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Thrilling Memoirs in a Conquered Capital

Thrilling Memoirs in a Conquered Capital

Monday, 27 June, 2022 - 10:45
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

The second episode of late Prime Minister Saeb Salam’s memoirs, which was published by Asharq Al-Awsat on Sunday, awakened memories of the Lebanese summer of 1982, with its horrors and resounding repercussions. It was a dramatic phase, and it is not possible to understand what happened in Lebanon and the Palestinian issue without stopping at it lengthily.

The scenes were unprecedented and unbearable. The sight of Israeli tanks encircling the first Arab capital and subsequently invading it. The stubborn image of Yasser Arafat’s keffiyeh in a city that bleeds under the sound of air raids and artillery shells… The scene of Arafat leading what he called “the longest Arab-Israeli war” and then leaving by sea, refusing to exit the country by land to Syria… The scene of the Lebanese Parliament electing Bashir Gemayel as President of the Republic, who will lie in the grave before he takes over the reins of the palace… The image of a wounded but resilient capital, hoping for a less cruel future.

It was the summer of fates. Arafat left with the victory sign, but the PLO actually lost its last position on the Arab-Israeli line of contact. This loss will be a major reason for going to Madrid and then to Oslo.

Bashir Gemayel was assassinated. Fighting would erupt later between the heirs, including Michel Aoun, the current president, who in that summer was an officer who had great admiration for Bashir and his policies before sailing, decades later, towards another direction. Lebanon will subsequently be torn apart under the beat of the “Mountain war”, the “war of the camps”, the “wars of the general” and many other wars.

Iran, which was mired in its war with Iraq, will seize the opportunity of the Lebanese summer, taking advantage of the absence of Egypt and the exit of Syria from Beirut. Hezbollah will be born, and will later leave its mark on the Lebanese destiny and on the fate of more than one Arab country.

During that time, a prominent Beiruti figure, named Saeb Salam, played an important role in alleviating the sufferings of the capital, after countless arguments with many politicians.

Saeb Salam is lucky to have left before the season of great humiliation. He did not see a Lebanese digging in the garbage to stave off hunger, nor mothers heartbroken in front of grocery shops. He did not see the capital swinging between the darkness of electricity and the gloom of politicians. He was not saddened by the theft of citizens’ deposits, which the most skilled mafias and organized crime gangs were unable to commit. He did not witness the collapse of institutions and the disintegration of bonds. He did not see the state scattered and the palaces vacant, despite the statements of their residents.

He did not see how they emptied homes of their youth, how they killed the universities, the hospitals and the hotels… How they shut all windows of hope.

He did not hear the screams of hopeless people, who fell from the “death boats” and lingered at the bottom of the sea. He did not see the witches and clowns repeating their same old tricks. He is not aware that Lebanon has become a forgotten island, unable to meet the conditions of begging aid from the International Monetary Fund.

Saeb Salam is lucky. We can imagine the extent of the pain that he would have suffered if he were to live to these days… Among all titles, he chose to be called “the ancient Beiruti.”

Saeb Salam was born in 1905 and disappeared at the beginning of the current century. He was an important partner and a great witness in a thrilling and sad story called Lebanon. He spent thirteen years under Ottoman rule. He lived the days of the Mandate and participated in the Battle of Independence. He assumed the role of prime minister in four presidential terms. Outside the government and parliament, he was a leader who felt the pulse of the capital.

It is no exaggeration to say that he was one of the symbols of the city, with his frank and daring stances, his outstretched hand, and his generosity. The days have shown that he was among a minority of men who were greater than their offices and titles. He did not hesitate to go against the prevailing winds when he considered that the interest of the nation required opposing them. He did not allow the seat of the prime minister to turn into an obsession that justifies accepting weakness or dictates. When begging for offices, positions and safety became a common habit, he preferred exile.

A journalist learns more from some of his interlocutors than from books. Saeb Salam, with his positions, successes and failures, was like a notebook in which the story of Lebanon was written. It is a difficult story because Lebanon was born out of a complicated equation between its sects and regions.

In an interview I had with him, Salam did not hesitate to openly express his feelings of rejection as a young man - similar to the majority of people in his sect - when the birth of Greater Lebanon was announced as a result of the annexation of districts belonging to Syria to Mount Lebanon in order to invent the Lebanese entity.

He also did not hesitate to declare that after joining the Lebanese scene, he did not accept that there would be someone more Lebanese than him.

I asked Saeb Salam about the slogans he used, which are the most famous in the history of Lebanon, and he replied:

“They say he has slogans. The truth is that those are the fruit of experience and expertise. Was I wrong when I raised the slogan, ‘One Lebanon, not Two’? A divided Lebanon does not have the means to live and sustain. I spoke of ‘understanding and agreement’. Each side must listen to the other side’s concerns to move from understanding to agreement.

“I raised the slogan, ‘No winner or loser’, after the 1958 revolution. I remember that Kamal Jumblatt, may God have mercy on him, criticized me a lot for it. Didn’t experience show that the pillars of Lebanon are shaken when one party feels dominant and the other feels defeated? Lebanon’s composition is sensitive. You cannot defeat your partner just because you overthrow the justifications for his presence.”

Salam emphasized the need for the Lebanese to gather around their state, rather than sharing and despoiling it. He recounted that during the Israeli siege of Beirut, Yasser Arafat asked about the elements of steadfastness in terms of weapons and money, adding that the Palestinian leader expressed his willingness to open the reserves of the Lebanese Central Bank, saying that the money could be returned later. Salam’s rejection was strong and unequivocal.

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