Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Political (and personal) Loss of Joseph Samahah's Death. I woke up, and glanced at my computer as I do when I wake up. Saw several emails about Joseph Samahah's death were in my inbox. Did not believe it at first, or did not want to believe it. I went to Al-Jazeerah's website, and saw it. Only then I believed it, reluctantly. I called my sister: she was sobbing. She already was at Al-Akhbar's office offering condolences. I immediately thought about my conversation with Joseph about health--his heatlh--back in the summer of 2005. I saw him smoking and noticed that he always ate meat. So I asked him whether he worked out. He laughed. I gave him a spiel about the benefits of exercise and vegetarianism, and he also smiled widely. The topic was so remote to him. He clearly did not seem to think about such matters, although his father and brother died very early--died at an age even younger than Joseph's age of 57. I first met Joseph Samahah in 1999, I think. My sister, Mirvat, has been friends with him. From the first time, he struck me as not like the Lebanese journalists that you meet. He was not a braggart, or a name dropper, and he was very low-key--a bit passive, I thought. He can be awkward at times; he can stay silent sometimes. He was very self-confident, but in his own way. He was an eccentric personality: I can't say that I was his friend, at the personal level: I would see him whenever I went to Lebanon, and always over food, and we discussed mostly politics--and sometimes his job. I liked him right away, but became a huge of fan of him after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri when he courageously charted an independent political line. Joseph Samahah grew up poor, and at the age of 26-27, he became the editor-in-chief of Al-Watan (a daily newspaper that was published by the Lebanese National Movement during the war when it was receiving millions from the Libyan regime). He started as a supporter of the Communist Action Organization, but over the years gravitated toward Nasserist Arab nationalism--or more accurately, he reconciled Marxism with Nasserist Arab nationalism (he kept a picture of Nasser in his office). I would never visit Lebanon without visiting him at As-Safir: he would always suggest that we go to lunch somewhere, but I personally preferred to watch him at the newspaper (As-Safir for years, and last summer at Al-Akhbar). We had different personalities: he was low-key, when I am loud; he was passive, while I appear (wrongly) to people to be on hard drugs due to high level of energy in my personality; he was democratic when I am combative. (He once told me that Samir Qasir disliked me so much because we both are intense and sharp in our personalities). He really was democratic: he can be friends--best friends--with people that he disagreed with. One of his best friends in the world was Hazim Saghiyyah (an Arab neo-conservative who specializes in promoting "liberalism" in Saudi publications, without uttering a word about Saudi oppression). In fact, Joseph died in London where he went to offer his condolences over the death of May Ghassub (Hazim's partner). Joseph also was a close friend with Samir Qasir: he told me that Samir, unbeknownst to people at the time and then, had to hide in his house when Jamil As-Sayyid was harassing him (when Rafiq Hariri was prime minister, following the orders of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon), and when Jubran and Ghassan Tuwayni were most unsupportive of Qasir. Joseph urged me two summers ago to interview Lebanese Forces' George `Udwan and Samir Franjiyyah. Ibrahim Al-Amin agreed. They gave me their phone numbers, and I stared at the numbers every morning for several days, but never managed to dial. I told them later that I seem to still adhere to the slogan of the Lebanese National Movement after the massacre of `Ayn Ar-Rummanah in 1975 regarding the "isolation of the Phalanges." They both looked at me, rather weirdly. I was most impressed with Joseph, and admired him a great deal. I liked how he operated in the office: he would never carry himself as a big shot. His office door at As-Safir was always open. People would come in even when he was eating his lunch, and some would even take a bite or two. He once in the late 1990s, left As-Safir and wrote for Al-Hayat. But he was bored. This last summer, I visited him at the Al-Akhbar offices. He was quite happy with the project, and very confident about its success. He gave me a tour of the place: office-by-office, and introduced me to every person there. He then talked to me about his ideas for Al-Akhbar. I told him that he was scaring me. He had Le Monde and the Independent on his desk. He showed me an issue of the Indpendent (tabloid size Independent), and it had a non-political cover. He said that we will not cover the statements of politicians' as Lebanese newspapers do; that is now left for TV news, he said. I said: "Joseph. You are scaring me." The Independent