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Lycée Abdel-Kader Centenary - A Castle in English Style

No less than seven schools are to be found in Zqaq al-Balat. One of them has just celebrated one hundred years of existence, the Lycée Abdel-Kader, formerly known as the Lycée des jeunes filles de la Mission laïque française. It was not mere chance that the new French Cultural Counselor, Adrien Lechevallier, devoted October 7th, 2010, to his first visit to this francophone establishment.

“The local populations must be persuaded to perfect themselves according to themselves and not to go against their own nature,” was the vision of Pierre des Champs, inspirer and founder of the Mission laïque française (MLF).

In 1909 he was charged with setting up a school in Beirut. The school for girls was to follow a year later. Likewise in 1914, the founder of the British Syrian Mission, Mrs. Bowen Thompson, and her sister built what was to become the Hariri II School and the Lycée Abdel-Kader, which for some time they occupied. The latter, a palace in English style, was bought by Dr. Debrun, who in turn passed it over to the Mission laïque française in 1929, when it became the Lycée for young girls. The primary classes had both boys and girls.

The Grand lycée, opened at Sodeco, took in boys. The Lycée for girls, which was to take the name of Amir Abdel-Kader and to become co-educational in 1974, was then made up of two buildings. The more beautiful of the two, the palace, was reserved to the kindergarten and the boarding premises for girls. During the nineteen-forties, a score of young ladies, come from Baghdad, Palestine or Tripoli, took up residence there. The other building was occupied by the primary and the secondary school classes, the girls doing their last year in the Grand lycée.
“We were already going there for the Science courses in the penultimate year of the Scientific strand to take advantage of the laboratories and to have the opportunity to meet the boys who were waiting for us,” relates Nour Nour, the walking memory of the place. She has spent fifty-eight years going along the corridors, as a pupil from 1933 to 1945 and later as teacher and librarian till 1991.

“If ever we returned a book late or in a torn condition, we had to pay her 10 piastres,” recalls Fatmeh Saghir, former pupil and present orientation counselor. Every morning and during school breaks she sold exercise books stamped with the name of the establishment and pens and nibs. “We use to buy the nibs most of all on examination days in order to have good writing. Those for French had finer points than the ones for Arabic. We used to dip them in the mauve ink placed on the tables. The uniform, which is no longer demanded, had its moments of glory: a black overall with pink squares for the girls, a blue one for the boys, a blue marine skirt and white collar, and so on. Fatmeh remembers that in her time they used to buy them from Zefir’s in Souq Tawileh. “No woman would wear trousers,” explains Nour, “but we had red shorts for sport.” There were prefects-general to ensure discipline and good manners.

“I still remember Madame Lamia Khatib,” exclaims Fatmeh. “The day after a holiday I still had some smears of kohl around my eyes. As soon as she saw me she cried out, ‘Miss, go and wash your face!’ And it was the same thing if she thought our neckline was too low.”
“Of course, we were never allowed to go out alone, save those who went home for lunch,” continues Nour. “If we played truant, we were of course expelled. But we were allowed to go on a demo near Saint George’s during the war in Algeria with the slogan, ‘Yes for independence, yes for Algeria!’”
In 1959 during a speech in memory of Mme. Levy, principal of the Lycée for twenty-seven years, Madame Labaki, a former student, recalled that “...during the conflicts that opposed Lebanon to the Mandate authorities, the principal did her best to understand the young people, and when they took part in any movement of national awakening she did not judge them. For her the important thing was that they should do their studies as good pupils of the Lycée and succeed. She understood our legitimate demands and considered very wisely that to demand one’s rights did not mean that one was ungrateful.”

“The Mission laïque was the first to give care to Arabic in its institutions,” said Parisot, teacher in Beirut in 1929 in a review devoted to the teaching of French outside France. “This fact may surprise some French people, for it is paradoxical, inhuman, for Lebanese pupils, like French ones, to pass their baccalaureate exam in French, their own national language appearing their only as ‘foreign language’. Like French students they study the history of France first and foremost and world history only from the French point of view. Like French students, they must know all about the slopes of the Paris Basin and the plateau of Lannemezan. But Lebanon is a foreign land, just as their own language is a foreign one, at the French baccalaureate sat for by the Levantines in Beirut.”

However, “...from the foundation of its Beirut college, the Mission laïque devoted considerable time to the teaching of the local national language and history ... But whatever we may have done, the result remains and will last that our pupils are more conscious of the French genius than they are of the Arab or Semitic genius. Only an imperialist can get any pleasure from this ... At the same time,” concludes this instructor, “The French High Commission and the Lebanese government have just organized a Franco-Lebanese baccalaureate ... To know one’s own country is the first imperative for patriotism.

Nour has a particular memory when her classes of vocabulary in 1st junior high school with Mme Vidal come to mind. “She asked us to describe the trees of the Lycée and we were supposed to be both precise and poetic. At that time in the large park, now replaced by new buildings and sports ground, there were any number of wisteria. Within ten minutes we had to find the right word to describe the color of the flowers. I can also tell you about the history classes in 2nd junior when we had to bring Pompeii back to life with the appropriate vocabulary. Who would know how to do that today? The Internet has killed people.”

Fatmeh carries on: “Take the Fables of la Fontaine. We used to know them by heart for having read them so often. Nowadays nobody knows them. Without reading, without instruction, the brain doesn’t work any more.” Both agree, young people seem less learned.
Incidentally, the children of those working for the Lycée have always received instruction free. Nour was the daughter of the gardener. “There was no distinction between children of different religions or social levels. We got the grades that we deserved. The son of the janitor, for example, has become an ambassador.” As for Aida Labaki, she learnt “...on the benches of the Lycée that that human brotherhood is more important than confessional brotherhood.” This human brotherhood is still to be seen in practice. “When one passes through the door of the Lycée, one keeps one’s beliefs but one does not talk about them. The girls may ware a veil, for we are in Lebanon. But there is neither Shiite nor Druze nor Christian nor Sunnite nor white nor yellow, there are only pupils,” the principal concludes.

Delphine Darmency - Translation from the French: Kenneth Mortimer

- Lycée Abdel-Kader: >> View Movie << (2011-11-01)



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