Monday, 2 January 2012

The cost of gagging Beirut (1)

Kamel Mroue: He spoke his mind and went his way

When Lebanon began spiraling down the abyss of civil war post-1975, I constantly wondered when the folly would stop. It was a subject I often discussed with my maternal cousin, journalist Farid el-Khatib.

Farid el-Khatib (left) and the late Michel Abou Jaoudeh
In one of our brainstorming sessions, Farid quoted famed an-Nahar leader writer Michel Abou Jaoudeh as telling him in private: “The powers-that-be wouldn’t let the internecine strife end anytime soon -- their plan is to ‘shutdown, smash and silence Beirut.’”

The three key words read in rhyme in Arabic:

تكسير وتسكير وتسكيت بيروت

Silencing Beirut meant murdering, maiming, driving out or intimidating the journalists churning out the only outspoken, free and thriving press in the Arab world at the time. But the tide to bring the State of Lebanon to its knees has been ebbing and flowing for the past 60 years. It shows by the tens of thousands of ordinary citizens killed or disappeared in the Lebanon civil war and the political killings, mostly since 1975, of:

  • Federation of Moslem Associations and Institutions president Sheikh Ahmad Assaf (1982); Spiritual Druze Court head Sheikh Haleem Takieddin (1983); Islamic Sunni Higher Council chief Sheikh Soubhi Saleh (1986); and Lebanon's Sunni Muslim community leader Grand Mufti Sheikh Hassan Khaled (1989).
  • Sixty-three American diplomats and civilians, 243 U.S. Marines and 56 French paratroopers in separate suicide bombings of the U.S. embassy and barracks of the U.S. and French contingents serving in the Multinational (Peacekeeping) Force in Lebanon (1983).
  • The president of the American University of Beirut, Malcolm H. Kerr (1984).
  • Several news media editors, writers, reporters, photographers and administrative staff. Among them: Edouard Saab (1975), Nayef Sheblak (1975), Najib B. Azzam (1976), Janet Lee Stevens (1983), Krikor Ohannes (1986), Suhail Tawileh (1986), Hussein Mrowe (1987), and Samir Kassir (2005). 
I will be posting over the coming weeks my take on six of the named victims – Kamel Mrowe, Najib Azzam, Salim Lawzi, Riad Taha, Janet Lee Stevens and Krikor Ohannes -- in the order they were killed:


The late Kamel Mrowe
Kamel Mroue, uncontested pioneer of the modern-day Lebanese press, was a 1915 Shiite native of Zrariyeh, South Lebanon. He lost his father when he was 10 and completed his secondary education at an American school in Sidon before moving to Beirut in 1932. He joined the staff of today’s leading Lebanese daily an-Nahar three years later after six months as history and geography teacher at Al Amliyeh school and a short stint as reporter for the daily an-Nida’.

He spent four years of the Second World War in Istanbul first and Sofia next, before returning to Beirut in 1945. He launched his Arabic daily al-Hayat on 28 January 1946 after reportedly raising a loan of LL. 10,000. He started with a staff of six working from an office provided by an-Nahar founder Gebran Tueini.

Within five years, Mroue set al-Hayat on course to become the Arab world’s most influential and widely read newspaper. By 1951, he earned private offices for al-Hayat on Ghargour Street. He founded Lebanon’s first English-language daily, The Daily Star, the following year.

Kamel Mroue was shot dead by a lone Nasserist murderer as he sat behind his desk writing his daily front-page leader for the May 17, 1966 edition of al-Hayat.

His daily column – for which he coined a three-word header -- was always precise, concise and to the point. The three-word header ("قل كلمتك وامشي") converts into, “Speak your mind and go your way.” The words summarize his professional life. He spoke his mind and went his way until his death at age 51.

I first met Kamel Mroue in 1962, shortly after moonlighting as front-page editor of The Daily Star. The editor in chief was George Hishmeh, now a Washington-based columnist and formerly president of the Washington Association of Arab Journalists.

All the major scoops for al-Hayat came from Mroue. They were then passed on in the early evening to The Daily Star for translation and concurrent front-page publishing.

If Mroue had drafted the scoop in person, Hishmeh would ask me to go to his office and pick up the text by hand, bypassing the office helper – which is how I got to meet the boss first.

The scoops and visits multiplied between 1962 and 1964, chiefly because of Mroue’s access to a flood of privileged information on the intensifying proxy Yemen war between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

It was in late October 1964 that Mroue asked me to meet him at his office. As soon as I did, he sat me down and told me: “This is a world exclusive that I have drafted by hand as the front-page lead for tomorrow’s al-Hayat and The Daily Star. Don’t leave my office before you put it in English, type it and headline it for The Daily Star. But don’t show either my Arabic or your English texts to anyone before 1 a.m. -- (one hour before the sister dailies are put to bed).  You take both texts down for typesetting and the rest anytime after 1 a.m. It will then be too late for someone here to leak the news. It has happened before.”

I said, “Done!”

I then glanced through the Arabic text and realized it spoke of Cairo and Riyadh deciding to sponsor unprecedented Yemen peace talks involving Egyptian and Saudi officers in a Sudanese port city on the Red Sea. The port city’s name was alien to me. So I said, “Mr. Mroue, misspelling the port city’s name in English will undermine the piece’s credibility. Have you any idea of the exact spelling.”

“No, I’m not sure,” he said, “but look it up here (pointing at a World Atlas and several geography references on his bookshelf).”

I did as told, but it took me much less time to prepare the English text in full than to find the exact location on the map and correct spelling of the planned peace talks’ venue – namely, “Erkwit.”

Next morning, Mroue’s scoop made headlines around the globe and, as he wrote, the peace talks opened in Erkwit a few days later, on 2 November 1964.

Mroue was happy as a child in 1964, for it was also the year he brought the first web offset printing press to the Middle East.

His murder on May 16, 1966, came a few months after I had left his publishing house. It marked the first time that an Arab secret service – in this case, Egypt’s under president Gamal Abdel-Nasser -- had provoked the “silencing” of a Lebanese press critic. The late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat is reported to have recognized as much in a private meeting with Mroue’s widow, Salma Bissar, in 1974.

“The Cost of Gagging Beirut (2)” will be about the second victim, Najib Azzam.