I first heard of Noam Chomsky in the fall of 1967 in my freshman English Literature class when the professor attempted to explain the revolution in modern linguistics that Noam was leading. I cannot say I understood much of what the good professor imparted but I was impressed he took an entire week to do so.
Then in 1970, while spending my junior year abroad in Beirut, I read Noam’s American Power and the New Mandarins in a single day. That work I understood.
In 1978, when I was chair of the Arab Student Society at Harvard, I invited Noam to speak to our group and much to my amazement and delight he agreed to spend an entire Saturday morning talking with us. I had not met Noam before this memorable occasion.
Then, in 1981, I pinched myself because I had joined the same faculty to which Noam Chomsky belonged.
After becoming dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences in 1991, I occasionally sought Noam’s advice on how to understand certain dimensions of his linguistics colleagues’ scholarship as they came up for faculty promotion. I can never thank him enough for his tutorials.
On one occasion, not too long after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, I did something I thought might jeopardize our friendship. I asked Noam to meet with a controversial MIT alumnus I knew who had asked me to arrange an audience with him. Noam accepted and even agreed to come to the dean’s office for the meeting. There I watched Noam not only take apart Ahmed Chalabi’s political positions with regard to US policy in Iraq (and the wider Middle East) but also his understanding of Iraqi history, including ancient numismatics. I ran into John Deutch later that day and he told me that it was foolish of me to have hosted Ahmed Chalabi. John went on to say that he had thrown him out of CIA headquarters because he was absolutely untrustworthy. The US Defense Department apparently thought otherwise! And how on earth did John know Chalabi had visited with me?! Edward Said, who looked to Noam as his role model in the public intellectual domain, and who rarely praised anyone, once told me that he considered Chalabi to be brilliant. It is true he had been a talented mathematician, but brilliant I reserved only for the likes of Noam Chomsky.
The most memorable time I had with Noam was at the American University of Beirut in June 2013, when he received an honorary degree and delivered the commencement address to an audience of 8,000. I had the privilege of sitting right next to Noam on stage where I watched student after student reach out to shake his hand as they passed by him to receive their degrees from the President. These students revered Noam and wanted him to know just how honored they were to shake his hand. Noam modestly obliged them.