A World I Loved

The Story of an Arab Woman


By Wadad Makdisi Cortas

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“This is my story, the story of an Arab woman. It is the story of a lost world. It begins in 1917, in Lebanon, when I was seven years old.” So opens this haunting memoir by Wadad Makdisi Cortas, who eloquently describes her personal experience of the events that have fractured the Middle East over the past century.

Through Cortas’ eyes we experience life in Lebanon under the oppressive French mandate, and her desire to forge an Arab identity based on religious tolerance. We learn of her dedication to the education of women, and the difficulties that she overcomes to become the principal of a school in Lebanon. And in final, heartbreaking detail, we watch as her world becomes rent by the “Palestine question,” Western interference, and civil war.

The World I Loved is both an elegy on Lebanon and her people, and the unforgettable story of one woman’s journey from hope to sorrow as she bears painful witness to the undoing of her beloved country by sectarian and religious division.


PRAISE FOR A World I Loved
“Wadad Makdisi Cortas has written a treasure of a memoir evoking through poetic prose a world long gone. It begins with the early part of the twentieth century before the colonial exploits of the Western European powers ravaged the Middle East and turned it into the mess we know today. In so doing it brilliantly puts the present reality in the context of a past long gone, opening a window on a world we need to experience if we are to understand where to go from here.”
—RAJA SHEHADEH, author of Strangers in the House and Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape
“Wadad Makdisi Cortas has written a remarkable memoir that manages to chart the darkening of the Arab world in the key period from the First World War and the Balfour declaration to the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s, while also cherishing its uniqueness. It is the story of an inspiring, independent woman who devoted her life unswervingly to the education of her people. . . . The Arab world loved by Makdisi Cortas, a world of Muslim, Christians and Jews where there were ‘no strangers,’ can still today provide a model and hope for the future.”
—JACQUELINE ROSE, author of The Last Resistance and The Question of Zion
A World I Loved takes us back to a pocket of Arab history—a brief moment, alas—when the enchantment with secularism was real, when flirtation with things liberal hinted at a future of moderation and tolerance. In her own life and work, Wadad Makdisi Cortas personified that age and its promise. A World I Loved is an elegant, sensitive account of her remarkable story.”
—HANAN AL-SHAYKH, author of The Story of Zahra, Beirut Blues, and The Locust and the Bird
“The rare, evocative story of a private life that bears witness to the rich joys and wrenching sorrows of the 20th century Middle East.”
—JEAN STROUSE, author of Alice James: A Biography and Morgan: American Financier
A World I Loved is the work of a Lebanese woman whose life has been dominated by war. Wadad Makdisi Cortas was our Passion-aria ; a brilliant fighter, a rebel. But the arms she trusted were peaceful resistance, and education. Her narrative is seamless: the personal and the historical interaction in her book is one of the most meaningful and endearing covering of the Arab East in the 20th century, giving through personal testimony, soul and voice to millions of people sacrificed on the altar of world politics.”
—ETEL ADNAN, author of Sitt Marie Rose and In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country
“Wadad Makdisi Cortas elegantly interweaves fascinating personal narrative with subtle reflections upon the great political and social questions of her day: the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the mandate system; the rise of the nation state; the colonisation of Palestine and the struggle for its freedom; Nasserism; the tragedy of the Lebanese civil war; the fight for women’s equality; the role of educators and the arts. Makdisi Cortas is the truest companion on this epic journey, inviting the reader to travel with her in the diverse worlds of Ottoman Syria, colonial Baghdad, mandate Jerusalem, depression-era America and 1960’s Beirut. Out of fragments shattered by war and loss, she creates a crystal clear image of the world she loved and helped create, a world underpinned by artistic vision and triumphant humanity.”
—KARMA NABULSI, Oxford academic and former PLO representative
“This is far more than a memoir of a determined and independent-thinking Arab woman. It is a window into the many tragedies that affected the peoples of the Middle East in the course of the twentieth century. Yet, at the same time, reading the book transported me to happier times of carefree childhoods and lasting relationships that come from living in a world where everyone knows everyone else for a lifetime. Despite decades of political turmoil and social change, the spirit of people like Wadad Cortas is a testimony to the endurance of the human spirit.”
—DR. LEILA FAWAZ, Issam M. Fares Professor of Lebanese and Eastern Mediterranean Studies, Tufts University

This book is dedicated to all of my mother’s
former students, colleagues, relatives, and friends
who knew and admired her.
Had it not been for Jo Ann Wypijewski’s
meticulous editing, immense knowledge of
the politics of the region, perception, and
sensitive rendering, this book would not
have seen the light of day. For this she has
my eternal gratitude and admiration.

