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Alumnus shares perspective on Mideast

Charles Kestenbaum ’75, second from right, speaks March 30 with members of the Harpur Forum at the Binghamton Club after he gave a speech about his experiences in the Middle East.
Charles Kestenbaum ’75 found the inspiration that has driven his life during a year off from college. The Scarsdale native took time to travel through Europe and the Middle East after his freshman year. When he returned, he was a different, more motivated person.

Kestenbaum, who grew up in a Jewish environment but without a sense of activism, determined after visiting Israel and Lebanon that he needed to be personally involved in the causes of co-existence and peacemaking.

That motivation led to a bachelor’s degree in Arabic studies at Binghamton and a master’s degree in mass communications from the American University in Cairo.

Kestenbaum did a threeyear stint with NBC News in Cairo and Beirut before beginning a 24-year career with the U.S. Department of Commerce. He was an international travel specialist, a country officer and a regional director. He supervised the Rebuild Kuwait effort after the Desert Storm campaign.

Most recently, Kestenbaum took a job as director of business development with Diligence Middle East.

Kestenbaum addressed the Harpur Forum last week and visited campus to speak in several classes.

His Harpur Forum talk focused on his belief that Americans need to do more to understand the Middle East, its history and its politics.

While there are no easy answers to the problems faced by countries and people in the Mideast, Kestenbaum believes America should cultivate friendly relationships through efforts such as inviting more students from the Arab world to study at U.S. universities.

“We need to open our borders, not close them,” he said. “I don’t believe we’ll ever be safe by making the world our enemies.”

Kestenbaum lived and worked in the Middle East for much of his career. He has been shot and was once held hostage in Syria.

“The weight of experience either makes you dogmatic or flexible and tolerant of how things are,” Kestenbaum said.

He counts himself among those with very open minds and thinks it’s better to engage someone with whom you disagree than to withdraw from the conversation.

Besides English, Kestenbaum speaks French, Arabic and Indonesian well enough to carry on a conversation. He believes Americans should all learn to speak Spanish and that foreign language instruction should start much earlier than it does in most U.S. schools.

Kestenbaum and his wife, who now live in northern Virginia, have three children.

His work with Diligence Middle East focuses on helping companies and individuals do due diligence and gather intelligence on foreign markets as well as on anti-corruption and asset recovery initiatives.

He said he’s lucky to have found a way to do well by doing good.

Kestenbaum said he tells college students they must approach life with passion and realize that you never really know where life will take you.

He recalls his time on Binghamton’s soccer team with great fondness. Kestenbaum said he and his teammates weren’t as good as some of the other schools they played, but the Binghamton athletes were smarter and had good coaching.

“From that I learned you can achieve more than your potential if you try your hardest,” he said. “Your potential is more than your abilities.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08