My friend and colleague Sari Nusseibeh recently announced his retirement as President of Al Quds University in Jerusalem. (He was also one of the University’s co-founders, and teaches in the Department of Philosophy.) I was Sari’s guest at Al Quds last summer, where I was invited to give three lectures on topics in political philosophy of relevance to the Arab-Israeli dispute. With Sari’s help, I also got comprehensive political tours of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, did some sightseeing, went swimming in the hottest swimming pool I’ve ever experienced, and drank some of the best tea I’ve ever tasted. It was the experience of a lifetime for me, and I owe Sari (and his colleagues) a debt of gratitude for it that I can’t imagine ever being able to repay. (I also owe my Felician College colleague Fahmi Abboushi for putting me in touch with Sari on the occasion of Reason Papers’s 2012 symposium on Sari’s book, What Is a Palestinian State Worth?)
It’s remarkable that while here in North America, academics are bemoaning the death of the humanities and of the malaise of academia generally, Sari managed in a few decades to build a major university essentially from scratch–in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Booker T. Washington’s founding the Tuskegee Institute–I actually gifted Sari a copy of Up from Slavery–but on a grander scale. When I’m tempted to complain about academic life at home, I find myself thinking about what Sari has managed to do at Al Quds, and stop. Times may be tough for small liberal arts colleges in the US, but at least we don’t operate under the conditions of a military-bureaucratic occupation (or for that matter, the relentless anti-intellectual pressures exerted by religious fundamentalists).
Sari has narrated his own story better than anyone can, but I didn’t want to let the moment go by without offering a (non-alcoholic) toast in tribute to what he’s accomplished so far. The next time you confront someone who derides philosophy as a pie-in-the-sky endeavor, direct them to the life and work of Sari Nusseibeh. Like Socrates, he’s managed in theory and practice to bring philosophy down to earth–and at the center of life, where it belongs.