Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Farewell, Ghassan Tueni

You know the shopworn expression? A house is its master’s character! Well, there is no place quite like that sprawling abode up in mountainous Beit Meri, a 30-minute ride from Beirut, which lifts such banality into something close to wisdom.

The main hallway cascades down into a vision of the sea and the fireplace warmth of the main living rooms. Mid-stairs, the library hangs to the left, austere, majestic, inhabited. On walls, Byzantine icons intrude on modern art. The bedroom to the side of the library is ascetic-bare, and so is the dinning room but for a subtle elegance and ceilings high enough to render lone voices clangorous. The eeriness of the inner sanctums, where guests rarely were invited to tread, is softened only by the breeziness of the meandering garden. Up and down, twists and turns, lightness and whispers, a passion for the here and now, a longing for the gods.

That was Ghassan Tueni!  

He had a rapacious appetite for that cigarette, for nightlong banters, for early morning sweeps of the pen, for power, for self…

The public persona was colorful, dramatic. The private man was the same, his panache legendary, his personal tragedies Shakespearean. There was an unrequited love between him and life; he loved her unconditionally, recklessly; she was whimsical, sadistic, keener on those stabs of anguish than with her driblets of mercy.

Ghassan segued between politics and journalism, waltzing life away between two mean lovers. The performance was often flawless, but the trip ups were awkward and embarrassing. The dossier is not thick with evidence, but the episode that seared him the most was his stint as adviser to former president Amin Gummayyel, a man who, many agree, was very becoming of Lebanon but not of Ghassan Tueni.

His sword and shield was Annahar, for a long time one of the Arab world’s feisty broadsheets thanks to Ghassan and his remarkable ability to make his instinctive liberalism and his sponsors’ unrelenting conservatism cohabit. But the toll hung heavy, and well before the end, this delicate balance was no more.

About Lebanon he was unwavering, stubbornly magnanimous about its failings and absurdly rhapsodic about its specialness. His famous words, “The war of others on Lebanese land,” say it all. For him, Lebanon was almost always victim to every insult but its own utter lack of respect for itself. 

Ghassan fascinated, puzzled and infuriated his friends just as much as he did his foes. He was made for accolades—yes, he was. But every good quality in him flirted shamelessly with its nemesis.

He was brainy but careless. A resounding success and a disappointment. As capricious as he was gracious. Highbrow and hard knuckled. A wit with an inexplicable tolerance for bores. A giant with a weakness for dwarfs.  An enlightened man who was too ready to entertain the interests of those who preferred life at its dimmest.

It is vintage Ghassan that he should fade just as we Arabs are agitating to come out of our own slumber. But then he had grown quiet years ago. Long before a series of strokes banished him to a punishing silence, his pain had become immeasurable, his days sedate, his pulse faint.

In due time, much will be written about Ghassan and his era, a time when the Arab world turned every moment of possibility into a stupefying dead end, a time when Lebanon itself made of a presumably interesting experiment in consociational democracy a forbidding showcase of sectarian bloodletting. No doubt, much will be written about Ghassan’s legacy in this unforgiving trajectory.

But if the narrative means to illuminate and instruct, it would have to tell the story of modern Arab journalism in making this region’s downhill slide all the more inexorable. History is home to many a progressive journalist who either could not or would not resist the pull of power, for survival, for fear, for proximity to that proverbial ear. History is home as well to many who did resist and died a miserable death. Here, in the Arab world, these journalists’ dilemma was every good man and woman’s, who often were forced to countenance an existence stripped of meaning or principle.

By the turn of the 21st century, you were hard pressed to name a publication that was not outright owned by patrons—public or private— who were no longer content with mere influence. In Lebanon, once an arena of relatively intrepid speech, the practice, not coincidently, is still at its most unseemly.

We are now—dare we hope!--upon a different age. Extraordinarily, a new vigor promises to enliven politics, whilst the fourth estate of old continues to nibble on the extreme margins of dissent. But if the early signs are to be believed, Arab print journalism may yet enjoy its own revival.

You’re mistaken if you’re sensing judgment on this page. Mine are just fleeting ruminations about a pocket of Arab history that left most of us in lament about the terrible choices we weaved for ourselves.

Those who loved Ghassan—gems, warts and all, like me--will have no trouble tracing the man’s grace in a life teeming with brave stands, fortitude, wiliness, love, humor, sadness, lapses and contradictions.

Rest in peace, amou Ghassan. An eternity without pain—at long last!

1 comment:

Mishka Mojabber Mourani said...

Eloquent and heart-felt: a fitting tribute. May he rest in peace.