BEIRUT — Ghassan Tueni, the longtime editor of An-Nahar who died here Friday morning, was undoubtedly the greatest Arab journalist of his age. But he was also something more: He symbolized the liberal idea for his generation in the Middle East -- the dream that the values of reason and open inquiry that a great newspaper represents would prevail throughout society.
When he received an honorary doctorate at the American University of Beirut in June 2005, Tueni remembered that when he had been imprisoned in the 1940s for refusing censorship, he had smuggled in a book of Greek philosophy and vowed that after his release he would conduct a Socratic dialogue with readers and prod them to understand the truth about their politics and culture.
“I have to say, with much sorrow, that much of what the Arab world suffers from is largely due to the fact that neither our diplomacy nor our press has dared, or even been allowed, to tell the people the truth about our state of being and where we stand in the world,” Tueni told the AUB audience. But he was an exception to that story of intimidation and suppression. He always tried to tell the truth or, when that was impossible, at least to avoid lying.
I first met Tueni in Beirut in the early 1980s, and I knew him in the way that a student knows his favorite teacher. We apprentice journalists would troop to the An-Nahar office for an audience with the great man: Tueni had a deep voice, flaring eyebrows and a look that was at once sobering and mischievous. Like Ben Bradlee or Harold Evans, two other master editors, he was a man who made you think the only enviable job in life was to be a journalist.
Tueni wasn’t an American-style, hands-off editor; he had his finger in every aspect of Lebanese and Arab politics -- attempting to steer the region through his fearless, insistent columns as if he were a philosopher-king. A visitor would be treated to the latest political gossip and scandal, much of it unprintable but all of it delicious. Like a Lebanese Thomas Jefferson, he loved both newspapers and politics, but if he had to choose, he would protect newspapers.
Tueni watched the game of Arab politics with an exasperated fascination: He was a man of reason condemned to watch the liars and fanatics battle it out year after year. Once, with his generation of Arab intellectuals, he had imagined that the United States could fix things, but he had largely given up on that by the time I met him, grumbling that the U.S. only cared about saving Israel and had lost its way in the Arab world.
When I was living in Paris a decade ago, editing the International Herald Tribune, Tueni was there, too, and we used to meet for drinks along the Champs-Elysees. Tueni’s eyes would sparkle as he described the latest catastrophes of the region. It was a terrible story, in human terms, and it got personal.
Tueni lived to see the very worst thing that a father can see -- the assassination of his son, Gebran, in 2005 for daring to speak out against Syrian meddling in Lebanon. Gebran was a member of parliament, and a more political man than his father, but he had taken over An-Nahar and continued its feisty journalism up until the day he died. Tueni’s grief was like that of one of his Greek heroes, watching his son destroyed in a battle for freedom that the father had helped launch, with the hubris of intellect, but could never win.
I spoke at a memorial service for Gebran here in 2006 and talked about what the Tuenis had meant to journalists everywhere in their determination to speak truth to power. I quoted from something Ghassan Tueni had written in a November 2005 column, a month before his son died: “For us, a real press is democratic and free. It is a forum where public opinion can express itself. It is an effective tool for change, people’s liberation and the establishment of democratic regimes that believe in freedoms and people’s right to self-determination.”
My hope today, mourning Tueni, is that his heirs are now spread to every corner of the Arab world. Almost miraculously, a movement took wing 18 months ago in the Arab Spring that was as fearless as Tueni -- as determined to break down the culture of lies, and as insistent that rational citizens should rule their own lives through democratic government rather than submit to despots and their secret police. The fighters across the Arab world speak with many voices, sometimes at cross-purposes. But today they should say as one: “We are all Ghassan Tueni.”