An Expansive Education at AUB

A former student at the American University of Beirut shares about her educational experience—and how it aligned with her personal goals, values, and curiosities.
Ola Al-Hajhasan, a graduate of American University of Beirut. Photo: Courtesy AUB

Students increasingly have many options when it comes to where to pursue their higher education. In this interview, Ola Al-Hajhasan, who was a student at American University of Beirut (AUB) from 2015–18, shares with AUB North American Representative Megan Scanlon why she chose to attend AUB, her areas of study and interest while at the university, and how her time at AUB prepared her for postcollegiate life—plus, Al-Hajhasan gives a few film recommendations.


Megan: Students from around the world choose AUB to extricate themselves from a Western-centric education. Were you intentional about this upon deciding to enroll, or was it something you discovered in your classes as you went along?

Ola: It wasn’t entirely intentional, but it wasn’t accidental either. When the decision came to choose a university, all I knew was that I wanted a liberal arts education at a place that felt authentic to me. I had always known that Beirut was once home to some of my favorite literary figures, including Mahmoud Darwish and Ghassan Kanafani. I also knew that the history of Beirut and AUB largely intersected with the history of the Palestinian revolution, which I’d always been keen on understanding more deeply. I was similarly intrigued by the fact that AUB is the alma mater of many activists and intellectuals, including George Habash. Perhaps I wasn’t consciously extricating myself from a Western-centric education as much as I was choosing an education that was rooted in a context that I wanted to explore. I had a hunch that studying at AUB would generally align with my personal goals, values, and curiosities. 

Once classes started, I was pleasantly surprised that courses and syllabi were designed to be relevant to the time and place in which they were taught. As an undergraduate student of English literature, I did take some of the foundational courses that focused on canonical texts written by “dead white men,” but I also took courses on African literature, postwar Lebanese fiction, Islamic philosophy, and Arabic-English translation. Even the course I took on the history of the English language was geared toward understanding the evolution of “global Englishes,” as well as observing the ways in which English is used in Lebanon, where it coexists with Arabic and French. 

Megan: Can you speak more about the evolution of “global Englishes”? What does that entail, and why does it matter?

Ola: The idea is that the widespread use of the English language makes it more challenging to standardize. Learners of English around the world tend to apply the logic of their own mother tongue to the way they speak or write in English, and linguists can identify patterns and trends in the work of students who speak the same first language. This means that nowadays there isn’t just American English and British English; there are several creoles, in addition to African-American Vernacular [English], Nigerian English, Indian English, and Chinese English, among many others. Not only is it difficult to standardize all of these Englishes but it is ideologically more sound to just let them be—to recognize and celebrate them, instead of correcting them. These Englishes are one way in which formerly colonized peoples reclaim a language that was once forced upon them. 

Learning about “global Englishes” has certainly helped me understand my own use of the language; I’ve studied British English at school in Jordan, then went to an American university in Lebanon. Some of my teachers throughout the years were native speakers, but I never really picked up any accent, and I never tried. After taking that course [on the history of the English language], I realized that I was not really in a place to choose an American accent over a British one or vice versa. After all, the language serves me insofar as it facilitates global opportunities for educational and cultural dialogue, and I learnt it out of necessity, not out of a desire to subscribe to one specific [imperial] culture.  

Similarly, I’ve made my peace with the fact that my speech and writing in English are never flawless; choosing my words can sometimes feel awkward, because I know there are many topics about which I can only think in Arabic, and I end up translating my thoughts.

I think my overall approach to the subject largely stems from the fact that I specialize in literature rather than language. My interest in language lies in its ability to create an aesthetic and convey meaning, but I’m not too concerned about perfect grammar per se. I think the multiplicity of Englishes that have evolved around the world tell unique stories, following unique rationales and structures of feeling. Indeed, authors create fascinating literary possibilities when they add a twist to their writing in English, such as including words from other languages [known as code-switching] and refusing to translate the untranslatable. 

Megan: You wanted and expected to learn in and from being in Beirut, specifically at AUB. How were those expectations met?

Ola: Throughout my years at AUB, starting from my very first semester, I benefited from the access I had to on-campus events. I attended many talks and discussion panels hosted by AUB’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, Center for American Studies and Research, and Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship. I really cherish this aspect of my university experience, especially since, as a humanities major, I was not required to take many social science classes for my degree. So I ended up learning a lot about regional and international history and politics through these extracurricular endeavors. 

In addition to that, I satisfied my personal and intellectual curiosities by often digging through the library’s archive[s], where I discovered an amazing collection of political posters from the 1970s and ’80s. I also learned from the library staff that they were working on [the] Palestinian Oral History Archive, and I got additional information on it through an interview I conducted with the former associate university librarian, Kaoukab Chebaro, for archives and special collections, which I published in AUB’s student paper, Outlook

There were also many film screenings and discussions with directors that I attended on campus, organized by different student clubs, as well as off campus in cultural spaces like Riwaq and Dar El-Nimer. This exposure eventually led me to pursue a minor in film and visual culture, which allowed me to take courses across the Departments of English; [Sociology, Anthropology, and] Media [Studies]; and [Fine Arts and] Art History. These courses and extracurriculars introduced me to the works of several contemporary creatives and artists, both international and Arab. One of my absolute favorites was a course on Palestinian film.

Megan: Film is an exquisite medium to connect with both familiar and unfamiliar stories. The best moving pictures show us that which is larger than life and pull back the curtain of ignorance and misunderstanding. Each film is an opportunity to observe who exactly is telling the story and from what perspective. You mentioned your affinity for Palestinian cinema. What stories have you found the most illuminating?