There is a vast library of books about the Middle East, the majority, in the present, dominated by the Palestine-Israeli conflict. Here is a work like no other in that library. To begin with, Wadad Makdisi Cortas is neither a Muslim nor a Jew. She is a Christian, but as she sets down on her first page, hers is “the story of an Arab woman.” And in her account of her life in Beirut there is no contradiction in this identity that represents a resolution between two opposing forces of human faith and power that have existed since before the Crusades.
Born in 1909 in Beirut, she is an original in all the best senses of the admiring term. Her account of her life up to the late 1970s is remembered with sharp intellect, vivid awareness of the political circumstances that form her judgments, critical and self-critical of the value she arrived at. There is no political rhetoric, although her perceptions of the machinations of the colonial powers, France and Britain, combining when it suited them in common purpose to retain possession of Arab lands after the First World War, are astute. There is no rhetoric in her calm and sometimes delightfully wry perceptions of the difficulties she had to overcome as a female—although not a Muslim—in claiming independence of thought and activity, which feminists might wish proudly to claim on her behalf. Her childhood in a well-educated, worldly family gave her that sense of the place of humans not above but in the world of nature, which brings her writing a feel for landscape, the beauty of sea, sky, and earth as the support needed to keep balance in the assault of disorder and violence that has disrupted life in her part of the world.
She had opportunities to further her education and fulfill her intention to become a teacher. In America she found among her Indian and Arab students “how much we had in common” against colonialism. Back in Beirut she became principal of the national Ahliah School for Girls, where she was to spend her entire working life, if one can restrict such a woman for whom acceptance or personal responsibility toward agencies of justice and fulfillment of life for others was more than a career. Palestine was under British Mandate; Lebanon was under French Mandate. “Like a stray bird returning to its home, I yearned to speak my language, to read Arabic books, and to foster Arab independence and solidarity,” she writes. But under the academic program forced on the school by the French ministry, instruction was in French. Her bizarre professional situation was decreed under a wider colonial one. Lebanon became independent of France only in 1943, but even then France maintained an armed presence until 1946. The honesty of her reaction to a colonial educational edict is strikingly admitted: “How much of a compromise should I make to come to terms with my own people? That question preoccupied me as I could see that bit by bit Lebanon was being detached from its Arab roots.” That compromise could not have been easy; for her it did not lead to rejection of anyone, while asserting the rights of one’s own people. This was clearly no grand abstraction, it was in the practice of daily life. At her school there was a component of girls who were not Arab, neither Muslim nor Christian, even a few Jewish girls. None were discriminated against by headmistress, teachers, or other pupils; and at a distance of time this reads, rather than as an anachronism, as a microcosm of the future world Wadad Makdisi Cortas believed must be discovered, attained by human determination.
She emerges so unquestionably free of any racial or religious prejudice when she describes the attitude she shared with the people around her, family and friends in the Middle East, when “Ever since Hitler had come to power, throngs of people from several persecuted minorities had been fleeing to the Arab world.” The reference is to Jews persecuted by Hitler: “From a human point of view we were worried about them and felt it our duty to offer them hospitality. But the numbers began exceeding expectations, and we felt driven into a difficult situation.” This was an initial tolerance based on common human feeling that I think many, like myself, in a succeeding generation, aware of the horrific human crime of the Holocaust and the tragic strife between Arabs and Israelis to come, hardly know of. When the numbers of Jewish immigrants became many thousands, and finally the Balfour Declaration took part of Palestine itself as a national home of the Jews, this bond of common humanity she shows was inevitably, fatefully rent by Western-imposed frontiers that began and continued to be in fatal dispute. Her personal narrative of their disastrous effects ends with her last page in 1960, although they prevail today in many tragic forms, from the declarations of the Palestinian factions, Hamas and Jihad, that Israel has no right to exist, to the Occupied Territories created by the Israelis on Palestinian land and the vast wall built as the ultimate in brutal disruption of human concourse in the life of the Palestinians.
The world this remarkable woman loved and saw destroyed not only by “the Palestinian question” she anticipated as a student, but also by civil war within her own people, is strikingly created in her book, bringing one face-to-face with a unique personality and the contiguity of our living history.
November 2008

