There’s a four-year old photograph of Fahim Qubain floating around on the Internet. He’s standing in a crowd in the rain at a college graduation, with the look of a proud and happy parent on his face. The picture, taken by a Palestinian, is captioned, ” the 84 year old legend.”
Fahim Issa Qubain died last month from MRSA contracted at a hospital during a hip replacement. He was a giant of a man who spent most of his years here as the unlikely owner of two old motels in Buena Vista.
He was born in northern Jordan 88 years ago, the youngest of sixteen children. His family was partly Jordanian, and partly Palestinian. He went to live with two of his sisters after his mother died when he was a young boy, and was sent to a Quaker school in Ramallah. He was smart, curious about the world around him, and a voracious reader. He witnessed the violence over the creation of Israel and the end of British rule in the Middle East, and saw some of his family members uprooted and forced from their homes. He joined the Arab Legion in Jordan, but wasn’t cut out for the Army and decided to go into the import-export business with one of his brothers. The brother remained in Jordan, and Fahim came to New York.
The business didn’t work out, and Fahim became a clerk to the Palestinian delegation at the UN. One day, he packed up his suitcase, got on a bus, showed up at Guilford College, and wrangled himself an instant scholarship. He went on to win a PhD from the University of Wisconsin, and a few years later wound up in Washington, D. C. With his expertise in the politics, history and culture of the Middle East, it wasn’t hard for him to find work in several government agencies. He was an analyst. He did some translating. He was a researcher, and the author of the defintitive book on the crisis in Lebanon in the 1950s, and another on education on the Arab world that was snapped up by Soviet agencies as they formulated policies to gain a foothold in there.
As time went by in Washington, Fahim came to the conclusion that his work for the US government was being used against his own people. So, he decided that what he needed to do was gain financial independence to fund his own work. The motel business seem to be the ticket. He looked at a few in Washington, then spotted one that seemed right for him. It was the Barnes Motel in Buena Vista.
It wasn’t a great motel. But the price was right. (There was considerable haggling over the deal, but Fahim had haggling in his genes and intended to feel insulted over business deals that didn’t involve a great deal of it.”)
So, in 1974, he and his family moved to Rockbridge County. His little motel empire grew a bit. He brought one in Harrisonburg and another one in Buena Vista.
Fahim turned out to be a shrewd business person. He wasn’t too crazy about the motel business. It bored him. But he liked the mountains here; they reminded him of his old home in Jordan. And unbeknownst to his customers, and most of the folks who ran into him here, he kept writing scholarly articles about the Middle East, and amassed an incredible library to fuel his mind.
He was all set to sell the Barnes in November, 1985. But 2 days before group of Buena Vista investors were supposed to look at the place, one of the biggest floods the town had ever seen swamped it, and he was stuck with the motel for another decade. (A restaurant that was part of his other Buena Vista motel was destroyed by fire before he could sell it. Ironically, perhaps, it was called Fire Creek, and was the home of some pretty raucous live music and dances for a few years.”)
Fahim was a political animal at heart, but he stayed out of local politics until he read about an air permit application for a proposed coal-fired power plant in Beuna Vista. For the next three years, he used his research and propaganda skills to fight the plant and irritate the hell out of anyone who supported it. He started an organization. He wrote an incredible series of letters to the papers-one of them ending with the line,” if this plant is built, we will be forced to live like pigs in the streets of Buena Vista.” He liked that sentence a lot.
The plant was never built. But helping kill the power plant is a small part of his legacy.
After he sold off the motels, he wrote a piece in the Washington Post about a kid who was throwing rocks in Palestine. And in 2000, Fahim and his wife, Nancy, formed what he called his crowning achievement, the Hope Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to sending some of the most vulnerable young Palestinians to college in America.
Fahim used his contacts, his wits, his haggling skills, his persistence, and everything else he could muster to make the foundation work. And it did work, and continues to work. It began with two students who grew up in refugee camps in Lebanon, who graduated Cum Laude from Roanoke College. It brought three students to Washington and Lee, and another is coming next year. Two of the W & L students made Phi Beta Kappa.
One of the reasons Fahim was so keen on bringing the students to America was his conviction that colleges here were more concerned with developing critical thinking than rote memory. Another was his desire to put a human face on the Palestinian uprising. Another was to give Palestinians a chance to learn what America is really like.
The foundation Fahim established has brought hope for a better life and the tools to obtain one, to more than a dozen young refugees and street urchins. He was proud of being able to do that, and even prouder of the achievements of those he was able to help.
Fahim was a remarkable man who made a difference in this world. And he had a good time doing it.
Thanks to The Rockbridge Advocate of Lexington, Virginia for their permission to reprint this story from their May, 2012 issue.
I left Lexington in 1971 and missed Fahim. The Rockbridge Advocate’s editor said that he regretted leaving one word out of this homage: “irascible”. I wish that I had met him.