Losses Renew a Lebanese Healer
Saturday, March 4, 2006
BEIRUT -- When Ghassan Tueni returned to parliament this year, taking a seat he first held during the Korean War, he stood before the hushed deputies and renewed an appeal rarely heard in Lebanon.
"Let us bury our grudges and grief," he declared, his thick, gray hair combed back but a little unruly.
The words were brief, almost perfunctory. But they suggested something about him, about his people and about the uncertain future of one of the Arab world's smallest, freest and most Byzantine of countries.
Tueni is 80 years old. He is Lebanon's foremost journalist, a storied diplomat and a respected intellectual. Some also call him a modern-day Job, the biblical figure whose string of misfortunes never defied his faith. Tueni lost his wife and daughter to cancer, a son to a car accident, and his last child, the journalist and politician Gebran Tueni, to an assassin's car bomb in December. Tueni speaks little of his pain, out of pride and dignity. But in a country defined less by citizenship and more by its fractious sects, his suffering and reputation have placed him tentatively above the fray. And in his twilight, he insists, he has another role to play as Lebanon is perched between the promise of long-delayed independence from foreign influence and a morass of competing loyalties.
"I think I can create a current, yes," Tueni said, as his driver navigated through a gritty neighborhood, clad in the posters, banners and iconography of religious Shiite Muslims. "It makes me feel very worried. I might bump my head into a wall." He paused, looking out the windshield. "But it might create a breakthrough. I don't know. I have to try. I have to try very hard."
In Lebanon today, he sees a collection of tribes, defined by collective memories. What he wants is a secular notion of citizenship, a state that becomes a nation gathering its strength through its diversity.
Tueni's return to political life is more than the story of one man's career. To some, he has emerged as a symbol, a man whose history transcends the sectarian squabbles that, at times, have paralyzed Lebanon, splintered as it is among 18 religious and ethnic communities, shadowed by an unresolved 15-year civil war and vulnerable to the machinations of neighboring Syria.
To others, he represents a figure from the past that no longer resonates in a system where authority is most often derived not by ideas, programs or even ideology, but by the color of a religious banner. In that, he has become obsolete, as Lebanon and much of the Arab world is coalescing around more primordial affiliations -- Christian and Muslim, Sunni and Shiite, Kurd and Arab, and so on.
"Lebanon is still struggling with the same fundamental issues -- how to deal with the question of citizenship, of identity, of the reform of the political system," said Nawaf Salam, a lawyer and professor at the American University of Beirut. "I think he can really play that role of a consensus builder. I believe that. There could be wishful thinking in that, but that's the role I see him playing."
Tueni sees an urgency in that role, even if time is short. "The country is living in a fanatic struggle," he said. "It's not only Lebanon, but Lebanon is a microcosm. Lebanon is a microcosm, and it is the laboratory of dialogue between Christians and Muslims. If you fail here, it's going to fail everywhere else."
Journalist and Politician
By his count, Tueni has published more than 5,000 editorials in a career that has spanned nearly 60 years at an-Nahar, Lebanon's most prestigious newspaper. The newspaper was founded in 1933 by his father, Gebran Tueni, an Arab nationalist at a time when that nationalism was a progressive ideology, dedicated to enlightenment values, opposing tyranny, the rights of women and minorities, and the revival of a dormant Arab culture emerging from centuries under the Turkish-led Ottoman Empire.
Tueni inherited the newspaper and many of those ideas from his father, who died in 1947. He took to politics young, entering parliament in 1951, where he helped lead a campaign to oust Lebanon's president. He was appointed ambassador to the United Nations during some of the worst years of the 1975-90 civil war. And he served as a counselor to Lebanon's president when the country signed an ill-fated treaty in 1983 with Israel, which had invaded a year earlier. But he has probably left his most lasting mark on journalism, helping establish an-Nahar as one of the Arab world's most independent newspapers.