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On Joseph Abou Khalil After His Passing

On Joseph Abou Khalil After His Passing

Wednesday, 25 December, 2019 - 11:45

The debt we owe Joseph Abou Khalil, who left us two and a half weeks ago, after exceeding ninety years of age, is overdue. The Lebanese are too busy with matters that prevent them from paying their condolences on time or from even writing a narrative that synthesizes the death of individuals and the potential death of their old country. Abou Khalil has a story, and I have a story with him that might be worth telling.

On the eve of the “Two Years War,” I was a leftist working for As-Safir. However, for the sake of engaging in debate, I would always read the editorial of the al-Amal Newspaper, his party’s official newspaper. The editorial’s all-encompassing title was the Harvest of Days, and its obscure author was Joseph Abou Khalil. My knowledge of him was everyone else’s: he was a leader in the Lebanese Phalanges Party and wrote a daily statement on behalf of President Pierre Gemayel. While the statements were boring and pontifical, the editorial addressed relevant issues at the time, stopping at minor details without missing the big picture.

Thus, al-Amal’s editorials invoked two contradictory feelings in some of my colleagues and those who shared my political opinions and in myself: arrogance and envy. Our arrogance stemmed from our attachment to the glorious theoretical framework set by Marxists, their students, and their derivatives. We were above journalistic rhetoric, which we saw as an extension of ordinary spoken language, as “just talk”; we saw it as the rhetoric of generations past. As for our envy, it stemmed from the influence this rhetoric had on people. For while we thought that our writings captured the “progress of history”, his simple rhetoric, which went straight to the point, addressed the issues of the day using metrics, armed his audience with the arguments it desperately needed. His writings were hundreds of times more influential on readers than ours. Our writings, on the other hand, were not concerned with speaking to readers, let alone arming them with arguments. Our differences could perhaps be summed up by something he once said to me after I had become well acquainted with him: “You try to put too many ideas in a single article, as if your aim is to convey that you have a vast knowledge. What one ought to do instead, in my opinion, is convey a single idea in every article, an idea that deserves to be elaborated on, not demonstrate the vast knowledge of the author... this is a newspaper, not a book.”

Abu Khalil's daily editorials were not signed, this was typical of him, an anonymous Phalangist soldier. The man dedicated himself entirely to his party, like a Sufist, he dissolved into the Phalangist and Gemayelist waves. Actually, he coined the latter term, in an unjustified attempt to give his partisanship an “ism” and depict his party’s founder as establishing a school of thought that went beyond the party itself. Thus, like other believers with unshakable faith, he was prepared to plaster his own fine qualities onto Gemayelist politicians. This applies not only to the founder Pierre, but also his son Bachir and Amin and later his grandchildren Pierre, Nadim and Sami. Despite their many apparent differences, as far as Joseph was concerned, they were perfectly aligned. Their predetermined fate dispelled divisions, and their family name determined to bring together those different from each other.

When I was introduced to Joseph, he was the first Phalangist I had ever met face to face. Seeing him broadened the horizons of my vision of my opponents, humanized them. The single hideous face that I had imagined was replaced with many faces. Our quarrel taught me civilized rivalry free of defamation and accusations of treachery, a rivalry that goes beyond the shapes of conflict that we are used to, allowing us to shake hands and eat at the same table. This kind of rivalry, though it can be intense, is fruitful, as it is limited to politics, allowing us to ask about each other’s wellbeing, and to discuss the profession that should supposedly bring us together.

Abu Khalil was a hardworking farmer in the Chouf, molded out of a history of sectarian struggle and concerns that date back to the 19th century. He yearned for tolerance that would ease those fears. He was possessed by a simple recipe for a simple conception of Lebanon. Lebanon’s golden era that he was eager to restore was probably derived from two eras: the first spanning from the 1861 Mutasarrifate up until it was abolished in World War I, and the second spanning from the founding of Greater Lebanon in 1920 to the small-scale civil war of 1958. Dealing with Chebaism, on the other hand, was the source of his and his party’s biggest dilemma. In any case, for the sake of his Lebanon, he was prepared to resort to both Syria and Israel, or any place he would imagine he could find salvation. This is a serious delusion, as the balance of powers forced him to grasp at straws.

While working on my book, Arabising the Lebanese Phalanges, in the mid-eighties, I conducted an extensive interview with him, an interview dominated by a certain feeling he had, that words fall short of describing, that the past had passed. Ironically, he went on to support Bachir Gemayel in his bid for presidency and his parody of the Unique Arrangement that his father paid lip service to, then, after his assassination, went on to the miserable presidency of his brother Amin. After his party shrunk to a small faction and many of its members defected, many of whom Joseph had raised, whether or not they admit it, the revolution came along and put an end to a long and melancholic chapter. His interesting question, “What Lebanon do we want?” is now posed in different formulations and with different implications; implications that defy the imagination of the elderly.

Peace to Joseph and his time.

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