Led by renowned columnist Dorothy Thompson, 24 distinguished American educators, theologians, and writers met to address their concerns about the impact on U.S. foreign policy of misconceptions about the Middle East and the greater Islamic world. Envisioning an organization that would bridge the knowledge gap, they founded Amideast to improve mutual understanding between Americans and the people of the Middle East and North Africa.
Amideast’s first headquarters was Middle East House, an elegant beaux-arts building in New York City that was ideal for hosting cultural events, notably exhibits of art by rising Arab artists such as Iraqi Jawad Selim. In 1958, we relocated to Washington, DC, to be near government, foreign embassies, and educational institutions. From there we continued to host cultural outreach activities and engage audiences across the United States through regional offices in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, and a growing network of overseas offices. Middle East House was also noted for its library of resources, which would number 4,400 volumes by the mid-1960s.
Amideast became one of the first members of NAFSA, heralding our long and steadfast commitment to international educational exchange as key to bridge cultures and build understanding. Soon after, in 1953, we opened educational advising centers in Baghdad and Tehran, followed by centers in Amman, Cairo, Damascus, and — by the end of our first decade — in Karachi, Jerusalem, Rabat, and Tunis.
Introducing a theme that would resonate throughout our history, we created the Intercultural Exchange Program to bring public-spirited leaders from the Middle East to America to lecture before students, churches, and civic groups and at the same time to provide them with ample opportunity to acquire firsthand knowledge of American life and institutions. Other new programs offered opportunities for Americans to participate in similar exchanges in the reverse direction.
The overseas advising centers that we opened during our first decade — Baghdad and Tehran (1953), Damascus (1955), Cairo and Karachi (1956), Jerusalem and Amman (1957), and Rabat and Tunis (1960) — were to become the foundation of a strong regional presence. Today, with offices in 12 countries, this network is key to our ability to serve local communities across the Middle East and North Africa.