Samir Kassir -- Killing an Arab
Freedom, imagination and the shadow of death
His cell phone beeped, signalling he had received a text message. Checking it while he spoke, he suddenly let out a mild curse.
"What? Kheir ?", I asked with alarm.
"Jamil Al-Sayyed just resigned," he replied, grimacing.
"Wow! And I thought you would be the first to rejoice! What are you cursing for?"
"You don't understand," he explained. "I made a pact with Gisèle. If we lived to see the day when Jamil Al-Sayyed resigned, I would stop smoking."
Samir Kassir -- public intellectual, political activist, founding member of the Democratic Left ( Al-Yassar Al-Dimoqrati ), journalist, historian, university professor and publisher -- did live to see that day.
Jamil Al-Sayyed, director general of internal security in Lebanon, resigned to pre-empt a move to sack him in compliance with the UN-appointed international body investigating the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri. Weeks later, however, his life was brutally cut short.
He was assassinated on 2 June, 2005.
As investigations have since established, a sophisticated explosive device, operated by remote control, was installed underneath his car, just below the driver's seat. His assassin had been waiting for him that morning: he watched him come out of his apartment building, greet the florist on the corner, get into his car, remove his summer jacket and place it on the seat next to him... And as soon as he turned the ignition key, the assassin set off the device.
His death was instantaneous. Most of his lower body was ripped to shreds.
Samir Kassir, one of the chief architects of "Independence 05" (Intifadat Al-Istiqlal), was among a number of people receiving death threats from the Syrian-Lebanese security apparatus that has ruled Lebanon since the end of the war. He had been singled out long before the others, though, as early as 2001.
As soon as he started writing against the rule of former army general Emile Lahoud, the current president of Lebanon, and the regime of Hafez Al-Assad in Syria, Jamil Al- Sayyed had personally taken it on himself to threaten Kassir by phone. He would wake him up with insults and accusations, pledging to clear Lebanon of his kind. Kassir had two, sometimes three, cars filled with thugs follow him incessantly. His passport was confiscated at the airport.
While maintaining a daily routine became tedious, Kassir remained defiant. His tone became bolder, his prose more incisive, totally cleared of the vacuous decorum of rhetoric and sloganism so common in Arab journalism. Retaliating, he spoke openly to his intimidators, saying exactly what he thought.
Al-Sayyed and the security regime he embodied sought to terrorise him into silence. Not only did they fail to tolerate a Beirut voice that was critical of the rule of Hafez Al-Assad and that of his heir Bashar, they could not tolerate that voice's lucidity -- its being compellingly Arabist -- democratic, secular and just. They were not about to let Beirut foster a space for free expression, whether through the agency of Lebanese, Syrians or Palestinians, a space in which to imagine another, possible world, a democratic, pluralistic, sovereign one in which dignity is honoured. He had been expressing that vision since before the abortive "Spring of Damascus", on the pages of the daily An-Nahar, principally in its cultural supplement, Mulhaq An-Nahar, edited by novelist Elias Khoury -- another well-known agent of that vision -- while ideologically defunct, politically bankrupt regimes, sustained through terror and tireless mukhabarat policing, lived on. His role was really quite simple. To imagine another world. An after-life in this earthly life, a life beyond the collapse of their corroded autocracies. Samir Kassir could see Lebanon free of Syrian hegemony two years prior to the Syrian army's actual withdrawal. He could imagine a Syria beyond the collapse of the rule of the Ba'ath. And for that he was silenced forever.
He was killed in cold blood by a soulless who had been waiting for him that Thursday morning, who watched his radiant smile and blew him to pieces. And he rests not in peace in his family cemetery at Mar Mitr. Though officially relieved of his functions, Jamil Al-Sayyed roams free around Lebanon's elections, manoeuvering to consolidate the hold of Syrian-Lebanese security long after the official military pull-out of the Syrians.
It is surreal speaking of Samir Kassir in the merciless definitive of the past tense, not only because of the barbarity of his murder, but mostly because of the kind of human being that he is -- or was. The versatility of his talents, the extraordinary expanse of his interests and erudition, his unabashed love of life, from the rights of the disenfranchised to an appetite for the worldly, his fearless defiance and courage: all keeps him alive in the mind.
While intra-Arab borders remain policed with brutal chauvinism and Arab intellectual life remains hostage to imbecilic, black-and-white polarisations, both expression and solidarity are reduced to contrived gesticulations. It is safe to use the clichéd expression, "they don't make men like Samir any more".
A product of Paris as much as Beirut, Samir was the exquisite quintessence of those cities. He was a son of the Ashrafieh of the 1960s and 1970s, born in 1960 to a father whose family had just been expelled from Jaffa and a mother who was born and raised in Latakia, Syria. He was the product of the French lycée he attended -- staunchly secular, Arabist, but utterly at ease with the legacy of Western civilisation. He was a Beiruti, a " fata ahmar " (red youth), at once Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian, a true nahdawi (agent of renaissance) of the Mashreq.
