In 1977, a rag tag group gathered to study Arabic under the tulelage of Dr. Abraham Udovitch, an acclaimed scholar who studied the social and economic life of 11th century Egypt, among other topics. It proved to be a highly successful group of people: To name a few, a professor of Middle Eastern politics (urbanism, gender and social movements) at American University in Washington, DC; the President and Chairman of the Board at the American Foreign Service Association and a former US diplomat with postings around the Middle East; a respected finance, banking, and oil and gas attorney based in Dubai; the director of international studies programs and assistant dean for legal writings at Villanova University School of Law, and of course, me, a global academic expert on oil and gas.
But I am sure tonight we are all reflecting on the same thing: the untimely death of another of our Arabic 101 classmates whose life was cut short by his random decision to attend a breakfast at the World Trade Center restaurant Windows on the World on the morning of September 11, 2001. Robert Deraney was a ray of light. A Lebanese American who had the knack of getting along with even the craziest student members of the Middle East studies department of the 1970s, Bob exemplified all that is wonderful about being 19. He was vibrant, optimistic, creative, filled with laughter, and a force of nature. If ever there was someone you couldn’t imagine being killed in an act of hatred, it would have been Bob. Bob wrote his senior thesis on the poetry of Khalil Gibran. He was a caring, open minded human being, who made time for everyone and could get a smile out of you even in the darkest of circumstances. I can still picture his face, chastising me for taking something mundane too seriously and forcing me to laugh at myself, not an hour later upon reflection, but then and there, while he tapped his foot impatiently, waiting for a smile to break across my lips. There is so much to be troubled about in the headlines today. So I try instead, on this day when I might otherwise be overwhelmed by grief and personal loss, to picture a moment of laughter with a colleague and friend who should still be with us. For those who knew me at 19 years old, picture me at house parties weekend swirling around in my roommate’s pink chiffon dress as Bob coasted across the dance floor like Fred Astaire. I was no Ginger Rogers, for sure, but Bob enriched our college experience in the 9 am section of Arabic 101 and beyond. What I wouldn’t give for some kibbe and a few pastries from his grandmother’s kitchen.
I am truly sadden by the reality that there are Bob Deraneys all over the Middle East today. Vibrant, hopeful young people sadly remembered by a college classmate or childhood friend. People’s whose contributions to the happiness of their families, of our society, and to the greater good has been cut short by the insane idea that political or religious “matters” can be solved through violence.
If September 11 has a lesson, then, it should be about how to save the living. I implore Russia and China to come together with the United States, France and other world leaders to craft a way to dismantle chemical weapons first in Syria and then for all time. Offer this new Millennial generation a better life where a friend can tap their foot and wait for a smile, instead of a tweet about carnage on TV.