Category Archives: Scenes from a Life

Old Boys, New Boy, Old Boy 1961-2008

I have spent most of my adult life on the faculty of New York University, a sprawling urban corporation that provokes both awe and disdain, occasionally admiration, sometimes rage and almost never love. Mater, si, Alma, no. I was, and still am, I suppose, what is called a professor, and what I professed was some […]

Altar Boy Credits — A Pelagian Pipedream? 1937-2010

I was an altar boy, an All-Star, All-Pro altar boy. Smartly togged out in cassock, surplice, collar and ribbon-bow tie, I paid my dues to the Lord in the sanctuary of the Our Lady of the Assumption church. I served crack of dawn 7 weekday Masses, and on Sunday I was assigned everything thing from […]

Last Dance: The Disco Year 1979

Most of my Middle Eastern colleagues, whose confidence had been sapped by the gospel of doubt broadcast in Edward Said’s Orientalism, no longer believed they had the skill or the right to explain what Islam is all about. But I thought I did —what did a Christian Palestinian expert on Comparative Literature know about it […]

A Dig at Raqqa 1979

Father Flanagan, the cleric portrayed by Spencer Tracy in “Boystown,” reportedly said that there was no such thing as a bad boy. I don’t know about boys, even though I’m still myself one even at this advanced age, but I know a lot about ideas since I’ve had a few, and I can attest that […]

A Day in the Country 1956

Part of every Jesuit’s training was teaching for two or three years in one of the many high schools run by the Society of Jesus. In the New York Province, to which I then belonged, the schools were all conveniently located in the New York metropolitan area, a happy prospect for me after four years […]

The Kindness That Kills — Adventures in Middle Eastern Hospitality 1970

As soon as I came out of my office I saw him at the end of the hall. He was standing at the elevator, waiting, waiting for me, I knew. I stepped quickly back into my office and closed the door before he had a chance to turn and wave. I waited ten minutes and […]

New Takes in Old Damascus 1982

We have crossed in from the Mediterranean at Latakia, taken a wide arcing turn south and are now slowly descending over the tan steppe into mankind’s favorite oasis. And at what appear to be an hour before schedule, if schedule is the proper word for anything gliding, tumbling, stumbling or crawling into the Syrian Arab […]

A Different League 1957

Princeton looks like no university made by human hands. It has the flashy Technicolor perfection of an old Hollywood back lot or the backdrop for a Vogue layout designed to show off chesterfield coats or dazzling women in expensive clothes. That was in fact the first thing I saw when I put my inelegant Thom […]

The Feast of St. Joseph 1975

“Angelica. Angelica Henlein,” Kessler shouted over the phone. I was standing at a public phone in the Beirut airport. I was astonished that the phone worked, that I had the right Lebanese coins, and even more astonished that when I dialed my old friend and guide Heinz Kessler in Beirut, he simply picked up the […]

Up on the Heights 1974

A highway runs straight down the spine of Syria: Aleppo, Damascus, Dera’a. From Aleppo it wriggles crookedly northwest to the Turkish frontier; from Dera’a it drops quickly southward into Jordan. On its descent from Damascus the highway divides some of the most fertile land in the Middle East, a carpet of rich red earth that […]