Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 March 2007
Issue No. 834
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875


Joseph Samaha, 1949-2007

By Lucy Fielder

Joseph Samaha

The death of revered journalist Joseph Samaha from a sudden heart attack in London on Sunday deprived a polarised Lebanon of one of its most clear-sighted secular intellectuals

Samaha, 58, was editor-in-chief of Lebanon's Al-Akhbar newspaper, which launched last August, but cut his teeth at the venerable leftist daily As-Safir. His erudition and ability to present coherent, knowledgeable, arguments for rejecting US hegemony in the Middle East and supporting the Palestinians and Lebanese resistance to Israel -- among other causes -- made his daily "Al-Khatt Al-Ahmar" (the red line) front-page column as essential as morning coffee for those seeking sane elucidation of those views amid ever more shrill rhetoric. Those qualities also inspired the respect of those to whom his views were anathema.

At a time when dogma and sectarianism reigns, Samaha remained resolutely secular and relished having friends who held opposite opinions. But his beliefs never wavered. "No one could make Joseph believe -- and he was rational -- that reconciliation with the crime of Israel on Arab lands or alliance with it was a sign of rationality and reason," explained Palestinian Knesset member and writer Azmi Bishara in a tribute in Al-Akhbar entitled "He died at the heart of the matter".

"He believed in a different rationality, from a different time, that did not see in surrender moderation, and saw a horizon for an Arab renaissance, just as he saw Israel and its allies and the fanatical antagonists of rational thought as two sides of the same coin."

Samaha, who is survived by his wife and his adult daughter and son, Oumayya and Ziad, died overnight at the London home of Al-Hayat journalist Hazem Saghieh. In sad irony, he had flown there to comfort his old friend on the death of his wife, Lebanese writer and founder of Al-Saqi books, Mai Ghoussoub.

Samaha was born in 1949 in a village in the Metn region, north of the capital. He went to school in Beirut and graduated in political science from the Lebanese University, after which a two-year stint at Al-Hurriya magazine marked the start of a long and distinguished journalistic career. He moved to the leftist As-Safir newspaper in 1974, where he made his name. He worked for a couple of years at Al-Watan newspaper until 1980 and then returned to As-Safir.

When he left the paper again it was to depart for Paris in 1984, where he stayed until 1995, heading the Palestinian nationalist magazine Al-Yawm As-Sabi and then writing for the London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat. Beirut, and As-Safir, beckoned again in 1995. Another stint at Al-Hayat notwithstanding, Samaha became editor-in-chief of As-Safir between 2001 and 2006. Last year, he finally parted ways with the paper to pursue his dream of setting up Al-Akhbar. The newest of Lebanon's newspapers first published on 14 August, the day Israel's war with Hizbullah ended.

Samaha was a modest man, eschewing regular invitations to become another television talking head and sticking with what he knew best. One rare appearance on the small screen was on 14 August, when Al-Jazeera's Ghassan Bin Jiddou interviewed him from the rubble of Beirut's devastated southern suburbs. It was a fitting background for a campaigning left- wing journalist who championed the oppressed and downtrodden.

After the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri in February 2005 tore Lebanon in half, Samaha charted an independent editorial path that was unshakable in support of the resistance and rejection of Western interference in Lebanon. Many accused him of siding too decisively with the Hizbullah-led opposition, but all respected his complex, methodical arguments and the way he contextualised events and backed up his views with broad historical knowledge not just of Lebanon but the region and the West. His last editorial, on 20 February, was about the Palestinian crisis.

As-Safir owner Talal Suleiman wrote that Samaha "read a lot and wrote a little"; other contemporaries described him as a thinker first, writer second. His erudition supported his complex trains of thought; his clarity of insight enabled the concision and deftness of his prose.

"A pen has broken that was among the richest in culture and firmest in fighting wrong, and the most enlightened and able to grasp novel ideas, and the most qualified to reshape journalistic production so that it was more in touch with the era," wrote Suleiman.

As the news filtered through on Sunday afternoon, a stream of Samaha's stricken staff and former As-Safir colleagues flooded to Al-Akhbar 's offices in the western Hamra district of Beirut, once a gravitating point for Arab world intellectuals. Politicians and well-wishers followed. Hours later some of those who loved Samaha -- for he was a man who inspired devotion in the young journalists he nourished and the intellectuals he sparred with -- compiled a tribute to him in Monday's Al-Akhbar. A sense of the camaraderie, the inspiration, and the editor-in-chief's office door that never closed to colleagues, jumps from the pages.

Poetic tributes by such thinkers as Elias Khoury, Adonis and Fawwaz Traboulsi are juxtaposed with those of his journalists; all are intensely personal and infused with sadness that one of Lebanon's greatest minds was taken away at its peak; his life's work far from completion. "How will we all stay at sea in his ship?" wrote Al-Akhbar journalist Rana Hayek. "Why did he depart suddenly from the dream before it was completed? He involved us all, then he went away... "

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