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Volume 26, Number 4July/August 1975

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A Swiss in Lebanon

Written by Jackie Drucker and Khalil Abou El Nasr

One hundred years ago a remarkable Swiss named Theophilus Waldmeier was laboring mightily in the vineyards of the Lord in the mountains of Lebanon. A few years before he had been among a motley assortment of Europeans held prisoner by the mad Ethiopian King Theodore and rescued in the nick of time by General Napier and his British troops at the siege of Magdala. Now he was in "Syria" (as the whole eastern coast of the Mediterranean was then called) with his half-Ethiopian wife and his eight children, re-embarked on a second career of good works. Among the fruits of that career are two of Lebanon's most vigorous institutions—Brummana High School, which celebrates its centennial this year, and Asfuriya Mental Hospital, founded in 1894.

In the latter half of the 19th century, Lebanon was in a state of turmoil. In 1860, two religious factions, encouraged by the ruling Turks, fell upon each other in a tragic conflict that left some thousands dead. The last foreign group that had tried to establish a mission in Brummana about 40 years before had been literally thrown out of town, their books burned in the public square. Near the house in which the Waldmeiers settled stood the ruined remains of a house where 40 people had been deliberately blown up with gunpowder.

Modern education, however, was already beginning to penetrate the Middle East. The American-sponsored Syrian Protestant Mission founded a college in 1860 that was to grow into the American University of Beirut (Aramco World Magazine, March-April 1966). The French were opening schools and colleges. And the British School Mission, under the dedicated Mrs. Elizabeth Bowen Thompson, had already established more than 20 schools in Beirut, Damascus and the villages of Mount Lebanon. It was this latter organization that Waldmeier decided to join.

Nothing daunted by the failure of the previous mission to Brummana, nor by the reputation of the mountaineers for being hard people to get along with, Waldmeier moved his wife and family by horseback up the steep mountain path from Beirut to Brummana. He ran into immediate opposition: at first no one in the village would rent them a house to live in, and the local priest exhorted his flock to avoid the newcomers like the devil. Lacking outside support, Waldmeier had to use his own meager savings to support his family and to carry out his work. Even the weather was against him: the winter storms flooded the living quarters he had finally acquired. Gradually, however, he won over some of the townspeople. In 1874, he traveled to Europe to seek financial backing from the Society of Friends. After listening to his impassioned plea for aid, some British and American Quakers formed a committee which, from that time until today, has provided support for the Brummana School.

Returning in October 1874, Waldmeier purchased for £72 the land on which the school still stands—a hillside planted with umbrella pines and cypress trees overlooking the seacoast of Lebanon. But his troubles weren't over. A member of the family from which he bought the land contested the sale and Waldmeier was embroiled in a long and bitter lawsuit. It was finally settled and, at a feast of reconciliation, the site, previously known as the Spring of the Conqueror, was renamed the Spring of Peace—'Ain as-Salam. Working tirelessly on several fronts, Waldmeier soon had four schools going in Brummana and neighboring villages, but his aim was a permanent school in its own buildings. On August 4, 1876, the cornerstone was laid and about a year and a half later, the building was dedicated and opened. The school, at first called the Friends' Training Home for Boys, was in operation. In 1882, Waldmeier opened a girls' training home, with 15 courageous students, for in the cultural atmosphere of the time, female education was nothing short of courageous.

One hundred years later, the union of these two training homes is the co-educational, 780-student Brummana High School, which offers education from kindergarten to 12th grade in Arabic and English leading to the Lebanese baccalaureate or to the British G.C.E. examinations. The student body is composed of children from all parts of Lebanon and the Arab world, but it includes European and American boys and girls as well. The plant is one of the most modern in the Middle East, though it happily still contains the nucleus of the 19th-century hand-hewn stone buildings. In addition to traditional academic pursuits, the school emphasizes theatricals and sports, with an indoor and an outdoor theater, a soccer field, an 82-foot swimming pool, and three clay tennis courts on which both national and international tournaments are held each summer (Aramco World Magazine, Special Issue, Summer 1972).

Not content with planting the seeds of this long-lived institution, Waldmeier turned in 1894, at the age of 62, to the treatment of mental illness. Although medieval Bethlehem was renowned for its mental hospital—bequeathing its name to Bedlam Hospital in London and later to the world as a common noun—in the 19th century there was no modern asylum for the mentally ill in the whole of the Middle East. With his usual single-mindedness, Waldmeier turned the Brummana schools over to capable assistants and set out again for Europe and America, spending two years in pursuit of financial backing and information on the latest methods of treating the mentally ill. In 1898, he returned to Lebanon and purchased 34 acres of land on a hillside at Asfuriya above the city of Beirut. By 1900, an administration building, a ward for men and a ward for women were completed, and the first patient entered the hospital—a girl of 16 who had previously been kept chained in a dungeon, the standard treatment for insanity in many parts of the world at that time. The Waldmeiers—by this time his first wife had died and he had married a Lebanese girl named Fareedy Saleem—substituted loving concern and the latest scientific methods. The proof of their success is the survival of the institution and its transformation into the Lebanon Hospital for Mental and Nervous Disorders, soon to be moved from its original setting to a new complex south of Beirut housing a psychiatric ward for about 500 patients and a school for psychiatric nursing.

By their fruits you shall know them. Theophilus Waldmeier was one of those dedicated and energetic Victorians who, in small ways and large, tried to alleviate ignorance and suffering in far corners of the world and whose achievements endure to this day.

Jackie Drucker does free-lance writing in between tennis, archeology and scuba diving.

This article appeared on pages 32-40 of the July/August 1975 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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