Ghassan Tueni and the ‘hour of judgment’ come
BEIRUT - Just over three years ago, Lebanon lost the journalist, publisher and political figure Ghassan Tueni, who died at the age of 86. Though he had lived through the first year of the Arab uprisings, Tueni had done so in a much diminished state due to declining health. There was much that was symbolic in this state of affairs.
As editor and publisher of the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, Tueni was adept at navigating the rough waters of a Middle East that the “Arab spring” overwhelmed. While no admirer of the region’s regimes, Tueni knew them all intimately, understanding well how Lebanon had paid a heavy price for their rivalries.
However, the title of his most well-known book, Une Guerre Pour les Autres, about the Lebanese 1976-90 conflict, created a misunderstanding. While Tueni reminded people that the title was A War for the Others, implying that the Lebanese had fought on behalf of outsiders, he was dismayed to see many of his countrymen rendering it The War of Others, suggesting they were innocent bystanders in a struggle not theirs.
To many Lebanese the situation in Syria is a reflection of their own reality decades ago. Yet even a man such as Tueni, who had observed many horrors in the Arab world, must have been supremely shocked by the unrestrained savagery in Syria.
Perhaps Tueni might have been tempted to echo the late Malcolm Kerr, the assassinated president of the American University in Beirut, who had famously written in the introduction to his classic book The Arab Cold War: “Since June 1967, Arab politics have ceased to be fun. In the good old days most Arabs refused to take themselves very seriously and this made it easier to take a relaxed view of the few who possessed intimations of some immortal mission.”
Tueni had written thoughtfully on the post-1967 Arab world, characterised by rising radicalism and violence in the wake of the Arab- Israeli war that year but surely Syria took matters to new heights. This might have revived in Tueni another memory: his one-time allegiance to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party of Antoun Saadeh, who had sought to establish a Greater Syria in the territories of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Palestine.
Tueni would give up on the SSNP, which had essentially turned into a plaything of Syria’s intelligence services. Yet his experience with the party made him particularly incisive about the discontents of Arab nationalism and Ba’athism, the great ideological enemies of pan- Syrianism; and more particularly about the criminality at the heart of the Assad regime.
Tueni would always retain an uneasy relationship with Damascus. His newspaper for a long time was a house of many mansions, hiring journalists both critical of Assad rule and more open to compromising with it. This ambiguity served, paradoxically, to ensure that Al- Nahar remained a lonely corner of Lebanese sovereignty during the Syrian presence.
When the Syrians were compelled to withdraw from Lebanon in 2005 all that changed. In June 2005 Samir Kassir, a bright light of the newspaper, was assassinated in Beirut by a bomb placed under his car. I lived near where he was killed and watched as Tueni’s son Gebran looked down with dread at what remained of Kassir. Six months later, Gebran Tueni would also be killed.
Ghassan Tueni, who had already buried two children, now buried a third. However, he had the dignity to declare at the funeral, “Let us bury hatred and revenge along with Gebran.”
Those who had killed Gebran, most likely the Syrians or their Lebanese allies, also aimed to eliminate Al-Nahar. And in many regards they succeeded. The newspaper continued to operate under an ageing and ailing Ghassan but, after his death in 2012, it lost much of its life force. Today it is headed by his granddaughter, Nayla, along with Tueni’s other grandchildren, but they have shown little inclination to ensure that the newspaper remains at the very heart of national deliberations.
Perhaps that is because newspapers themselves have changed. Or it could simply be that Tueni was irreplaceable. Gone are his consummate skills at balancing Al-Nahar’s very diverse journalists, allegiances and sources of funding, all helping to guarantee the Tuenis retained control and independence.
But Tueni transcended his newspaper and came to represent, with all his gifts and faults, the great potential of the Lebanese. Almost nothing he did left anyone indifferent. Two decades ago a close friend of mine told me that he was preparing a biography of Tueni as a door into the history of modern Lebanon. It was an excellent idea but a superstitious Tueni sought a delay in the project until after his death.
Today, Tueni is dead and there is much in his remarkable life that can help us to better confront our uncertain present. Writing of Lebanon, he once asked, “In the country of untruth, does the hour of judgment ever come?” It has for Tueni, and not many will argue that the verdict is negative.