Learning in Lebanon... Learing about Lebanon... Learning about Learning... Learning about Life

This site is about my experiences and thoughts as a visiting professor at the American University of Beirut (AUB).

Early in 2009 I was privileged to receive an Australian Endeavour Executive Award for placement at AUB from October to December 2009.

I've come to Lebanon with a number of specific objects, including:

# To build links between AUB and the University of South Australia (UniSA), where I work as an academic developer;

# To research concepts of scholarship and the ways in which academics engage with the Scholarship of Teaching in an Arab context;

#To exchange ideas and approaches to Teaching and Learning with my colleagues at AUB; and

# To better understand the ways in which an institution like AUB fosters student and social inclusivity.

My disciplinary background is in "Near Eastern Studies", with a special interest in the Syriac New Testament and the history of the Eastern Church. Hence, being in Lebanon will hopefully afford some great opportunities to explore various avenues of interest in those areas.

I will be posting articles on these topics, and probably a few others as well. Needless to say, I am responsible for the opinions expressed on this site, and such opinions do not purport to represent the views of AUB, UniSA or of the Endeavour Awards program.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Three days in Libya

Libya does not figure prominently in Australian consciousness. The older generation may hearken back to a time when in the Libyan desert, Aussie Diggers fought with the Allies against the Italians and Germans for control of North Africa. However, more recent perceptions will tend to be shaped by Libya being often in the news it for what may be called the ‘wrong reasons’. However, as I discovered last week, in company with colleagues from Australian universities, Libya is a beautiful and interesting place, with enormous social and economic potential.

We were part of the ‘Study in Australia’ Education Exhibition, a two day road show for about fourteen Australian universities, which was held at El Fatah University, Tripoli, from 28–29 October. The exhibition consisted mainly of information booths manned by international and marketing staff from the universities. In addition, Victorian and South Australian State Government representatives were in attendance – SA being stylishly represented by Jane Osborn, currently based in Dubai. Indeed, SA was particularly well represented, with UniSA, Flinders University and the SA Government together demonstrating that Adelaide is consolidating its position as a major centre of Australian higher education.

The response was a sight to behold. Hundreds of students made serious enquiries, and many made preliminary applications, especially for Masters and PhD programs. Libya has 360,000 higher education students (impressive, given that the population is about six million), and the system is well-funded, with a large number of government scholarships available for overseas study.

Having helped out a little on the UniSA stall, I can attest to the hard work and dedication of the staff who undertake these overseas representations: for UniSA in this instance by Ms Megan Durant, Deputy Director, International. The display was full-on from morning till late afternoon, plus evening functions – demanding enough, but this was only one stage in a series of exhibitions that followed on from Kuwait, and that would go on to Jordan, Syria and Turkey.

In addition to the exhibition, this part of the road show made a point of including an academic delegation – which is why I was there. Led by Stephen Garrett, Consul Education, Australian Education International, a series of meetings and consultations were arranged for the Australian academics. All this, as the whole road show, was very capably and efficiently facilitated by Mr Tom Yates, Australian Consul-General, Libya, and Senior trade Commissioner for North Africa. To see Tom at work was to appreciate the terrific role our representatives undertake overseas, and I don’t mind saying that it made me proud to be an Australian. Tom and Stephen helped to maximise productive contacts, and also kept a friendly eye on us, while making sure that we had a bit of fun as well. The fun bit included a trip on 30 October to the magnificent site of Lepcis (or ‘Leptis’) Magna – of which more in a future posting.

One important consultation for the academic team was with the National Economic Development Board, the central planning authority for Libya. They came across as an accomplished group determined to achieve real progress in the social and economic development of the nation. I also attended a meeting with the Engineering Faculty of El Fatah University, which also included deans from other Tripoli universities. At both meetings it was clear that there are many opportunities for Australian education providers, particularly in vocational and professional training, if the providers are prepared to commit to meaningful partnerships with their Libyan counterparts. On the evening of the 28 October, the Consul-General hosted a dinner at the Al-Mahari Radisson Blu Hotel, providing a further opportunity for the Australian academics to meet with key Libyan university officials. On the evening of 29 October, we enjoyed a lavish Libyan barbeque, hosted by Aconex, Libya.

Of Libya itself, three days doesn’t qualify me to say much. However, I can say that my impression overall was much more favourable that I might have anticipated. In many respects, Libya shares the attributes of Arab countries, yet there are some subtle and interesting differences. Tripoli has something of an ‘Egyptian’ feel to it, but unlike its Egyptian counterparts, it is well-maintained with clean, litter-free streets. The same standards obtain in the countryside, which (in the part I saw) is reminiscent of the coastal rural areas in Syria, dotted with neat concrete-brick farmhouses, and walled groves of olive and fruit trees. There are many things to admire, but especially it is to be noted that Libyans make fantastic cappuccino – presumably a positive legacy of the Italian colonial days.

City traffic is chaotic – a ubiquitous feature of the region – and fast: on the way from the airport to the hotel my driver, evidently a disciple of the chariot school of Jehu, managed to get the Hyundai up to 160kms/hr, graciously sparing a moment to turn around and through a flashing smile say, ‘I am a good driver, yes?’ On the other hand, Libyan taxi drivers must rate among the most innocuous of their species anywhere in the world. Unlike Beirut, for instance, where the pedestrian, and especially the walking westerner, is taken as an affront to the raison d’ĂȘtre of the cab trade, and will attract endless honks and other acts of solicitation, not once when walking in Tripoli did I merit even a tenuous beep. Even more surprisingly, the merchants of the souk shared this quietist spirit. When passing through the shops and stalls no-one approached me with their wares or offered the bargain of a lifetime – something quite inconceivable in any other Arab market place that I know.

I am glad that I went to Libya – glad because seeds have been sown that, with careful nurturing, may be productive to the benefit of Australian and Libyan higher education; glad because I had the privilege of seeing a little more of this amazing world, not least Lepcis Magna; and glad for the opportunity of meeting some wonderful people. Needless to say, if one were called on to go again…


Part of the Australian Delegation at Lepcis Magna

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the wonderful record of an amazing experience in Libya for the Australian delegation. Prior to our trip to Libya our perception of this country was very much influenced by the limited and selective news coverage that we have received in Australia. And really it is not as "scarey" on the ground as many people believed it would be. A relationship for Australian Univeristies that is truly worth nuturing.

    Bev Reilly Uni Canberra