Back in the mid-1990s, when studying at the American University of Beirut (AUB), we would rush to newsstands every Monday morning to buy the popular mass circulation daily Annahar, in order to read Ghassan Tueni’s editorial. Syrian students always looked left and right before buying the newspaper, so as not to be spotted by the 100+ Syrian informers in Beirut, during the heyday of Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. As far as the security services were concerned, Annahar was a crime, and so was Ghassan Tueni. As students, we would read his inflammatory articles, and were enchanted by his sharp criticism of Lebanese and Syrian affairs, and his never-ending defense of democracy and freedom. He said things that we never dared to voice in the 1990s, mirroring our hidden thoughts and aspirations, long before the Arab Spring ripped through the Arab World. He died this weekend in Beirut at the age of 86, and Arab journalism will never be the same without him.
Syrian officialdom, no doubt, hated Ghassan Tueni because he was never a yes-man for Syria. Far from it, he stood up for the freedom of his country from Day One, while many of his colleagues and friends were sucked into the patron-client system operated by Syria in Beirut, rewarded for their loyalty with cabinet posts, fiefdoms, and seats in the Lebanese Parliament. In looking back, seven years after the Syrians were forced out of Lebanon, it is safe to say that among Syria’s many mistakes was that it did not deal with real Lebanese leaders like Ghassan Tueni who spoke their mind freely, but rather, preferred working with stooges who legitimized the police state operated in 1991-2005. They never had the courage to stand up to Syria and point out its mistakes, as a real ally or friend would, whereas Tueni always said the truth and nothing but the truth, regardless of the consequences.
I wrote to him several times in 2004-2005, when he expressed interest in publishing my book on Syria’s former President Shukri al-Quwatli, a man whom he admired greatly. Tueni believed that Quwatli had been deliberately wronged by the Baathists for far too long and sought to restore justice to the former President of Syria. The original contact was made through Patriarch Ignatius IV, the Patriarch of Antioch, who was friends with Tueni since their student days at AUB. Ghassan Tueni hated honorific titles, telling us not to refer to him as “Your Excellency” although he had served as cabinet minister and ambassador to the United Nations between 1977 and 1982. Earlier during college, now-AUB Trustee Abdulsalam Haykal (then president of the Syrian Students Club at AUB) had emailed Tueni, to confirm a piece of news that appeared in a Syrian media outlet about Tueni ancestors hailing from modern day Syria. Tueni wrote back affirming the fact, with a detail that his family found home in the Hawran province in Syria and originally came from Yemen. He added that he was proud of his Syrian heritage, agreeing to appear in the club’s webpage on the list of distinguished AUB graduates from Syria.
Ghassan Tueni loved Syria — but not this Syria. He was a fan of the democratic Syria that existed prior to the Baath takeover in 1963. His early career with the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), his admiration of its founder Antune Saadah, and his heavy involvement with Syrian affairs in the 1950s and 1960s made him a staunch Syrian-democracy advocate and a firm opponent of military rule in all its forms. For obvious reasons, he clashed with all of Syria’s military rulers, starting with Husni al-Zaim in 1949 onto Hafez al-Assad in the 1970s and 1980s. He once proudly told me how his father, the late Gibran Tueni, had traveled to Damascus on April 17, 1946to take part in Syria’s first Independence Day celebrations from the French Mandate, romanticizing about the bygone era of Syrian democrats like Hashem al-Atasi and Fares al-Khoury.
The likes of Ghassan Tueni are indeed rare — if not non-existent — in today’s world. He was a combination of chivalry, honor, and charisma, with a pen that was unmatched by most of his peers not only in Lebanon but throughout the Arab World. He lived for Lebanon, and took nothing in return except pride at being a staunch Lebanese nationalist, allied neither to the Americans, the Iranians, the Syrians, or the Saudis. Like the Cedars of Lebanon, he was always, proud, tough, and immutable. In remembering Tueni, Haykal said:
To my generation, Ghassan Tueni was the Herodotus of our time; a seer; a man without peer, influencing those who read him near and far, and resigning from the pettiness the characterized politics, diplomacy, and journalism in our recent history until the Arab Spring. He believed in the Arab youth when no one did, and argued for their capacity to challenge and change the status quo when others saw them as gullible followers. Ghassan Tueni was indeed the new Arab citizen that he cried out for; one that seeks the truth through knowledge, courage, and faith.