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The Passing of Arab American Scholar Dr. George Atiyeh

posted on: Apr 27, 2008


Al-Hewar Center is sad to announce the passing of prominent Arab-American scholar, Dr. George Atiyeh, who headed the Middle East Section of the Library of Congress for 30 years.

He passed away on Monday, April 21, 2008, peacefully and surrounded by his loving family after a long illness. He is survived by his loving and devoted wife, Daisy, his three children, George, Rose Marie, and Lancelot, his brother, Dr. Maurice Atiyeh, and a large extended family.

Al-Hewar Center wishes to express our deep condolences to Dr. Atiyeh’s family. He was a warm, loving man who dedicated his life to serving dialogue among cultures. He will be deeply missed.

Dr. Atiyeh was a scholar in Orientalist languages and history. He mastered five languages and knew an additional four. His life was focused on introducing Americans to the real Middle East and making a difference in relations between the Arab world and the West, particularly the U.S. Under his leadership, the Middle East Section of the Library of Congress expanded into one of the world’s preeminent resources on the Middle East and the Arab World.

Through his work, he established an important dialogue between the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. He hosted numerous conferences at the Library to bring together scholars from the Middle East and America on many diverse topics, including Kahlil Gibran, transliteration of the Arabic language, the Koran, the history of Jerusalem, and many more. Because of his deep knowledge about the Arab world, he was sought out by scholars and politicians, including Secretaries of State and U.S. Presidents, including Jimmy Carter.

Following is a brief history of his life:

Dr. George Nicholas Atiyeh was born in 1923 in the small town of Amioun in northern Lebanon, the eldest of 10 brothers and sisters. He was driven by a perpetual sense of curiosity about history, culture and literature. Dr. Atiyeh read avidly­, first his father’s rich collection of books about the Middle East, then books he bought with his own monthly allowance.

He graduated from the American University of Beirut (B.A., 1948, M.A., 1950), and received his doctorate in oriental languages and literature from the University of Chicago in 1954. He was professor and chairman, Department of Humanities, of the University of Puerto Rico from 1954-1967 before joining the Library of Congress in 1967 as Head of its Near East Section. In 1991, he became Acting Chief of the African & Middle East Division of the Library of Congress, supervising its Near East, Africa, and Hebraic Sections. He served at the Library of Congress until he had to retire for medical reasons in July 1996.

The Near East Section of the Library of Congress is responsible for materials in the languages of the Arab world, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. Under Dr. Atiyeh’s direction, the holdings of the Near East Section have become world-renowned.

While directing and informing the work of specialists concentrating on Turkey, Iran, and other areas, Dr. Atiyeh applied his knowledge and scholarship to development of the Library’s collections of Arabica. Among other accomplishments, he acquired numerous rare publications from the Arab countries; identified and acquired Arab-American newspapers published in the early 1900s; brought leading Arab authors to the Library to record their own works for the Archive of World Literature. He developed acquisitions guidelines for the Library of Congress Office in Cairo that became a prototype for use in the Library’s other field offices.

Over the years, he paid numerous visits to the Middle East, developing contacts for the Library of Congress, acquiring publications, evaluating book sellers and other potential sources of scholarly materials, and, not incidentally, in his many official visits with publishers, book sellers, research centers, archives, and universities, conveying the message of American scholarly interest in and expertise on the Middle East.

Dr. Atiyeh undertook or participated in a series of major programs at the Library of Congress designed to illustrate the scope of its collections and to heighten scholarly interest in the Middle East. With the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress, he organized a major conference on the history of printing in the Islamic world. Held at the library, this conference included speakers from several countries. Dr. Atiyeh edited the papers presented at the conference and published them as The Book in the Islamic world, co-published in 1995 by the Library of Congress and the State University of New York Press. The conference, the associated special exhibition of treasures of Middle Eastern publication from the Library’s collections, the published conference papers, and the bringing together of experts from around the world to meet and discuss the book in the Islamic world were all monumental contributions to the field of Middle East studies.

During his long and fruitful career, Dr. Atiyeh developed relationships that benefited the Library of Congress and other government and scholarly institutions, and the field of Middle East studies as a whole. He served on the U.S.-Egypt Joint Commission on Culture of the Department of State from 1975-1978 and in 1979 was invited to serve as a member of the advisory committee on Islamic affairs at the White House. He served as a member of the advisory council of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies of Georgetown University; the advisory editorial board of the Middle East Journal; the Arab-American Affairs council; and the international advisory board of al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, London. During his last official trip abroad, Dr. Atiyeh accompanied the Librarian of Congress to the opening of the Mubarak Library in Cairo and on visits to key Egyptian officials and institutions.

He was the author of, in his own all-too-modest description, “several books and bibliographies.” He has also written numerous articles on various topics, including Arab philosophy, al-Kindi, Christian-Muslim relations, intellectual history, and librarianship.

Dr. Atiyeh was an active, long-time member of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). He was also a founding member of the Middle East Librarians Association (MELA) and the Middle East Microform Project (MEMP) and served with distinction as an ex officio member of its board. He sponsored numerous MEMP microfilming projects, preserving for posterity valuable collections of Sudanese newspapers, documents from the period of civil war in Lebanon, and other rarities of importance to researchers. In 1999, MESA, referring to him as “an unfailingly gracious colleague”, gave Dr Atiyeh its MESA Service Award

As a member of the Middle East Librarians Association (MELA) since 1971, he guided and advised the association and its members, influencing the librarians who head and work in the numerous Middle East collections around the country that serve the needs of the members of MESA. In 1997, his MELA colleagues named him the first (and only) honorary member of that organization.