and Le Monde built up readers over years and decades: and when you have loyal readers, you can do alternative things, but not at first. You have to build readership first. Knowing about his frustrating experience at As-Safir, I asked him whether he will be allowed to serve as a real editor-in-chief, and he said yes. I asked him about the political line of Al-Akhbar on Lebanese affairs (I was concerned that it may be pro-Lahhud, or pro-Syria, etc), and he said that it will have his politics. And I said: I hope that to be the case. Joseph's articles in the year that followed Hariri's assassination, where most memorable. People would then describe their politics as "Joseph Samahah." How much I urged him to collect the articles in one book: I was even insistent. I even talked to Samah at Al-Adab publishing house about that. (I still think that it should be done now that he can't say no). He was stubbornly opposed. He told me that he hated to talk on TV: which explains why he rarely appeared on TV. Samahah's charisma was in his mind, more than in his style or his personality. Sometimes it would frustrate me how non-expressive Joseph was: I would ask him whether he was happy to write every day, and he would say: it is OK. He rarely expressed strong feelings or sentiments except when he would note a political irony. On those rare occasions, he would get very animated and excited--like when Ilyas Murr after his assassination attempt accused Sunni fundamentalists (although he has changed his tune in the last year) while Jumblat immediately accused Syria. I was at his office that day, and saw him laughing at Jumblat: that Jumblat made that accusation before knowing that Murr survived. I don't think that I explained it well: but Joseph said that Jumblat would have been able to run away with his accusations, had Murr not survived the assassination attempt. I asked him a year ago, whether he is subject to censorship. He said that at As-Safir, he was free to write what he wished, and that the publisher, Talal Salman, never interfered in what he wrote, and never pressured him in any way. But Joseph admitted to me that he did impose on himself certain parameters. I asked him to give me examples: he told me that he had taken a decision (this was a year and a half ago) to not write about Walid Jumblat anymore. After Hariri's assassination, Walid Jumblat threatened Joseph in an interview on ANB TV: he publicly said that he will not forgive Joseph for what he wrote about him in the year following Hariri's assination. So Joseph told me that he took that decision. He said: I imagined writing an article about Jumblat, and then having to deal with the consequences if Jumblat gets assassinated. Later, people intervened to reconcile Samahah and Jumblat: but Joseph told them that he no more wanted to see Jumblat. He told me that he decided to not see him anymore. I asked him for the reason. He explained that it was not only politics: he said that socially, it is not comfortable to be around Jumblat. He said that he did not like the ambiance. He said that Jumblat is quite annoying socially. He did not give me examples. Jumblat would often call Joseph to argue with him a point or another. It was clear that Jumblat respected his opinions--maybe because Jumblat thought of himself (and the Lebanese bourgeoisie thought of him) as an intellectual because he had a widely publicized subscription to the New York Review of Books--yes, in Lebanonesia this qualifies to make you an intellectual. On the day of the assassination attempt on Ilyas Murr (I now can say that because Joseph would often tell me something and warn me to not use it on my blog), I saw him. He told me about a bizarre phone conversation he had that day with Walid Jumblat. (Joseph would really do a good imitation of Walid Jumblat, by the way). That day, Murr's then father-in-law, Emile Lahhud was sitting in the hospital where Murr was being treated next to Marwan Hamadi--a close Jumblat adviser and confidante. Hamadi was joking and talking with Lahhud, and the TV cameras captured the moment. So Walid Jumblat called Joseph that day and told him: "Ustadh Joseph. I am calling you to ask you to write an article about the "corruption of the Lebanese politicians." You need to write about those people; you have to write something about somebody like Marwan Hamadi. This guy accused Emile Lahhud of trying to kill him, and he is now sitting next him and exchanging pleasantries. You need to expose those corrupt people." (The same Marwan Hamadi is now in the US accompanying Walid Jumblat on his visit to Washington, DC). Joseph said: OK, but obviously ignored Jumblat. Rafiq Hariri also would call Joseph and argue with him (politely, I have to say) over his articles. I remember once Joseph wrote an article comparing Rafiq Hariri to Michel Chiha. Hariri called him that day from Saudi Arabia saying: "I am not Michel Chiha." In 2005, I asked him whether Rafiq Hariri tried to co-opt him. He explained to me that Rafiq Hariri certainly tried to co-opt