“We dwell in many homes on earth, the dearest is the place of birth.”
By Theresa Wolfwood
This poetic sentence was one of many which Wadad Cortas´s father recited. He instilled in her a love of the Arabic language, Arabic culture and a deep love of her birth place. Her parents also believed in the education and rights of women. Cortas was well–educated and widely travelled. She was a perceptive observer of her own and other worlds; fortunately she recorded many of her reflections and memories that became the substance of this memoir.
Wadad Cortas had a successful and happy life as a child, a wife, a mother and a satisfying career as a headmistress of a fine school for 40 years. All this makes a wonderful story. But this story is set in a time and place of conflict, war, betrayal and heartbreak that she was completely immersed in.
Lebanon is a beautiful land, fertile and rich in natural resources and resourceful people. It has had little peace for the last 100 years since Ottoman rule, French occupation, the occupation of Palestine, civil war and military invasion by Israel. Cortas lived through all these periods; her life and career were marked by these events.
This book is her personal story until her death in 1979. Her daughter, Mariam Said, has written an excellent introduction to her mother and a useful historical overview, placing the life of her mother into the larger life of Lebanon.
She loved her extended family; she often comments in the book that the love of family and the ties that hold them together are an integral part of Arab culture. She also cared for her family of students, over the years many of her students came as refugees and seekers of a haven in a world of war. I loved her stories of her cake–baking mother–in–law who died suddenly with her last words being about her granddaughter´s birthday and her hope that someone else would bake her birthday cake.
The book has many interesting photos that help make this book come to life; the cover shows Cortas with her husband and children. The photos show her extended family, homes, friends and her beloved Al Ahliah School for Girls and its students and ceremonies; the school is still open in the same building in Beirut.
Cortas was a modern humanist who believed in the potential of all people – particularly her students; she was deeply committed to an Arab culture that embraced people of all faiths and beliefs from all over the Arab world. She believed that education and awareness of many cultures could create a just and peaceful society. The French did their best to force France´s system of education on their subjects. Cortas helped set up an Academy of Fine Arts (the French were always suspicious of any Arab culture but “fine arts do not frighten colonial powers”) for architecture, painting & sculpture and her great love – music. She writes, “If the Lebanese Academy played a limited role in our cultural life, it was certainly a pioneering role. In its search for an identity, Lebanon was awakened to the importance of liberal education in the hands of its own people.”
In 1967 she wrote that young people were restless and wanted to free Palestine and that older people were complacent because they believed; “ ´Our cause is plain as the sun and will surely win in the end.´ They did not stop to think that a friendless justice does not interest humanity. We all knew the Arab proverb ´no right is lost if it has a defender.´ Although in the end justice may prevail, justice has to be defended lest it be lost in the labyrinth of human scheming.”
Unfortunately Lebanon and Palestine have been lost for many years in that labyrinth of human scheming, the play of the powerful. Cortas did not live to see a world that is finally awakening to the rights of people in her land; the world she loved. The terrible attacks on Gaza in 2008–09 and the war on Lebanon in 2006 have given rise to a new global consciousness that Cortas´s legacy of faith in justice may yet be realized. I found this memoir both interesting and informative; it gave me more insight and context than a scholarly impersonal history could; it engaged me completely into Cortas´s world of Lebanon and her informed wide world view.