According to her older sisters, my mother, Wadad Makdisi Cortas, exhibited a strong religious bent as a child. She prayed and read the Bible constantly. This alarmed her father; fearing that she would turn into a religious missionary, he decided not to send her to the American evangelical school her sisters attended, but to a secular, national one. The school he enrolled her in was the Madrasat Al Banat Al Ahliah in Beirut, established in 1916 by Marie Kassab. At the time, demand for girls’ education was growing; the student body consisted of the many sects and religions that were in the region. My mother would spend most of her life there, first as a student, then briefly as a teacher, and for forty years, as its headmistress. From this platform, she would educate generations of young women. She had strong values, a civic consciousness, and a vision for the future of her country. These she never tired of articulating in public, which is clear from the story she herself tells in her book. In the end, her father had been quite perceptive; she did become a kind of missionary—but a secular one.
Her generation of women was not the first in what was then Greater Syria to be educated. Her mother and aunts had all earned a high school degree. (Her grandmother, her father’s mother, had learned to read, as an adult, by taking Bible classes at a Protestant mission.) Some of these women, like Marie Kassab, and my mother’s paternal aunt, Amina, who had been educated by missionaries, became teachers. Others, such as May Ziadeh and Julia Tohmeh Dimichkieh, became writers and advocates of women’s emancipation. A few in my mother’s generation achieved a higher level of education; they attended college and, in her case, graduate school.
From an early age, I became aware that my mother was different from the other mothers. She had a job; she was the headmistress of my school; and all the teachers and other students at school referred to me as ‘bint el muddira’ (the daughter of the headmistress). My aunts and my friends’ mothers did not work. They were at home when their children came from school. It was my father’s mother, Sitto Mariam, who was waiting for us when my three brothers and I came from school. She was in charge of running our house. All the other mothers were praised for their cooking and baking skills and for their knitting, sewing, and embroidery talents. My mother neither cooked nor knitted nor embroidered. She could not even sew on a button correctly. The other mothers wore colorful printed dresses and jewelry, had their hair done, and put on makeup. My mother wore dark suits with no makeup, and her hair was pulled back in a bun. The only jewelry she wore, on occasion, was a simple brooch or a thin string of pearls around her neck. This had not always been the case. According to my cousin Salwa, my mother, when she was young, was extremely coquettish and cared about clothes. Some of her early photographs attest to that. But by the time we were born, she had taken her role of headmistress very seriously and wore outfits suitable to her position in society.
Like most bourgeois families in Beirut, we lived quite comfortably, surrounded by loving relatives. Our three-story building was occupied not only by my parents, brothers, and me but also by my widowed grandmothers. Eventually, my maternal grandmother moved out to an adjacent building, and my mother’s sister, Soumaya, and her family, moved into my grandmother’s old apartment. Every few years, a reshuffling of living arrangements occurred among the extended family with the same result—all my aunts and uncles lived within two adjacent blocks in four buildings.
By the time my parents came home from work, at about seven o’clock, we would have been fed and bathed, and our homework was done. Our only contact with Mother was when she read a story to us before we were tucked into bed, around 7:30 P.M. Even the stories that she read to us were different from the ones the other mothers read. They were stories from the Bible, such as the tale of Lot, and Arab fables, in which the morals were clear. We had to beg her to read “Little Riding Hood” or “Hansel and Gretel.” In winter, we would sit around the fireplace in the living room to listen to her. Before reading a story, Mother would start peeling oranges for us to munch on while she read. She would throw the peel into the fireplace, and as we ate the oranges and listened to her, we would be mesmerized by her voice and intoxicated by the orange smell being emitted from the fireplace.
During the weekends, my parents usually stayed at home. We children were in and out of our relatives’ houses or played in front of our building with the neighborhood kids. My mother kept herself busy indoors—reading and writing—and moving through the rooms with a feather duster. She could not sit still. My father was the opposite. He was a quiet man, who sat in the living room and loved to interact with his children. He and my grandmother spent hours with us, just talking, playing cards and board games.
We ate our meals with our parents on the weekends and had many lively conversations. The banter was lighthearted and anecdotal, but my mother never missed an opportunity to be instructive, even at table. She would point out the moral in our anecdotes, and would say, for example, this story reminds us not to waste time, or not to throw rubbish on the streets, or to respect our elders, or to help those in need, or to be nice to our neighbors.