Reared on the legends of Salaheddin and Jean Valjean, the books of Dar Al-Fata Al-Arabi and Gaston Lagaffe, Naguib Mahfouz and SAS, he loved Umm Kulthoum and Ute Lemper, spaghetti westerns and noir novels, and took excessive pride in reminding us that he was born on the same day as Karl Marx. He loved Paris in May, when women arbored décolletés. He loved Beirut during Ramadan because he liked the traditional dishes served at iftar, nagging Muslim acquaintances to invite him to share their meal. His writing borrowed metaphors from The Godfather and Star Wars with the same fluidity as it drew on Carl Shmidt, Hannah Arendt or Ibn Khaldoun. And in the universe of icons he sought to emulate, Ahmad Fares Shidiyaq held pride of place.
He was a frustrated urbanist with a keen regard for architecture and traffic engineering. He witnessed and monitored the reconstruction of post-war Beirut, specifically its big infrastructure projects, and rarely refrained from voicing caustic, if always correct, critique. Month after month on the pages of L'Orient-Express, the French-language monthly he launched and edited, he gave space to these and other issues. He was also a frustrated semiologist and philologist, seduced by Arabic balagha and its equivalents in French and even English. He was utterly devoted to expression -- the craft of writing.
Kassir earned degrees in philosophy and political philosophy from Paris I University (1984) and a PhD in modern history from the Sorbonne-Paris IV (1990). His doctoral thesis, La Guerre du Liban (published in book form by Karthala-Cermoc in 1994), remains arguably the most important analytical account of the Lebanese civil war to date. He was publishing in the French- language daily, L'Orient-Le Jour, as early as 1977. While pursuing doctoral work in Paris, he began to write for the Arabic Al-Yaowm Al-Sabe', worked at the Revue d'Etudes Palestiniennes and became part of the editorial family of Le Monde Diplomatique. In Paris, he co-authored, with Farouk Mardam- Bey, Itinéraires de Paris à Jérusalem; la France et le conflit Israélo-Arabe (1992 and 1993), a fascinating historical account of French relations with the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Amongst his stellar virtues was his love of books. He was an avid reader, but he was specifically passionate about the manufacture of books. He returned to settle in Beirut with his family shortly after the end of the civil war, and was appointed head of the publishing house éditions Dar An- Nahar, affiliated with the daily. His tenure left a joyful imprint: he sought promising unpublished talents as well as established voices -- Jabbour Doueihy, Antoine Abou Zeid, Iskandar Habash, Bassam Hajjar, Hoda Barakat, Khaled Ziadeh and Abbas Baydoun. And he showed particular interest in the quality of the paper used, the typesetting, cover design, and format -- a rare virtue among Beirut publishers.
Kassir left Dar An-Nahar in 1995 to launch L'Orient- Express, creating a publication loosely associated with L'Orient-Le Jour with a generalist purview but solidly moored in an Arabist paradigm -- a bold, novel approach to Arab journalism resting on freedom of expression, and critically engaging not only Lebanon and the Arab world but the world at large. L'Orient-Express was born in spite of the vicissitudes and petty jealousies of the political milieu, and in defiance of the clampdown on political expression. When its insurgent tone reached a tenor that could not be tolerated, the monopolist over advertising, Antoine Shoueiry, to appease the ruling autocracy, declared open war on the publication. Neither Kassir nor his supporters in the circles of the political élite could counter Shoueiry's awesome machine and L'Orient-Express folded in 1998. He launched his own publishing house, éditions Al-Layali, in response.
Together with his work as an editor, publisher and columnist, Kassir was a brilliant historian. He taught history at St Joseph University, starting in 1998. Reared in the noble tradition of the Annales school and the legacy of Fernand Braudel, he was the only scholar in Lebanon to endorse a social approach to the writing of history. And close to the end of 2003, he published his marvelous account on the history of Beirut, Histoire de Beyrouth (Fayard), whose sales broke records in Lebanon and did extremely well in France. The project he had been brewing to follow his work on Beirut, possibly dearest to his heart, was a social history of the Nahda (renaissance). In 2004 he published a compelling long essay, Considérations sur le malheur arabe (Actes Sud) -- an open call for a new nahda. He also published, with Dar An-Nahar, two separate collections of articles selected from the body of his weekly column: 'Askar 'ala Meen (a political analysis of the regime of Emile Lahoud) and Rabi' Dimashq (retracing the eagerly observed, quickly aborted "Spring of Damascus").
In 1998, he joined An-Nahar. Published every Friday, his column quickly became a landmark in the cadences of the Lebanese quotidian. His Arabic prose distinct, as Elias Khoury described it: "In the Arab world, the journalist has grown accustomed to writing with his censor in mind, not his reader. Kassir's journalistic prose was unique, because it was free. He said things as they are, he wrote to people, he addressed a readership, not the censor."
