American Sheikhs: Two Families, Four Generations, and the Story of America's Influence in the Middle East

American Sheikhs: Two Families, Four Generations, and the Story of America's Influence in the Middle East

by Brian VanDeMark
American Sheikhs: Two Families, Four Generations, and the Story of America's Influence in the Middle East

American Sheikhs: Two Families, Four Generations, and the Story of America's Influence in the Middle East

by Brian VanDeMark


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American Sheikhs is the story of a great institution-the American University of Beirut (AUB)-and the families who created and fostered it for almost 150 years. Author Brian VanDeMark's vivid narrative includes not onlythe colorful history of AUB and many memorable episodes in a family saga, but also larger and more important themes. In the story of the efforts of these two families to build a great school with alternating audacity, arrogance, generosity, paternalism, and vision, the author clearly sees an allegory for the larger history of the United States in the Middle East.Before 1945, AUB's history is largely positive. Despite American nationalism and presumptions of Manifest Destiny, Middle Easterners generally viewed the school as an engine of constructive change and the United States as a benign force in the region. But in the post-World War II era, with the rise of America as a world power, AUB found itself buffeted by the strong winds of nationalist frustration, Zionism and anti-Zionism, and-eventually-Islamic extremism. Middle Easterners became more ambivalent about America's purposes and began to see the university not just as a cradle of learning but also as an agent of undesirable Western interests.This story is full of meaning today. By revealing how and why the Blisses and Dodges both succeeded and failed in their attempts to influence the Middle East, VanDeMark shows how America's outreach to the Middle East can be improved and the vital importance of maintaining good relations between Americans and the Arab world in the new century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616144777
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 01/31/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 252
Sales rank: 315,244
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Brian VanDeMark is the author of Pandora’s Keepers: Nine Men and the Atomic Bomb and Into the Quagmire: Lyndon Johnson and the Escalation of the Vietnam War. He is the coauthor of the number one bestselling memoir of Robert McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. He teaches history at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

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Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2012 Brian VanDeMark
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-476-0

Chapter One


Daniel and Abby Bliss's odyssey to the Middle East began in the college town of Amherst in western Massachusetts. Founded in 1821 to educate indigent students to become missionaries, Amherst College sat atop a rise in the broad Pioneer Valley. Its neoclassical buildings self-consciously evoked the culture of ancient Greece. The centerpiece was Doric-columned Johnson Chapel, whose square tower afforded an unsurpassed view of the surrounding towns and the distant Berkshire Hills. Flanking Johnson Chapel stood South College and Middle College, austere Georgian brick piles built by residents of the town as a demonstration of support for Amherst College. The school grew rapidly and by the 1830s had become the second largest college in the United States, behind only Yale.

Daniel Bliss, a frontiersman born in Vermont's Champlain Valley who migrated as a thirteen-year-old boy to Ohio by covered wagon and by boat on the Erie Canal and grew up as a barefoot farm boy craving education, entered Amherst in 1848. At twenty-five, he was much older than most freshmen. He had been forced to quit school at age sixteen to work because education had become a luxury his father could no longer afford. This experience set Daniel apart from the well-connected people whose company he kept in later years. He knew the life of ordinary people. He did manual labor. He milked cows; he became an apprentice tanner; he pruned fruit trees. But he yearned to make something of his life and to make a difference—he was a typically restless and ambitious American. He transformed his deferred dream of education and learning into the story of his life. Daniel Bliss resolved to become a missionary.

Religion held a central place in the culture of antebellum America. Alexis de Tocqueville, the precocious French aristocrat who had toured the United States the decade before and had written a brilliant analysis of American society based on his travels, observed in Democracy in America that "the religious atmosphere of the country was the first thing that struck me on arrival in the United States." Tocqueville went on to write:

Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions; for it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it. Indeed, it is in this same point of view that the inhabitants of the United States themselves look upon religious belief. I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion—for who can search the human heart?—but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society.

Religion dominated the life of Amherst. The school's motto was Terras Irradient (Let Them Give Light to the World). Amherst's charter proclaimed its purpose to train men for "civilizing and evangelizing." Prayers preceded every breakfast and followed every dinner. Sunday chapel was mandatory. Every Monday night the college president, Reverend Edward Hitchcock, gathered students in his home where he solemnly imparted the bedrock Calvinist principles of "The Elect," the centrality of "good works," and the conviction that doing right represented man's duty to God while doing good represented man's duty to his fellow man. The human story had a purpose, Hitchcock told students. It was not enough to avoid sin; one must actively do good. An all-powerful God endowed human beings with the ability to understand—and a mission to shape—the world they lived in. God acted through his believers to right the world's wrongs. God had chosen Americans to lead his work at this stage of history. Missionaries represented the leading edge of God's plan. And missionaries would not be true to themselves unless they tried to change the world.

Hitchcock and other Amherst faculty did their jobs extraordinarily well. The college produced supremely self-confident and self-sacrificing young men for whom a life abroad in mission work represented the highest ideal of service and status. Each year during these antebellum decades, Amherst graduated more missionaries than any other college in America.

