The great mind and legacy of Clovis Maksoud
I am among the fortunate people of the four generations who benefited from knowing, learning from and caring about ambassador Clovis Maksoud.
When I arrived in Washington in the summer of 1978 to head the National Association of Arab Americans (NAAA), the first lobby for our community, I was quite new to the political wars that would become the main feature of my work. It was not long before the two best mentors possible came into my life. A year later, Hisham Sharabi became NAAA’s board chairman and Maksoud came to Washington as the Arab League representative to the United States and the United Nations.
James Zogby, then head of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign and an intellectual and activist in his own right, knew Maksoud from his previous work as chief editor of An-Nahar Weekly in Lebanon, and quickly arranged an introduction.
To say that it was a life-enriching experience cannot express how much we came to see Maksoud as the premier spokesman for the Middle East and North Africa region. His intelligence and philosophical sweep were encapsulated in rich words, phrases and concepts that made opponents’ arguments seem dull by comparison. He was never at a loss for words, even if we didn’t understand them!
We would sit with him in his office and he would tell us stories about the time he was the Arab League ambassador to India, his relations with Jawaharlal Nehru and the Non-Aligned Movement, his impatience with the inability of Arab leaders to think beyond their hold on power and our responsibility as Arab Americans to honour our heritage and our citizenship by telling the truth to both sides.
His wife, Hala Maksoud, who died in 2002, was herself a force to be reckoned with. Smart, poised, unfazed by critics and devoted to her husband. They were a power couple for their intellects and their straightforward speaking — rare commodities in Washington.
At the American University in Washington, where Maksoud headed the Center for the Global South, he pulled together the best and brightest from the Arab world and elsewhere to provide perspectives and insights that challenged the conventional thinking both of Arab and US leaders. He continued to write and speak all around the United States and overseas despite advancing age and poor health.
I remember quite fondly how, when he suffered a heart attack and was recovering slowly, Zogby and I would visit him at his home and walk with him around his neighbourhood. While his body was frail, his mind continued its rapid discourse on politics, culture, history and the woes and tribulations of our countries — the United States and the Arab world.
He would light up whenever friends, students, luminaries and anyone who called his name would come up to him and engage in conversation. Maksoud was never shy about responding with opinions and insights honed by his decades of international experience and friendships.
I last saw Maksoud at the Arab American Institute Khalil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Awards event in April in Washington, less than a week before I left for an assignment in Jordan. He was in a wheelchair but that didn’t stop him from greeting the many people who gathered around to extend their wishes and show again their appreciation for his iconic status.
There will never be and could never be another Clovis Maksoud. He was fearless and devout, willing to defend what he believed in despite criticisms, and never stopped his greatest passion — learning. So many memories, so many of us touched by his genius and his humanity. We are grateful for his life well-lived.