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The Arabists of Shemlan

Volume 1 - MECAS Memoirs 1944-1978


While working at a consortium bank in the City in the mid-1970s, Orion Bank Ltd, I began to attend evening classes in Arabic. Starting to love the language and intrigued by possible future opportunities to work in the Arab world, I looked into ways of studying Arabic more seriously. Thanks to a generous intervention by Orion’s chairman, David Montagu, I landed a place at the British Foreign Office’s Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies (MECAS) in the Lebanese village of Shemlan. I studied there for seven months of its last full academic year, in 1977-8 — before the school was finally engulfed by Lebanon’s civil war — and graduated with an FCO diploma in written and spoken Arabic. (This was to lead, in a serendipitously round-about way, to my joining the Financial Times as a specialist on Arab affairs in 1979.)

In 2005 I was contacted by an old friend, Paul Tempest, who had studied at MECAS ten years before me and kept in touch with many of its alumni. (He had been funded by the Bank of England, where he had spent most of his working life.) Paul told me of plans to assemble a volume of memoirs about life in Shemlan. He was going to chair a three-man editorial panel, bringing in two of the schools most famous past instructors, the distinguished Arabists Sir James Craig and Sir Donald Maitland. Would I like to make a contribution to the book?

The half-year I spent in Shemlan was one of the most memorable experiences of my life, so I needed no second invitation to write about it. With the help of an introduction made for me by a Lebanese friend — Youssef Nasr, son of a well-known family in Beirut and a colleague at Orion Bank — I was able to arrange my own private accommodation in the village. This meant I stayed with the Shemlan butcher, Salim Hitti, and his saintly wife, Nouha, instead of taking a room like the rest of the students in the MECAS buildings which were a ten-minute walk up the hill. This made my whole experience of MECAS far richer and more adventurous than it might otherwise have been — and gave me plenty of memories with which to embellish my account for Paul and his co-editors.

The result was a narrative account, ‘Shemlan Days’, which can be downloaded below in a PDF version.

My fellow contributors were mostly retired diplomats and others whom we generally referred to as our friends from the Foreign Office library. None of their memoirs  ran to more than a few pages. To retain a sense of balance for the envisaged book, the editing panel decided that my text would have to be cut back by a third. But when The Arabists of Shemlan was finally published  by Stacey International in 2006, I was nonetheless delighted to see the curtailed version published in it as ‘The End of the Road 1978’ (pp 243-67).

‘Shemlan Days’ by Duncan Campbell-Smith

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Arabists of Shemlan