him but not in the traditional way. He used different methods with Joseph. With other Lebanese journalists, Hariri would simply send them envelopes of cash, and would pay regular sums. He knew that Joseph was not like that. So he never dared to send him envelopes (he once was offended when Ibrahim Al-Amin was the only journalist on a plane to Iran to refuse an envelope of cash that Hariri would routinely give to the accompanying Lebanese journalists on his private jet). So Hariri invited Joseph for a private meeting (this was early on--after Hariri became prime minister, and after Joseph returned to Lebanon). He told him that he would like Joseph to start an economic research unit headed by Joseph, and that it would produce research papers. Hariri told Joseph that budget is not a problem, and that it can start with $27,000.00 per month. Joseph ignored the offer, and Hariri tried a few more times, only to get to know first hand that Joseph is not for sale, unlike the rank of many Lebanese journalists who are on Hariri payroll. (Those tears that you see Lebanese journalists shed on TV screens over Hariri are paid tears). He also told me that whenever Hariri would initiate one of his cruel capitalist plans (he once had a plan to cancel the income tax, another time he suggested a flat tax), that Sanyurah would come to Joseph at his office and complain about Hariri. Sanyurah once asked Joseph: "Is Rafiq Hariri losing his mind?" (This was after a devious tax scheme that Hariri wanted to introduce in Lebanon to benefit himself and his corrupt, wealthy cronies). Joseph had high hopes for Al-Akhbar. He also knew how important the internet will be for newspapers; the last time I saw him in July, he asked me detailed questions about my site, about visitors and such. He wanted to know how many visitors I get per month. I did not know at the time, but gave him an estimate. He also really liked the field of media criticisms. He introduced the section Sawt wa Surah in As-Safir, and continued to devote attention to that field in Al-Akhbar. He was a pioneer in that regard. He loved to encourage and cultivate new talents--I will not mention names here to avoid embarrassment. He always wanted me to write critiques of Arab media: and he was quite happy when he told me that you can finally criticize reporters by name in Al-Akhbar because it reversed Lebanese media tradition by allowing criticisms of other journalists by name on its pages. Joseph Samahah was a bright spot in the most corrupt world of Lebanese media. Joseph Samahah never wrote praise for an oil prince or king; he never praised the Saudi royal family, and never felt the need to offer homage to any regime. Joseph was also an early critic of vulgar Arab writings on the Jewish question: he has a book on that matter. He offered (from his days in the pro-Arafat magazine, Al-Yawm As-Sabi`) critique of anti-Jewishness in the Arab world. On the Arab-Israeli conflict, Joseph was a supporter of Fath and its political formula; he supported the two-state solutions. (In fact, last summer, a Lebanese columnist--knowing what Palestine is to me--tried to make me appreciate Joseph less by reminding me about early articles by Joseph on the Palestinian question. It did not change my mind). Joseph has been playing a political role; I mean he was playing a political role. I am blunt in offering criticisms, and I am blunt in offering praise. I would ask Joseph after Hariri's assassination. Joseph: do you know that you are playing an important political role? A political role, I would emphasize. He would smile, and say that he heard that some people are pleased with his articles. I never mention a new book on US foreign policy or on Arab-Israeli issues that Joseph has not heard of it, or has not even read it. He followed politics very closely, and followed what is being written on different topics in French and also in English. He has a most amazing mind, and he wrote Arabic in a very unique way: his mind (and his style in Arabic) reminded me of Foucault. He never expressed ideas simply: not be cause he intended to sound sophisticated. No, he was not like that. But his mind worked in a very complicated and ironic way. This is how reading him offered a double treat. How much I will miss Jopseh's articles. For many people who follow Lebanon, Joseph was the barometer: or the compass. Joseph was my favorite Arab columnist. No, Joseph, was my favorite columnist. I used to love eating blueberries while reading Joseph's articles. Who do I have to read now: I have Thomas Friedman in English, and Wahhabi "liberals" in Arabic newspapers. No wonder I can't breath. I need to open the windows and doors NOW. Joseph was not tied to Saudi interests and princes: so no school of journalism will be named after him. But at least: pictures of Joseph will not show him paying homage to princes of the House of Saud. Joseph lived free. For atheists: your own death is easy to handle, but the death of others is less easy. My visits to Lebanon will be very different now.