Our home was open to all. Once, a group of Quakers came to visit Lebanon. They were on their way back from Salonika, where they were assessing an orphanage that was in financial trouble. Mother invited them to dinner. When Quakers visited, we said grace before dinner. (My father was also a Quaker.) Grace is a moment of silence for Quakers. Soup was served and we sat silently for a minute. My brothers, father, and I immediately noticed that the soup was scalded, which meant that we were not going to touch it. Invariably, when my mother heated up food, she put the fire on high and left it there. After grace was over, we sat quietly, not eating. When she noticed, she said to the guests, “My children do not want to eat the soup because it is burnt. And you have just come from an orphanage where children barely have food.” The poor guests! They had no choice but to eat the soup.
In many ways, I think that my mother was like a nineteenth-century socialist, who carried the burdens of the world on her back. She believed that it was her job in life to continually struggle for justice, human rights, and equality for all people. When I was in first grade, Mother took me, and my brother Nadim to visit some friends. It was winter. It was drizzling, and the wind was very damp. A few blocks away from our house, near Bliss Street in Beirut, we saw two barefoot little boys our age, wearing tattered summer clothes, shivering, selling chewing gum. It was a sad sight, and mother was appalled. She said to us: “These children should not be on the street. They should be in school.” Both of us had a shocked look on our faces, because we also felt compassion for them. Mother said we would go get them some warm clothes. We walked back home, and she got each of them a shirt, a pair of pants, a sweater, socks and shoes. We went into the entrance of a building, where she changed their clothes and told them to tell their parents to enroll them in public school. The kids were stunned. We bought some gum and left. The next day, while going to school by tram, we encountered the same boys. They had their old tattered clothes on. When she asked what had happened, they ran away. Then the superintendent from the building came out and explained that the man who drops them off to sell gum was furious. He had hit them and said, “No one will buy gum from you with these fancy clothes.” She was upset that her spontaneous humanity did not make a difference, at least in this instance.
My mother rarely took no for an answer, however, and usually got her way. She always had a smile, and when she spoke, she sometimes appeared coy. She was pretty, five feet tall, and could be seductive without knowing it. No one could refuse her anything, partly because of her smile, her interest in people, and curiosity.
My father was a successful entrepreneur in the food-cannery industry and had built his business from scratch. He was six feet tall, handsome, a former athlete, and a tennis champion of Lebanon. He took care of buying the food and staples, all of the finances, and every important issue that arose. All of my friends loved him because he was friendly, tolerant, open, and warm. He accommodated my mother and rarely intervened or challenged her. This could be disappointing, because when I grew older and was at odds with my mother, I wanted him to take my side, but he never did. They worked in concert and rarely argued, at least not in front of us. He was no pushover though. He had his likes and dislikes, and what he wanted had to be done the way he decreed. He cared about the way food was prepared and presented at table, and he would never use a paper napkin. He loved clothes and was impeccably dressed at all times. My mother always waited for him to get ready before going out, instead of the other way around.
Unlike most men of his generation, my father was broad-minded and liberal. He had accepted that my mother would continue working when they married. However, he insisted that she not draw a salary from her employment, because that would reflect badly on him. A man was supposed to support his wife. My mother consented because she did not care about money and was happy to use the funds for student scholarships.
In the 1950s, my father’s business underwent a severe downturn. He had lost his largest client, the British army, and a substantial market, Palestine, in 1948; and when the breakup of the Syrian and Lebanese Customs Union took place, trade was restricted, and he had to close his factory in Syria, his largest market. I would see my father in the living room, worried, and engrossed in adding and subtracting figures on little pieces of paper or on the side of a newspaper, trying to solve his business problems.
To ease the situation, my parents decided to rent out our apartment in Beirut for the extra income and to move permanently to Brummana, my father’s hometown in the mountains, overlooking Beirut and the Mediterranean Sea. We owned a lovely house there, with an arched veranda, and a ceiling made of visible pine trunks. Until then, my brothers and I had attended my mother’s school, which accepted boys until the sixth grade; they would now be enrolled in a Quaker school in Brummana, as day students rather than boarders, therefore saving a lot of tuition. Things were bad enough that my father agreed that my mother’s salary should be reinstated. She also began to teach humanities at the Beirut College for Women to supplement the family income. (I believe that she really loved teaching, because she retained the job long after our financial situation improved.)
