ABDUL AZIZ SAID: Peace Educator, Cathedral Builder, Soul Dancer

A Tribute by Patricia Mische

For five decades I was blessed to know Abdul Aziz Said as friend, colleague, and soul mentor. Some friends are remembered because they touch your mind.  Others your heart.  And others reach into your soul.  Abdul Aziz will be cherished forever for touching all three. He was one of those rare people who integrate intellectual, emotional, and spiritual knowing in themselves and recognize and awaken it in others. He was one of the most whole and integral persons I have been privileged to know.

Everyone engaged in peace education and global studies should, if they have not already, learn of the contributions Abdul Aziz Said has made to our field. His passion for peace, and compassion for the victims of violence and oppression, did not arise as abstract ideals, or isolated academic inquiry, but from brutal experience.  When asked for his thinking on war, in any other part of the world, a deep sadness would come over him.  He was born on September 1, 1930 to a Christian Orthodox family in French-occupied Syria. His younger brother, when only three years old, was struck by a French military vehicle and died in his arms.  In World War II, his family was bombed by both Axis and Allied forces.  His father was exiled after leading an uprising against French rule.  After Syria became independent, his studies were disrupted by coups and instability.  Eventually, Abdul Aziz emigrated and earned his doctoral degree at American University (AU) in Washington DC, where he was considered “colored” and experienced racial discrimination.

But rather than despairing or becoming bitter and jaded, he transformed these sufferings into building stones for a lifelong career in peace education. He stayed on at American University after completing his doctoral degree and, for more than fifty years, served as a professor in the newly established School for International Service. Along the way he founded the university’s Center for Global Peace and the International Peace and Conflict Resolution program. He went through endless committee meetings and administrative and bureaucratic hurdles to get approval for B.A, M.A. and eventually PhD programs in peace studies. He developed courses and curricula, and got top-notch faculty hired and tenured until AU had one of the most advanced and enduring programs in the field.  It is challenging enough to be a teacher of peace studies.  It is even more challenging to institutionalize peace studies so that it continues beyond one’s own tenure.  Today the peace and conflict resolution programs at AU attract students from all over the world and networks with many other institutions.

Abdul Aziz also produced more than 25 books, mentored thousands of students, and introduced Islamic Peace Studies in a country marked by anti-Arab and anti-Islamic bigotry.  One of my prized possessions, a gift from Abdul Aziz in appreciation for our collaboration on inter-religious approaches to peacebuilding, is a beautifully embossed edition of the Koran, in Arabic.

Abdul Aziz addressed ignorance, fear, and hate with a different kind of education. As a sometime guest teacher in his AU peace studies courses, I was impressed not only by the content, but also the methodology in his approach to peace education.  Beginning with his Introduction and overview of peace studies, a course on paradigms of peace, through more advanced research courses, he placed a high degree of trust in his students to share responsibility for their own and class learning. Teams of students worked collaboratively on research and led inquiry and discussion of course readings, while he set the tone and offered inspiration and guidance.  He took the students and their abilities seriously and, as learner-teachers, they rose to meet his high level of trust and expectations.

His commitment went beyond academic walls. Abdul Aziz actively engaged in conflict-resolution projects, including Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the Iraq conflict. He joined protests, including against the Vietnam War and apartheid in South Africa. He served as an advisor to the United Nations, UNESCO, the US State Department, the White House, and to many non-governmental organizations, including serving on the Board of Global Education Associates, which Gerald Mische and I co-founded.  He was much loved and respected by fellow board members. And as a guest in our home, he charmed our children with his personal attentions.  They were also fascinated by his large mustache.

My daughter Monica recalls the time she was visiting colleges in the DC area with her father and they had an appointment to visit Abdul Aziz at AU. Stuck in DC traffic, they arrived at his office full of apologies for being more than an hour late and after academic hours, expecting that Abdul Aziz might have already gone home or at least be perturbed.  But Monica, a shy and hesitant teen, was welcomed as if she were a queen: “Never has anyone had to wait so little for such a splendid person as you.”  Now a professor herself, she lights up when she remembers this encounter that was so validating. Abdul Aziz graciously served tea and treats, engaged her in conversation, and left her forever enchanted.  Such gestures and considerations marked all of his one-on-one encounters, whether with diplomats, academicians, or teenagers.

With so much success, was Abdul Aziz ever discouraged?  I once asked him that.  It was near the end of his academic career, when, after fifty years of teaching, he had already announced his coming retirement. He had been through many upheavals in academia and, as a highly respected member of the AU faculty and its longest serving member, had often been prevailed on to broker resolutions to campus conflicts within and between administration, faculty and students. He confessed that the changes in academia (including from an emphasis on liberal education in service of democracy and the common good to a business-oriented model) was troubling. He did not know if he would undertake now what he had undertaken over the past fifty years in this more mercenary and self-serving context.  But my sense was that he would have risen to the challenge, whatever its nature or context, in the cause of educating for peace.

What had held him together with equanimity and integrity through all the turbulent years was his spiritual practice of Sufism.  Once, at his home, when I had asked about his spirituality, he showed me his prayer mat and described his centering meditation and movement.  Then he danced.  He spoke of hate and alienation as a great distancing from the sacred.  In contrast, peace, justice, love, unity, were movements toward the Sacred in self and universe.  Life was in the movement, the dance, to the center of self and God. And could Abdul Aziz ever do that dance.

Abdul Aziz and I were often speakers at the same conferences and came to know each other’s themes and stories.  One story that he frequently included in his talks, and which I loved hearing, had to do with stone workers.  Although I may not recount it as ably as he told it, the broad strokes went something like this:

While travelling through a new country a stranger came across a group of stone workers. He asked one worker, “What are you doing?”  “Cutting stones,” grunted the tired worker.  He asked another worker, “What are you doing?” “Moving stones,” gasped the worker.  He asked a third worker. “And you sir, what are you doing?” This worker proudly and joyfully proclaimed, “Building a cathedral!”

The point of telling this story over and over was to remind peace educators to keep their eyes on the long-range goal.  It takes hundreds of years to complete a cathedral. Those who cut, heft and lay the stones may never live to see steeples rising to the sky. Our work as peace educators is to contribute our part in building something sacred for the long-range well-being of the planet and humanity. We cut and move our stones, student by student, school by school, community by community, country by country, peace by peace. Our work may go on for many decades and yet not be finished, and we hand the further stages of work on to future generations.  Although we may not see the rising steeples, we must believe and find joy and pride in our work, in building firm foundations, in joining the dance, in moving the planetary community closer to a realization of its sacred potential.  I will forever think of Abdul Aziz Said himself as a pre-eminent peace educator, a cathedral builder, a soul dancer with feet touching ground but also raising sights and spirits to the skies.

Patricia Mische is a peace educator, author, and with Gerald Mische, co founded Global Education Associates.
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