Daniel Bliss arrived at Amherst in the fall of 1848 with sixty-five dollars in his pocket for the entire year. To make ends meet, he prepared most of his meals on the wood-burning stove that heated his dormitory room. He also sawed and toted firewood to fellow students' rooms, rang the college bell in Johnson Chapel each dawn, sold textbooks, tutored local grade-school children, and did haying on nearby farms to earn extra income. "The way looks dark, but I must, and will, press on," he wrote in his personal account book that first year.

Amherst's atmosphere—far removed from the rough, profane world of the Ohio frontier he had known as a boy—struck a deep and resonant chord in Bliss. Gifted teachers brought abstract ideas to life, explained biblical passages in sonorous tones, and confidently lived their faith. In the way of an impressionable young man, Bliss partook of that idyll. He returned to his dormitory room each night full of enthusiasm and admiration for the eloquence and fascinating humor of his professors. Their example appealed to Bliss's idealism and his longing for purpose in life.

His favorite professor was William Tyler, who taught Greek at Amherst for sixty years. Although Tyler was a devout Congregationalist, he was no starched shirt—he was ironic, urbane, and sophisticated. He was also patient and gentle, relying on persuasion more than discipline. He knew how to bring out the best in others. Faculty colleagues considered him too popular; students considered "Old Ty" wonderfully human. Bliss grew close with Tyler and remained so for forty years. Tyler taught Bliss how to learn and, more importantly, how to teach.

A strikingly handsome young man with a strong face, Daniel Bliss looked like the missionary he aspired to be. A prominent Roman nose and thin lips anchored hawk-like blue eyes, all framed by a thick mane of brown hair. "It was a visage straight out of a Grant Wood painting," a perceptive writer later noted, "harsh and angular, the clear New England eyes radiating a dead certainty and belief leavened by an attitude of benevolent superiority."

While at Amherst Bliss met, courted, and fell deeply in love with a beautiful and vivacious young woman seven years his junior named Abby Wood, who would become his wife and constant companion. "If I did not succeed in finding the philosopher's stone in college," Bliss wrote years later, looking back, "I certainly obtained a very precious jewel from the town."

Born in Westminster, Massachusetts, and nicknamed "Westminster Abby" by friends, she had been orphaned as a child and grew up in the care of her maternal uncle and aunt, Luke and Abby Sweetser of Amherst. Uncle Luke, as her guardian, initially opposed the romance between Abby and Daniel. He thought his niece foolish to fall for a young man who proposed to go halfway around the world as a missionary. Uncle Luke put up lots of obstacles. Courting Abby "required more courage than 'bearding the lion in his den' or facing a Goliath with a sling, or storming a fort or meeting a bear robbed of her whelps," recalled Daniel, who dubbed Uncle Luke "the flaming sword." But Daniel persisted—he knew what he wanted and how to get it—and Uncle Luke eventually blessed the match.

Abby was quite a catch. She had fine brown hair and a porcelain complexion set off by radiant blue eyes. Physically frail and frequently sick, she nonetheless possessed spirit and a sharp mind—traits she shared with her close neighborhood friend, Emily Dickinson. The Sweetser house was perched on a hill amid a grove of tall oaks west of the campus. Just down the hill sat the home of Edward Dickinson, treasurer of Amherst College, and his family. His daughter Emily had yet to become the reclusive poet of later fame.

The 1840s marked a golden age of American letters and made Amherst a regular stop on the antebellum New England literary circuit. No speaker or writer achieved more popularity than Ralph Waldo Emerson, the celebrity of transcendentalism. Emerson challenged Puritan orthodoxy with the ideal of humanitarianism. He did so in ways that dazzled his audience. He had been trained in rhetoric, and eloquent sentences streamed from his mouth and pen. One observer, Walt Whitman, said Emerson's sonorous speeches and essays had "the quality of the light of day.... You cannot put your finger upon it yet there is nothing more palpable, nothing more wonderful, nothing more vital and refreshing." A former preacher, Emerson taught that God could be found by striking out into the world:

Every spirit builds itself a house, and beyond its house a world, and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then that the world exists for you.... What we are, that only can we see.... Build therefore your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions.

Emerson had an intensity of purpose, a grandness of vision, and a wellspring of energy that made him intensely charismatic. He was an insistently optimistic and confident dreamer who addressed himself and his audiences to a future of possibilities. He preached progress and limitless faith in the individual. It was a contagious evangelism.

The evangelical revivals of the period, known as the Second Great Awakening, also shaped Bliss. It was an era of excitable idealism. People in New England at the time struggled with religion. Many had fallen away from the traditional Puritan faith, and so a religious revival movement swept the area, bringing people back to the church. Evangelical camp meetings attracting tens of thousands of "witnesses" sprouted up across western New England in towns like Amherst. Ministerial spokesmen of the Second Great Awakening redefined preaching from an esoteric calling to a humanitarian service. "Only the extension of Christian love," Reverend Samuel Hopkins explained, can "bring nearer to humankind the millennium that would wipe out poverty, injustice, and oppression."

