For Leila Fawaz, receiving France's highest academic award came out of the blue. Arguably, though, the prize is a milestone on a path of learning that began when she was a child in Beirut.
"As a Lebanese, what I studied in Lebanon always stays with me," Fawaz said after receiving the award from the office of the French Consul-General in Boston earlier this summer.
She said she was completely taken aback when she returned from a vacation in June to find an envelope naming her Chevalier in the National Order of the Legion of Honor for her "exemplary personal commitment to French-American relations."
"I was flabbergasted," she recalls.
Speaking about the honor over the phone from her Boston-area home – where she teaches Lebanese and Eastern Mediterranean Studies at the Fletcher School of Tufts University – Fawaz reflects upon how growing up during Lebanon's Civil War led her to this prize.
As a scholar, in fact, Fawaz is better known for her connections with the United States than France.
She has spent most of her academic life in the U.S., arriving at Tufts in 1980, serving as the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Jackson College from 1996 to 2001. Last year, she was elected to the Harvard Board of Overseers. She has also served as president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America.
Her better-known publications, too – from her 1983 study "Merchants and Migrants in Nineteenth-Century Beirut," to her 1994 monograph "An Occasion for War: Ethnic Conflict in Lebanon and Damascus in 1860" – have been published in English.
Yet Fawaz is no stranger to France. She was a visiting professor at Universite de Provence and Paris' l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Science Politiques et Sociales.
Despite the political mistakes France made during their colonial exploits in the Arab world, Fawaz says she admires the country's academic research on the MENA region, noting that French scholars are thorough in their study of Arabic and are dedicated area specialists.
Born Leila Tarazi, Fawaz grew up in a Greek Orthodox family in the Beirut neighborhood of Sanayah back in the 1960s and 1970s, when the now mostly Sunni enclave was much more mixed. She laments that the Aridi building, where she grew up, has become run down in recent years.
She recalls how, during the Civil War, people would always dress elegantly even when living in fear. This stylishness didn't reflect local superficiality, Fawaz insists, but a spirit of resilience – a way of retaining one's dignity – that persisted throughout the war.
"Ordinary people showed a lot of courage," she says. "When I get an award like this I think of the Lebanese people and how valuable they are, and how education is so important to this small country ... I'm just one representative of a huge number of people."
One of the most vivid memories of hope and resilience Fawaz recalls from growing up during the war was meeting an illiterate Beirut florist.
"He didn't know how to read or write," she recalls, "but he was so proud his son was going to school."
Though individuals "can't control the larger picture," Fawaz does believe people can thrive if they just follow their passions.
"Whenever I'm in Lebanon, I'm so impressed because the people [I meet] are so passionate about their studies ... That's the only way for society to improve – because the young people are the future. That's what made Lebanon so special from the beginning."
She lauds Lebanon's education system for teaching students three languages – Arabic, French and English – which she says exposes students to the rest of the world.
She remembers that, because of the country's frequent power outages, she and many students she knew spent their evenings reading by candle light, determined to get an education no matter what the obstacles.
It was this determination to read that gave her the drive to complete her two-year master's degree at the American University of Beirut in one year. It was at AUB that she met her future husband Karim, and where she embarked upon her academic career. "I never meant to have a career. I just kept reading."