Ola: There are truly so many! I think Hani Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now is very eye-opening. It dives deep into the lives of two Palestinian young men: their psyches, their anxieties, their motives, and their ethical and emotional dilemmas. It does this all while displaying the bleak socioeconomic context that they live in as a result of occupation. The two protagonists are portrayed in a way that derives an urge to understand, if not identify, with their troubles. The course professor at the time, Greg Burris, encouraged us to view and discuss this film in relation to an article by the Lebanese scholar Ghassan Hage, which argues that the Western discourse on terrorism is not simply dominated by a fear of otherness [xenophobia] but rather by a fear of sameness [exighophobia] In other words, Westerners do not want to imagine that under different circumstances, they could face oppression, dispossession, and despair that could push them over the edge, like the film’s two protagonists. I think that Abu-Assad wonderfully challenges such fear of sameness by telling the story of two men belonging to a class of Palestinian society that is underrepresented or misrepresented in the media. 

Another classic is The Time That Remains by Elia Suleiman; I cannot begin to summarize this one, because the magic lies in its surreal style and highly choreographed scenes, which are typical of Suleiman’s work. I will say, however, that one scene that will always be etched in my memory is that of the director’s silent persona, E.S., using a pogo stick to jump over the apartheid wall! 

A lighter film with an equally powerful story is Rashid Masharawi’s Laila’s Birthday. In 1 hour, we follow the journey of a taxi driver on a mission to get a cake and a gift for his daughter. In addition to the usual challenges of the job, he faces a number of obstacles that are caused by the occupation [of Palestine], and his day is super nerve-wracking to watch, let alone live through. With beeping cars, wailing ambulances, and helicopters buzzing over his head, trouble is constantly looming around the horizon, and the question is whether he will make it home safe, with both the cake and the gift in his hand. It’s stressful to accompany him on this journey, but the sad reality is that to him, it’s just another day. “A normal day,” as he says in the end. Yet there is no normalcy under occupation. 

Megan: Since you’ve graduated from AUB, what kind of work have you gravitated to?

Ola: I’ve worked as a freelance copyeditor and translator in the arts and culture sector. My biggest client was a UK-based cultural consultancy that had a branch in the Middle East. Sometimes, I would receive captions and exhibition narratives written in English, and I would have to translate them into Arabic. Other times, I would receive texts alongside their translations, and I would edit them to ensure proper flow and consistency in style and register.

I also worked with a media organization specializing in satire, and I wore multiple hats there. I started as a community manager, sparking and moderating debates among readers. Then, I became a media monitor, scanning the daily news in different Arab countries and suggesting topics for the editorial team to write on. My role also involved nominating the worst articles for a satirical award, with categories aimed at highlighting and critiquing bias, propaganda, misinformation, and hate speech. That was a lot of fun!

Currently, I’m in the midst of writing my dissertation for a master’s degree in modern and contemporary literary studies. 

Megan: Play is profound, and I love that you had fun working with difficult topics, because I think that’s what transcends the difficulty. Satire has the power to pierce through illusions. More and more though, discerning satire from actual news is arguably becoming more commonplace to have to do. There’s even a “Not the Onion” hashtag. What are the most effective ways you’ve seen in combating misinformation and propaganda?

Ola: I’m not sure I know the answer! One can always hope that the originality and sincerity of satire come across and that they operate on an emotional level, stirring something in the reader. But in reality, it’s very complicated; people are more likely to engage with satire when it validates them. Satirizing mainstream media outlets, for example, is more likely to land well for readers who are already critical of such media or entirely dissatisfied with them. Those who blindly consume misinformation and propaganda are less inclined to rethink their choices. The internet is growing to be an increasingly dystopian space, so I think the best way to combat misinformation is to keep spreading information. It’s hard to debunk all that is untrue, because there’s simply too much of it, but it is always possible to speak the truth and to speak it in an accessible way. 

Megan: I’ve known you for almost a decade, and to me your level of critical thinking is the standard by which current cultural competence standards should be updated. It’s beyond you thinking critically: it’s your capacity for creation. You bridge multiple, complex contexts with such clarity, making what was once obscure, obvious. Your words are alive, expansive, stirring, and tangible. Tell us your secrets, Ola!

Ola: It really humbles me to hear that! I think the answer can be found in the very first time we met, so many years ago. We were on our way to visit Jeita Grotto with the office of international students at AUB, and we happened to sit next to one another on the bus. I forgot most of what we’d talked about then, but [I] will never forget that it was engaging and enriching and that we bonded over our love for Kurt Vonnegut’s writing. Essentially, we were brought together by our mutual appreciation of good conversation and good storytelling, and that sums up a lot!

Other than that, I don’t think there are any secrets, but I find mindfulness and self-awareness to be very helpful. Meditation and journaling are valuable resources for me to map my feelings, thoughts, and beliefs, and to investigate which of them are truly mine and which I’ve taken on from external influences throughout the years.       

I also find it useful to acknowledge that my capacity for communication and connection ebbs and flows. When I find it difficult to connect with someone, I look within myself for feelings of anxiety about being misunderstood by them, because that anxiety can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy and block me from expressing myself clearly and easily. I also search for an anxiety about not being able to understand that person, because that anxiety can similarly block my openness to receive them. The key, for me, is to never go against myself; the more I understand and accept myself, the more confidently and comfortably I can navigate relationships with others and welcome their differences.  •

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