Student Journal: Stories Forgotten: A Gift Lost in Time…

We do have visual evidence that this tree existed! To the right the sapling is pictured at the dedication ceremony carried by Iva Abraham.


Student Journal: Stories Forgotten: A Gift Lost in Time…

Kenneth Wahrenberger, 14 November 2017

It has now been several days since our class has opened the Narratives of the Nationality Rooms exhibition in the UAG. Personally, hindsight of the project has been a medley of joyous pride at the work that has been accomplished and a critical analysis of things that could have been better. Standing in the back of the UAG “hallway” during the opening night of the exhibition, I tried to put my feet in the shoes of a visitor who just so happened to stumble into the gallery and had no prior education on the nature of the Nationality Rooms. Thinking retrospectively, the four archival documents marching down the wall pertaining to the Syria-Lebanon dedication ceremony stick out to me as opening a narrative that ought to be explored further. The documents show two newspaper articles, two instructional cards, and the speech script from the 1941 Syria-Lebanon Room dedication ceremony. All of the documents share the commonality of referring to the Syria-Lebanon committee’s gift of a cedar sapling to the University of Pittsburgh. Tree was gifted with the condition that it be planted on Pitt’s campus as an enduring landmark of the Syria-Lebanon cultural effort in Pittburgh. The cedar sapling is significant because of its rarity (being transplanted from a sacred grove of ancient cedar trees in Mount Lebanon), and its symbolic meaning for the unity of the Lebanese people. However, the story of the cedar sapling gift is complicated. Despite Pitt’s promise to plant the tree, there is no documented evidence that the tree was, in fact, planted. As a result of this ambiguity, I have jumped back into the archival material to try to uncover the full story of the mysterious cedar sapling. Here is what I have found:

The cedar sapling was presented to Chancellor John Bowman during the dedication ceremony on 28 June 1941. Salloum Antoun Mokarzel (1881–1952), an influential Lebanese-American intellectual and publisher who lived in New York City, was responsible for gifting the tree to the University of Pittsburgh on behalf of the Syrian and Lebanese communities of America. Upon his arrival to the US, Salloum Mokarzel aided his older brother Na’oum Anthony Mokarzel in the publication of Al-Hoda (English: The Guidance), which was a daily Arabic language newspaper produced in the “Little Syria” neighborhood of New York City. The Mokarzel brothers were Maronite Catholics who immigrated to the US from the town of Freike on the slopes of Mount Lebanon, which at the time was still part of the Ottoman Empire. Na’oum founded Al-Hoda and produced the first issue in 1898. The purpose of the paper was to promote Lebanese nationalism and the political views of Maronitism, which advocated Christian dominance over the Muslim opposition in Lebanon. When Na’oum Mokarzel died in 1932, Salloum Mokarzel assumed the editorial leadership of Al-Hoda and held it until his own death in 1952. In addition, Salloum Mokarzel founded The Syrian World magazine and The Syrian-American Press in 1926, which was devoted to the celebration and cultural promotion of Syria. At the time of these publications, Syria was a term used for the entire French “Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon” and consisted of the modern-day states and territories of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine. The Syrian World magazine was the first English language magazine in the United States that was established by a Syrian immigrant. The magazine was created to educate the first generation of Syrian-Americans of their unique and ancient cultural heritage, and to strengthen their identity with their culture of origin. Unfortunately, during the Great Depression, financial issues caused Salloum Mokarzel to discontinue his publication.

With this information, the context of the gift of the cedar sapling to the University of Pittsburgh can be pieced together. Salloum Mokarzel most likely saw the Syria-Lebanon Classroom in the Cathedral of Learning in the same spirit as The Syrian World magazine that he founded. Furthermore, the gift of the cedar sapling and its acquisition from the sacred cedar groves of Mount Lebanon makes sense when considering the hometown of the Mokarzel brothers in Lebanon and their connections with prominent Syrian and Lebanese figures as well-known media producers in the Arab diaspora. The father of the Mokarzel brothers was also a Maronite Catholic priest, and the brothers may have had familial ties to the keepers of the sacred cedar groves in Mount Lebanon. However, considering the fact that Salloum Mokarzel and his brother were prolific spokespersons for the anti-Muslim political Maronitism movement, I feel that the dominating presence of Maronite Catholics in the Islamic space of the Syrian Lebanon Room is intensified by the gift of a cedar sapling.

As a side note, I also wanted to mention the other two Cedar of Lebanon trees that are significant to Pittsburgh’s history. According to the Mt. Lebanon Township Historical Society, Rev. Joseph Clokey (who served as Mt. Lebanon United Presbyterian Church’s minister from 1848 until 1855) brought back two Cedar of Lebanon trees from a trip he made to the Holy Lands. Rev. Clokey planted the trees in his yard near what is now Bower Hill Road/Clokey Avenue in 1850. When a post office opened adjacent to the cedar trees in 1855 on the corner of Washington and Bower Hill Road, the name “Mt. Lebanon” was given to the postal region. Unfortunately, both cedar trees were cut down in the 1940s around the time that the Syria-Lebanon Room was dedicated. To this day, “Mt. Lebanon” is still the name of the township and a school district surrounding the area where the two cedar trees originally took root.

Lastly, I want to comment on the current state of the tree. Despite rigorous archival research, I have not been able to find the location of the cedar tree on Pitt’s campus. Again, as far as I can tell, there was no recorded evidence of the literal planting of the tree or the area on campus that it was planted. If you know the location of the cedar tree that was gifted at the dedication ceremony of the Syria-Lebanon Room, then please notify me immediately (my email is because I am extremely curious. My current speculation is that the sapling died as a result of the unsuitable Pittsburgh weather and soil or the copious amounts of steel industry pollution during the 1940s that blocked the sun during the day and poisoned the air. Perhaps it was a combination of both of these factors. Suffice to say, the cedar sapling and the intentions of its donor is still somewhat a mystery to us. This project has taught me that information is sometimes lost with time.

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