At the time, I was unaware of what was happening. Only when the furniture in our Beirut apartment was being moved out did I realize that a major event was occurring.
It was also decided, mainly by my mother, that I should continue my education at her school. For my mother, it was imperative that I, her only daughter, remain there and not attend the same school as my brothers near home. She felt she had to be an example to others. Thus I became a boarder at the school. To me, this was traumatic, even though the older students were very kind and sweet to the younger kids. I was ten years old. From early on, I felt sacrificed for a greater cause.
During my five years at boarding school, I saw my mother alone, every day for ten minutes, during mid-morning recess. I would go to her office to say hello, get a hug and a kiss, and a snack sent from home. The only other encounter with Mother was as the headmistress of the school, mostly during morning assembly, when she stood at the podium and delivered the daily thought. Occasionally, she would go up to the boarding area, open my closet, and tidy it up for me. This embarrassed me among my peers in school. The more she did this, the more I made a mess of my closet. The boarders were from all over the world. I desperately wanted to be one of them and accepted as such. So I developed a strategy that served me well: I was one of the students and had nothing to do with my mother. I rebelled when they did, disobeyed the rules, and behaved as they did.
On Wednesdays, the school session was half a day. We were allowed to leave the premises in the afternoon. My mother had little time for me on these afternoons. She was busy with her various committees and projects. I was entrusted to my aunt Salma, who lived and taught at the school, and who dragged me along with her wherever she was going.
During the weekends, I would go home to Brummana with my parents, but on Sundays, I would have to endure another of my mother’s sermons at the Quaker meetings that took place at my brothers’ school. These meetings were compulsory for the students, but other Quaker families also attended them. It was like going to church on Sunday. The Quakers would meditate for an hour, and if anyone felt moved to share his or her thoughts with the congregation, he or she would rise and do so. My mother never failed to stand up and express her thoughts there.
The summers in Brummana were more leisurely. My mother was at home but only rarely would she join my grandmother and aunts in the mornings on the terrace, where they sat chatting, knitting, embroidering, having coffee, and reading their fortunes in the coffee cups. She preferred to remain inside, reading and writing. It was Sitto Mariam and my aunts who taught me to knit, sew, crochet, and embroider. But my mother would emerge during her morning break to sit with us briefly, mostly as a listener. Then again, around noon, she would appear to remind everybody of the time. She would say to my grandmother, “It is already 12 P.M. We’d better start setting the table for lunch, and will lunch be ready at 12:30?” My calm, gentle grandmother would assure her that everything was under control, that lunch would be ready and on time, and that my grandmother had been doing this all her life. But my mother would nevertheless walk to the kitchen to make sure all was in order, and sometimes she would decide to interfere, and that would invariably disrupt the smoothness of the process. Her anxiety manifested itself in this manner from early in the morning until she went to bed.
As a child, I never realized how anxious she was. She seemed always focused on the next task at hand and was the only one in our family who was conscious of how important time was. But later I came to understand that some of her restlessness had to do with her not knowing what to do with herself if she was not occupied with projects.
She woke up early, headed straight to the bathroom, and was fully dressed and ready before 7 A.M. I rarely saw her in her nightwear. She always preached to the girls at school assembly about how important it was not to linger in their nightwear until noon. One must get up early, full of energy, even during vacation, dress immediately, and brace for the day. It was a refrain she never tired of repeating. At home she was outraged by the fact that, in spite of her preaching, we continued to sleep late in the morning, until ten or eleven o’clock during the holidays, and she devised many schemes to get us up. When we were little, there were tutors who appeared at 8 A.M., so that we would be up early and engaged intellectually, or there were tennis lessons. As teenagers, she knew she could not force us to get up early, nor could she devise a program of instruction, so she would walk briskly around the house, and we would hear her heels clicking as she moved back and forth; then she would open and shut drawers, closets, and doors noisily in the hope that we would be irritated by the sounds and get up. To her great chagrin, this never worked.


On Sale
May 12, 2009
Page Count
256 pages
Bold Type Books

Wadad Makdisi Cortas

About the Author

Wadad Makdisi Cortas was the principal of the Ahliah National School for Girls in Lebanon for twenty-six years, and the mother of four children, including Mariam Said, wife of Edward Said. Wadad Makdisi Cortas died in 1979.

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