon despite all the bad news that also comes from Lebanon. He wanted the new generations to learn about how — despite wars, conflicts, and inner unrests — Lebanon produced thinkers that were Lebanese by birth but global in their outlook and thinking; they were Lebanese because of their yearnings to their childhood, but global because of their yearnings for a better future for all humanity; Lebanese by birth but global by destiny.
Suheil Bushrui wa
s in love with our Lebanon, he believed in it, he did not give up on it no matter what external and internal disasters threatened its horizon. He carried an intimate love for Lebanon in his heart and in his mind, and he worked to serve it as only pure and passionate poets know how.
We owe you a lot dear Professor. Wherever you are, the fragrance of the Cedar tree comes forth.