This message reflected antebellum America's dynamism and self-assurance. It fired aspiring missionaries like Daniel Bliss who saw their country as the salvation of the world and saw themselves as its agents. Glorifying God meant improving people's lives not just in America, but everywhere. God had given Americans a mission, and their country's future—indeed, the world's future—depended on fulfilling it. In a commencement address to his fellow Amherst graduates in the spring of 1852, Bliss called for permanent "agitation" in religion and politics, since there would be "no finality this side of the gates of the New Jerusalem" until enlightenment and "liberty like day breaks" out everywhere in the world.

Investing themselves with the purest motives, Bliss and other missionaries-to-be unselfconsciously thought of themselves as the "choicest grain" of God's most "privileged garden," destined to rescue the heathen world. Such beliefs made the nineteenth-century American missionary, in the memorable words of Randolph Bourne, writing in 1917, at once "the most unselfish and the most self-righteous of men."

After graduating from Amherst, Bliss enrolled at Andover Theological Seminary. Founded in 1807 as part of Philips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, it was the oldest seminary in America and a bastion of New England Congregationalism. At Andover, Bliss continued his study of a moralistic Calvinism, energetically engaging the great issues of the day. Religious idealism combined with a political activism and intensified by intellectual introspection dominated the seminary's atmosphere. Andover taught that God saw Americans as his new chosen people. Missionaries bore a special responsibility for fulfilling God's purposes on earth by answering the call to regenerate and redeem the world. Every missionary kept one question constantly in mind: What good can be done? The missionary would have to face severe tests, but he should never give up and never be deterred by adversity.

Bliss finished at Andover in the spring of 1855. Along with his diploma came ordination as a Congregationalist minister. Bliss immediately applied for a position with the ABCFM. A powerful, influential missionary society headquartered in Boston and headed by Reverend Rufus Anderson, the ABCFM sponsored half of all overseas American missions. Most ABCFM missions were in the Middle East—many more than in South Asia, Africa, or China—because there was a well-established American trade presence in the Mediterranean and because the Holy Land was the land of the Bible. Most nineteenth-century Americans knew the Bible intimately. The Old and New Testaments presented a vivid panorama of the Middle East replete with ancient pyramids and temples, shimmering oases, and sublime deserts. Many young Americans from the frontier, including Daniel Bliss, dreamed of seeing such spectacles themselves. The seductive allure of overseas work was no different then than it is now. It offered the possibility for prestige and glory in the name of God, as well as a way to find adventure and improve one's social status.

The ABCFM operated in many respects like America's first international nongovernmental organization. It solicited donations from thousands of small donors. It deployed staff and resources within the United States (among Native Americans) and to the four corners of the world. It published books and technical journals, and it rigorously selected candidates for its missionary work. It required postgraduate seminary education at a time when only 2 percent of Americans attended college. The ABCFM sought ambitious, adventuresome clergymen with courage and common sense, who were also adaptable and patient, preferred cooperation to confrontation, and could settle for gradual results. It wanted missionaries who could stir up people but could also learn from them. Yet the ABCFM's mission was explicit, unequivocal, and uncompromising: to "civilize" through what they reckoned to be disinterested and compassionate Christian service. This ethnocentric humanitarianism reflected the prevalent nineteenth-century Western attitude of the "White Man's Burden" that viewed all non-Europeans as racially and culturally inferior to Anglo-Christians, whose duty it was to uplift "pagan heathens," delivering them out of their long night. At its core, American evangelical Christianity harbored an unquestioning sense of superiority vis-à-vis other lands and religions and the justice of its expansionist world view. There was light—and darkness—in the hearts of missionaries.

Daniel Bliss shared these assumptions before he set out for the Middle East. His first sermon as an ordained minister, at Boston's famed Park Street Church in the summer of 1855, conveyed an air of moral superiority and self-confident presumption typical of nineteenth-century Americans. Bliss said missionary work demanded the strongest and most skillful men because they "must contend against a strong error," "communicate Christian truth in language fitted to the conceptions of a heathen mind," and "lay the foundations of all social reform and of religious doctrine." His voice booming from the pulpit, he finished, "I had rather go twice five miles, and stand all day in the door of the house of God, than to hear the wail of a lost soul, which had perished because I chose to live at ease in Zion." Bliss got his wish when the ABCFM assigned him to Syria. What would he find in himself and in the land when he got there?


Excerpted from AMERICAN SHEIKHS by BRIAN VANDEMARK Copyright © 2012 by Brian VanDeMark. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


INTRODUCTION: The Blisses and the Dodges....................9
PROLOGUE: Sailing to Beirut....................15
CHAPTER 1: Daniel Bliss and American Mission....................23
CHAPTER 2: America Encounters the Middle East....................31
CHAPTER 3: Tradition Versus Modernity in the Middle East....................55
CHAPTER 4: Howard Bliss and American Nationalism....................69
CHAPTER 5: America Confronts Great Power Politics in the Middle East....................83
CHAPTER 6: Bayard Dodge and American Idealism....................103
CHAPTER 7: America in the Postwar Middle East....................121
CHAPTER 8: David Dodge and American Frustration....................151
CHAPTER 9: America in the Contemporary Middle East....................173
APPENDIX: Prominent Living AUB Alumni....................193
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