Ghassan Charbel
Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

The Interviews that Have Been Lost

Important issues may occasionally slip between the fingers of the journalist and the opportunity to reclaim them may be lost forever. They may be lost for several reasons, such as conditions that were never met, the constraints of working at the office, the political circumstances and the reticence of the journalist or his lack of skill in pursuing or nagging the interviewee.

In 1990, I traveled to Tunisia. After completing my duties there and before returning to Asharq Al-Awsat, it occurred to me to contact Palestinian leader Salah Khalaf, member of the Fatah central committee, who was described as the second-in-command after Yasser Arafat. I did not enjoy strong ties with him, but he gave me a night appointment.

I showed up at 6 pm. It was supposed to be a short visit that ended up stretching long into the night. Abou Ayyad was in a good mood and he spoke at length of his time in Beirut. “We truly wronged it [Beirut],” he recalled.

He also spoke of the attack against the Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics and the series of assassinations that Israel carried out in retaliation. He spoke of the bloody chase between him and Sabri al-Banna, or Abou Nidal, leader of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council. He seemed confident that he had thwarted Abou Nidal’s attempts on his life.

I requested that we record these memories in a long interview, to which he replied that he was ready. I suggested that we get back in touch in a few weeks to set a date, and he agreed.

No sooner had I returned to Asharq Al-Awsat's offices in London that Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was upon us. I waited for the storm to blow over and for the tensions to subside. On January 14, 1991, Abou Nidal succeeded in killing Abou Ayyad. Gone was the man burdened by secrets and gone was the interview.

After Moammar al-Gaddafi's killing, many rumors emerged that a massive Libyan fortune was stored in European safes and that no one knew about them except for former Prime Minister and Oil Minister Shukri Ghanem, who was also close to Seif al-Islam al-Gaddafi. I looked up Ghanem’s number and found out that he was living in Vienna. I requested an interview and he soon accepted, setting a date for the coming week.

Fate would intervene, however. On April 30, 2012, media reports said that Ghanem had drowned in the Danube. Gone was the man and gone was the interview.

One day I published the political memoirs of a man who was not on friendly terms with slain former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. I would later meet with Hariri, who told me: “You sometimes publish the accounts of people, who don’t have ten percent of the information I know.” I deliberately provoked him by saying: “But you can’t publish your memoirs. You are conservative and not thinking about retirement.”

He replied: “Write this down. I will recount to you my full memoirs. For example, do you know that I have met with President Hafez al-Assad more than 50 times. On some of these occasions, I was tasked with regional issues by King Fahd bin Abdulaziz? Do you know that I have visited Saudi Arabia with Walid Jumblatt and said that Assad wants his son Bashar to succeed him as president and that it was in our interest to not oppose his choice? Do you know what I have repeatedly been informed of by Jacques Chirac at the several dinners at my house in Paris away from the spotlight?”

At a later occasion, Hariri would remind me that he was still committed to his interview date. I lacked the talent of pressing him for it. On February 14, 2005, I was in Damascus when I learned of the news of his assassination. Gone was the man and gone was the interview.

Before the American invasion of Iraq, a mutual friend sent me a professional complaint from Tariq Aziz. He informed me, that as a former journalist, I was interviewing Iraqis from one side of the divide. He added: “We too have our stories to tell and are ready to tell them. Why don’t you come to Baghdad?”

Travel to Baghdad was tricky during the invasion. I later had a naïve idea. I believed that I could take advantage of my meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to obtain permission to visit Aziz in prison. However, when I learned of Maliki’s opinion of the detainee, I set aside my request.

A friend would visit me one day when I was editor-in-chief of Al-Hayat newspaper. He said: “Since you love exciting stories, why don’t you carry out an interview with Imad Mughnieh (Abou Radwan)?” I replied that he is very unlikely to agree to the request. He responded that Mughnieh was his friend. He would later inform me that he had agreed to the interview.

Two days later, he told me that Mughnieh would sit for the interview on condition that his photo is not shown because he is being hunted by Israel. I agreed and said we will make do with a recording. He later said that a person can be identified by his voice, so it was best to stick to writing. I replied that I needed evidence that the interview was held. The friend was called Mustafa Nasser. Gone was the man and gone was the interview.

Mohsen Ibrahim was the secretary-general of the Communist Action Organization. He had a long career in Lebanon and the Arab world. He enjoyed a strong relationship with Gamal Abdel Nasser and was close to the founders of the Arab Nationalist Movement, as well as Yasser Arafat and Kamal Jumblatt.

After strenuous efforts, he agreed to recount his memoirs. He was frank in discussing the cold ties between Arafat and Jumblatt on the one hand with Hafez al-Assad on the other. We were planning to set a date to publish the memoirs when he urgently requested to meet me. When we did meet, he asked that I return our recordings because of accusations circulating around him.

He said: “I know them better than you do. Sometime a man can be killed because of his past.” I respected his wish and did not publish the memoirs.

I visited him after the assassination of George Hawi, secretary-general of the Lebanese Communist Party. He was quick to remind me: “Didn’t I tell you that a man can be killed because of his past?”

The list is long. How hard it is to be a journalist in this painful region! Figures, who I have interviewed, are killed and others are killed before the interview. The journalist is more saddened over the death of the person than over the missed opportunity.