BEIRUT: During his first semester at the American University of Beirut, Kamel Wehbe attended his English class unprepared for his presentation. His impromptu speech however, marked the beginning of his journey to the world’s biggest public speaking competition.
Wehbe, 18, recently returned from London where he participated in the International Public Speaking Competition, organized by the English Speaking Union (ESU). In late May, after bringing Lebanon to the finals after two rounds of impromptu and prepared speeches, he won third place out of 52 competing countries.
Recalling his English class presentation, he said “I had completely forgotten about my presentation, so I had to wing it.”
Wehbe’s ability to “wing it” impressed his instructor Ms. Lana Zantout and intimidated his peers, “the others in my class refused to go after me,” he added.
Ms. Zantout urged Wehbe to apply for ESU’s competition. “My first instinct was to dismiss it. I never considered myself to be a public speaker, only a writer,” he said.
But, Ms. Zantout insisted.
“I saw a person who can sell beef to vegetarians or ice to the Eskimos, if you will. Looking around the class, I found that his classmates were riveted, eagerly listening to what Kamel had to say,” she told Annahar.
After winning the nationals, Wehbe was admitted to speak in London among many competing countries. For reference, in China, one million contestants compete for the nationals, only two of which move on to the international competition.
But, with a classic tale of a young man from the Middle East, Wehbe’s visa to the U.K. was initially rejected. “I had a lot of paper work to deal with, a lot of uncertainty," he said, “I didn’t think I would be able to go.”
Because of his visa tribulations, he had to write his final speech on the airplane and in the hotel lobby in London. This however, did not stop him from delivering a crowd-pleasing performance.
Held at the Royal Institution’s amphitheater, Wehbe’s final speech on a topic about predicting the future through inventing it received a standing ovation.
“Lebanon was the only country to get a standing ovation,” he said humbly, avoiding saying that, he, in fact, was the only participant to prompt such a reaction.
Furthermore, among the audience were Princess Anne, the British Home Secretary and the Minister of Education, who witnessed Wehbe’s victory.
Despite the media attention he has been receiving since his return to Lebanon, his goals remain selfless, "It's a childhood dream to be able to put Lebanon on everyone's tongues," he said, adding that “Lebanon has always been my muse since I was very young.”
This however, is not the first of Wehbe’s accomplishments.
During his first semester at AUB, he won the AUB Student Leader Award and the Founder’s Day Essay Contest. Wehbe presented his essay in AUB’s Assembly Hall, where his name is now engraved on a plaque.
At the founder’s day ceremony, AUB President Fadlo Khuri reached out to him.
"That's when I was sure, I can speak. They liked my speech. I can speak," Wehbe noted.
He carries around a journal with “obsessive” scribbles of words, quotes, titles and definitions."Since eleventh grade, I've had a journal with every AUB graduate who amounted to something prolific. I know every Penrose winner since 1999."
However, Wehbe was not always on a motivational high; he found himself, at certain times, facing challenges.
In high school, he attempted to complete both the International Baccalaureate (IB) and the Lebanese Baccalaureate simultaneously.
A year and a half into the IB program, he almost gave up. But with the support of his father and that of his English teacher, Wehbe was one of the very few students in Lebanon to graduate with both diplomas.
“When you're constantly told that you can amount to something, you're forced to meet the expectation," he said.
His high school English teacher, Denise Dewhurst, cultivated his love for writing and was a major source of guidance for him, "She took my essay and told me ‘look you can write, you can read, work with me,” Wehbe added.
Even as a child, Wehbe had an affinity for eloquence, "I attribute everything now to reading. As a kid, I used to read a lot. I first read Dan Brown in second grade and I would write down every word I didn’t know. So, I had a journal full of new vocabulary."
He had his first taste of public speaking during his high school graduation as valedictorian.
"Since I was very young I had a detailed agenda of the awards I want to win and the people I want to meet, and it all materialized very quick," he told Annahar.
At first, it was all about his CV, now however, his journey has a broader purpose.
"I want to move on from individual titles and competitions to something lasting; something with resonating impact," he said.
Wehbe is already on the right track. His current projects involve setting up the first UN Youth Council in Lebanon, creating a scholarship program for students from his village in the South of Lebanon, and building a Progressive Club at AUB, in addition to some personal writing ventures.
Currently, Wehbe is pursuing a double-major in Political Science and Economics.
An-Nahar is not responsible for the comments that users post below. We kindly ask you to keep this space a clean and respectful forum for discussion.