Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Salim Amin Nasr R.I.P.

A man of majestic integrity died on Sunday, September 21, 2008. He was a man enormously dedicated to his country and he was moved by a quiet passion for fundamental ideals of fairness and justice. We met nearly 25 years ago. By the late 1980s, Salim conceived and headed the Center for Peace and Reconstruction in Lebanon, a far-sighted effort to bring together leading moderate Lebanese dedicated to reviving civility to Lebanon. I remember the meetings as gatherings of impressive, courageous people intent upon supplanting the war society that then still prevailed in Lebanon.
Later Salim, a gifted sociologist, became a program officer for the Ford Foundation in Cairo. In that capacity he worked very hard to construct a
network of Arab social scientists united by their commitment to political reform and improved governance. He was a passionate supporter of the project that Farhad Kazemi and I headed at NYU, the Civil Society in the Middle East program. The program was designed as an effort to evaluate the vibrancy of associational life in the Middle East, as well as examine the mechanisms and tactics regional states used to impede civil society. This was no two-aspirins-at-bedtime approach to political reform but a clear-headed effort to imagine a better future for the region's societies.
Salim might have stayed on at Ford, the foundation certainly wished him to do so, but he decided to return to Lebanon in mid-1990s, where he worked hard on reform and governance issues at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, then headed by Paul Salem.
I have special memories of Salim, perhaps none so poignant as a high quality conference in Italy, when this rigorous, serious intellectual was moved to tears recounting an episode during the civil war when his life hung by thread at a checkpoint. Colleagues around the room could not control their own tears. He cared deeply about his work because he knew that he was not engaged in a sterile academic exercise, but work that might truly make a difference.
He loved good music, when he was in Manhattan he would make a quiet excursion to a little cafe in Greenwich Village, La Lanterna di Vittorio. In the Cafe di Vittorio there was usually fine opera being played and he would savor wonderful coffee and something sweet. He loved that place.
I last saw him more than a year ago in Jubayl (Byblos), Lebanon. Salim's wonderful wife Marlene asked me to talk to him, to ask him to slow down. He had been ill for several years, and he was quite frail, but I told her he could not slow down, his work kept him going.
He was so very proud of his son and daughter, Amin and Zeina. I am sure they will honor their father with their loves. They, and their mother, have lost a wonderful man, but Lebanon has lost a extraordinary son.
Those who would like to honor Salim's memory are asked to donate in his name to the Lebanese Red Cross.

[Thanks to EB for helping me remember the incident recounted above.]

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