Around 2003, Kassir joined the core group of activists and intellectuals who would a year later form the Democratic Left, a movement that aimed to establish itself on the left of the Lebanese landscape. It emerged as a novel oppositional voice in the summer of 2004, when the debate around the up- coming elections threatened to blow into a crisis. At the risk of breach with the Lebanese constitution and with the Taef Accords, Bashar Al-Assad, his close circle and Emile Lahoud were intent on extending the latter's presidential mandate. The Democratic Left was instrumental in bridging the various political formations disaffected with Lahoud's manoeuvering, and in engineering the birth of an opposition front at the Bristol Hotel. Despite wide differences in ideological outlook and programmatic vision, the various entities agreed to convene and unite on the basis of common demands, central among which was the end of Syrian hegemony -- the same opposition that would take to Martyr Square after the assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri and proclaim "Independence 05"( Intifadat Al-Istiqla ) of which Samir was a chief architect. He rose to prominence as a captivating public speaker, becoming a frequent guest on satellite news programmes and using the opportunity to denounce, with steadfast eloquence, the Syrian hegemony over Lebanon. His versatility was such that he not only was a powerful negotiator, he authored slogans and shaped the visual vocabulary of "Independence 05", selecting the colours red and white and worked closely with graphic artists. With the Democratic Left, he resolved the debilitating contradiction between the position of the intellectual and the practice of citizenship. His words had visionary force, the lucidity and acuity of a free man. Not a word written served a hidden agenda, demagoguery or as an apology for autocracy or dictatorship.
In the first of now three articles eulogising his life-long friend, Joseph Samaha, veteran journalist, columnist and editor at the Lebanese daily as-Safir, accurately observed: "Samir Kassir was not martyred because he was a writer, intellectual, journalist, or historian. He was martyred because he placed all of that in the service of a cause." That, above all, is what rendered Samir Kassir such a compelling, unique and admirable human being, his multiple talents were never in contradiction with his sense of duty as a citizen of the Arab world, rather they all combined to root him, they gave him strength and sharpened his politics. He was fearless because he had blind faith in the power of the word and his commitment to democracy and equality, ideals for Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and the Arab world. He spoke truth to power, fearlessly, he drew strength from knowing that he was a free man. He was a free man and so he had not allowed the ability to imagine another world possible to be robbed from him, a world beyond the present despair in which the Arab world slumbers.
It was a pristine spring morning in Beirut when, sitting with Samir at the Raouda Café, his phone beeped. I had just returned to Beirut and I was eager to catch up on his news, hoping he would propose a project, like L'Orient- Express, in which I could find a place for myself. Samir had promised his wife, journalist Gisèle Khoury, that he would quit smoking if he lived to see the day. Now he grimaced, let out a soft curse and lit a cigarette. A friend from New York visiting Beirut for the first time, curious about "Independence 05", asked him why it was referred to as a revolution. He replied with characteristic wit, "It was a revolution because it was betrayed."
By late April, indeed, the aspirations behind the movement had been betrayed by the political class negotiating elections law and hastily reconfiguring alliances in the most myopically sectarian calculus. Now that we have "Independence 05", I asked him, what next? "Syria. Democracy in Syria." He did not have to think about this. Smiling widely at my astonishment, he expressed the conviction that the UN-sponsored investigation into the assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri would bring about a serious, if not fatal, blow to the Assad regime, that Beirut would reclaim its role as a safe haven for Syrian opposition, that Beiruti intellectuals had a pivotal role to play in securing the ground for that, that the struggle for freedom and democracy in Lebanon would remain organically bound with the struggle for freedom and democracy in Syria.
Now that the investigation of his assassination has been concluded, its findings have leaked to the press. Experts from France and the United States (FBI) were summoned to draw a detailed report and submit it to the UN- appointed body currently investigating the assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri. And a chill of horror reigns now that they have: this was clearly more than a personal vendetta on behalf of a head of mukhabarat. Samir Kassir's assassination is, firstly, a message to all those who dare fight for democratic change from within society, not by diktat from imperial metropoles. In the courtyard outside the church where the funeral service was taking place, people gathered, distraught, suspended in disbelief. No one could accept that this coffin draped with the Lebanese flag, showered with rose petals, contained the murdered body of the man they knew: proud gait, handsome face, dashing smile, tireless wit, boundless intelligence, intimidating optimism. We stood weeping, inconsolable, knowing that as we mourned our loss, his murderers stood watching among us. Hushed rumours about "a list" of targetted activists spread around the crowd. At night, in a press conference, Walid Junblatt confirmed that there was indeed such a "list", and Samir's comrades remain as defenseless as he was. Unless the crime is denounced with the same fearless openness he employed, exposing their ruthless criminality, neither regimes nor mukhabarat will understand that killing any of us is absolutely unacceptable. They took away his body because he wrote freely and believed in the power of saying things as they are, but his breath, his message of freedom and imagination, speaks through us.
By Rasha Salti