Professor Emeritus Abdul Aziz Said, a beloved SIS faculty member and a legendary pioneer of peace studies, passed away at the age of 90 on January 22, 2021. To his many colleagues and former students, Said was a mentor, a friend, and someone who listened to and empathized with people from all walks of life. Upon learning of his passing, many in the SIS community shared their memories of his character, his accomplishments, and the myriad ways he meaningfully impacted the field of peace studies and the lives of others.
A Trailblazer in Peace and Conflict Resolution
Said, a triple AU graduate—SIS/BS ’54, SIS/MA ’55, SIS/PhD ’57—was a faculty member at the university for 59 years who even attended the SIS groundbreaking ceremony in 1957. He was a trailblazer who not only founded the SIS International Peace and Conflict Resolution (IPCR) program in 1995 but also leaves a lasting impact on the field of peace studies as a whole.
Said was known for questioning established norms in international studies. He strongly supported the introduction of ethnic studies; the role of culture in international relations and diplomacy; and, later in his life, bringing spirituality into academia. He would regularly meditate and practiced Sufism.
“He really opened new doors in the field,” says SIS professor Mohammed Abu-Nimer, who worked closely with Said in the IPCR program. “The type of methodology and paradigm of peace studies that he supported and endorsed at SIS was to encourage students and faculty to go outside of the power politics paradigm.”
“Abdul Aziz Said not only advocated for radical departures from traditional international studies at a time when such stances were taken considerably less seriously; his presence and project of promoting peace and conflict resolution forced those who met him to grapple with deep-seated assumptions about East and West,” says SIS professor Shadi Mokhtari.
Said applied his tendency to think outside of the box when he practiced peacebuilding. Diplomats and international delegates would make it a point to stop by his office to discuss creative ways to address deadlocks in peace negotiations. Abu-Nimer witnessed how Said worked with the diplomats, noting they would seek out advice on how to deal with issues like violence, extremism, or different conflicts in the Middle East. Said also would invite in other faculty to discuss the peace negotiations and ask them to think of different ways to address conflict.
“Said was a pioneer in this field, and he was a compassionate peacemaker himself,” says SIS professor Fera Simone. “Said’s unique approach contributed to conflict resolutions through dialogue, conversation, and connecting different people and groups together in order to find a common ground.”
Said wasn’t just involved in high-level peace negotiations; he also prioritized local impact by expanding access to peace studies in the DC school system. Elena Turner, SIS/BA ’82, his soulmate and partner of 40 years, proudly looks back on this endeavor of his: “He would send out his grad students to help teach peace and conflict resolution in different schools. He was really a pure and good human being.”
When Abu-Nimer first joined SIS in 1997, he and Said were the only two full time faculty members in the IPCR program. Today, it is one of the largest programs of its kind and is globally recognized.
“Under his direction, [IPCR] became one of the largest and most successful MA programs in the world focused on peace and conflict resolution,” says SIS professor Hrach Gregorian, director of the IPCR program.
Said’s influence on the IPCR program is one of the reasons many graduate students continue to seek out this particular program at SIS. Zen Hunter-Ishikawa—SIS/BA ’03, SIS/MA ’05—knew he wanted to attend SIS when he was researching different universities. He later realized this was because of how Said built the program and helped it thrive.
“He made it such a special place—a special academic program. The core of my whole experience at AU—he built it,” says Hunter-Ishikawa.
SIS professor and dean emeritus Louis Goodman believes Said was a source of innovation and that his determination to create the IPCR program at the school was vitally important. To him, Said served as a moral compass and conscience for the school: “The school stood for high principle, and he would speak to that. He would remind us of incidents past that should inspire us to stick to the moral high ground in everything that we did.”
Says SIS dean Christine BN Chin: “I believe that he personifies the founding mission of the school.”
His Door Was Always Open
Said always made time for others. Says Gregorian: “His office was a haven for students, many of whom he helped through financial difficulties by soliciting help from his extensive network of influential contacts.”
SIS professor Vidya Samarasinghe remembers seeing Said walking around the SIS Atrium and stopping to listen to anyone who wanted to speak with him: “He would be stopped so many times. He’d stop and listen with a smile. Even if he was in a hurry to get to his office, he would never dismiss anyone.”
This was a gift of Said’s—his unique way of listening. People felt comfortable opening up to him, and he helped them look at problems or situations from new perspectives.
“He had this skill to get you dreaming and to allow you to let go of your defenses in a way that would make you more creative. You wouldn’t confine yourself to the boundaries of academia, politics, or society,” says Abu-Nimer.
When Rita Stephan—SIS/BA ’96, SIS/MA ’98—began working as Said’s assistant while studying at SIS, she says she was timid and unsure of herself. She grew up in Syria, and at that point, many people in her life had told her that she wouldn’t succeed in studying politics because she is a woman. Said, who had also grown up in Syria (back when it was occupied by the French), told her this: “I am a boy from the desert. If I could succeed, so can you.” Stephan never forgot those words.
“He pulled out of other people the thing that they were trying to get out of themselves—the goodness, the productivity, or the energy that they needed—that they already had within themselves,” says Hunter-Ishikawa.
Simone looks back fondly on how Said encouraged and supported her when she began teaching by offering a course on women and Islamic literature at SIS in 1998. At first, she was apprehensive and had doubts about the course, but with positive students’ responses and his continuous support, she was able to develop her long-term teaching career at AU: “To me, he was a source of inspiration. He was a scholar, a mentor, a friend, and unique in every sense of the word.”
Members of the SIS community were particularly touched by Said’s way of making anyone he met feel like they were his equal.
“He took a keen interest in working with students and helping onboard and mentor junior faculty. People were precious to him, regardless of their station in life,” says Dean Chin. “He was always interested in the up-and-coming generation. He believed that they would be leaders in time—as one generation gives way to the next.”
Stephan experienced this firsthand when he entrusted her—back when she was a sophomore at SIS—with organizing and hosting a dinner at the Hyatt hotel for American diplomats and the Syrian delegation team. The night of the dinner, she stood by his side as the co-host of the event—all of her fears were laid to rest as he recognized her as his equal in front of the ambassadors.
Such an approach was unsurprising in Said, according to Gregorian: “He knew and greeted every member of the campus community–from housekeeping staff to faculty to students and groundskeepers–with the same air of conviviality, exemplifying his belief in our common humanity.”
Said leaves behind a legacy through which his principles, practices, and positivity continuously impact the lives of others.
“He was a mentor to me, and there are countless things I say or do in student orientation, in the classroom, or during office hours that were influenced by his advice and example,” says SIS professor Charles Call, chair of the IPCR program. “He was a great inspiration and embodied the school’s commitment to service and to the dignity and equality of humanity.”
Keith Rosenberg—SIS/BA ’69, SIS/MA ’70, WCL/JD ’73—who became a close friend of Said’s, emphasizes how the professor gave him a more global and open view. Because of Said’s influence, Rosenberg took on legal cases pro bono for people who were disadvantaged or had been abused.
Said pushed for inclusivity throughout his life. In 1957, a group of Jewish students asked Said to help them with an issue they’d been facing: no fraternities on campus at the time would admit them because of their religion. Said first pushed for existing fraternities to remove their exclusionary clause, and when that didn’t work, he helped the students form their own fraternity, Phi Epsilon Pi. When Rosenberg attended AU, he became a brother of the fraternity.
“Part of Said’s dogma of peace was that you have to respect everyone and understand that everyone has value,” says Rosenberg. “You can learn from people of different backgrounds and learn from their experiences, and it makes you a better person.”
Hunter-Ishikawa, to this day, applies what Said has taught him: “I see the advantages of the things he has taught me and the types of experiences I had with him. They manifest in my day-to-day successes—the large and small wins I achieve at work and in life. I’m grateful for him, and his influence is felt every day in my life.”
Part of Said’s legacy is undoubtedly his role as the founding Mohamed S. Farsi Chair of Islamic Peace at SIS. Established in 1996 by AU trustee Hani M.S. Farsi, SIS/BA ’92, in honor of his father, Mohamed S. Farsi, the chair is the first of its kind in the United States to be devoted to the study of Islam and peace. Said wanted to promote the peaceful potential of the religion.
“It was such a privilege—such a gift from God for him to have come into my life,” says Hani Farsi. “He wanted me to remain intellectually curious. To always be centered. To think love, speak love, act love. And, more importantly, to make a difference.”
Said’s welcoming nature left many with fond memories of first meeting him, impacting the way they continue to welcome others to the SIS community. Goodman remembers how Said left flowers for him on his desk when he first arrived at SIS: “To welcome someone and to give them a positive orientation toward their new place or their new home was fantastic for me. And it was an object lesson for the way I should treat people when I was senior, and they were new.”
From his warm welcomes to his genuine care for others, Said had an ability to make the people with whom he interacted feel empowered and heard. He has left behind a legacy of kindness that will continue through the actions of his mentees, friends, colleagues, and family.
Says Turner: “I’d never met a person who came close to my husband in terms of practicing what he preached, in terms of his kindness, in terms of his willingness to help people.”
In Samarasinghe’s view, Said’s life is like one part of a poem from Sri Lanka: “‘The sky would have a million stars, but it is that one moon that can shine more light to the world.’ And I always keep saying that Abdul Aziz Said was that one moon that was able to shed the light.”
In his memory, his wife, Elena, is establishing a foundation, The Abdul Aziz Said Peace Foundation. View more information on the foundation.