Friday, 13 January 2012

The cost of gagging Beirut (Part III)

Salim al-Lawzi: His dying thoughts

Who was he?

The man was born in Tripoli, Lebanon, in 1922.

He studied at Egypt’s Cairo University.

He served as assistant director of the now-defunct Near East Broadcasting Station.

He became Managing editor of the Egyptian weekly magazine Rose el-Youssef.

In 1952, he moved on to Dar el-Hilal, a leading Egyptian publishing house.

In 1955, he took over the Lebanese weekly al-Hawadeth.

In 1958, when the first Lebanese civil war broke out, he sought refuge in Syria, where an accident claimed the life of his only son. He came back to build al-Hawadeth into the biggest, most outspoken and widely read publication in the Arab world.

In 1977, after the second Lebanese civil war and two bomb attacks on al-Hawadeth, he sought refuge in England.

His visits to Lebanon from then on were rare, and when he did come, he turned up as stealthily as possible and made sure he had maximum protection.

His last visit – an urgent one prompted by the death of his mother – was made openly, with little or no precautions.

It was on February 24, 1980, while he was on his way to Beirut International Airport to catch a flight back to London, that Lebanon’s infamous Unidentified Gunmen caught up with him.

On March 4, 1980, his mutilated body was found decomposing in the woods of Aramoun, south of Beirut.

I only met Salim al-Lawzi on two occasions; both times at his London home in late 1979.

But I knew he was a watcher all along of my English-language weekly magazine, Monday Morning. For one year after its launch in June 1972, Monday Morning had more than doubled in size. Its circulation had more than quadrupled. Its advertising space had grown fivefold. And its staff had tripled.

So it was sometime in early 1974 that Gaby Deeb, one of Lawzi’s business aides, whose daughter Hala and son Shukri were friends of mine, came to see me at my office in Wardieh, off Hamra. He asked if I were interested in selling part of my exclusive ownership of Monday Morning to al-Hawadeth.

I said, “Yes, why not.”

He said, “At what price?”

“I have no idea,” I replied, “as I never considered part-ownership. But I am open to offers.”

Gaby Deeb left with the mutual understanding he would come back with a tangible offer – and he did.

“We offer to pay you half your overall disbursements to date in exchange for half the ownership,” Gaby said.

“And who says half the money I spent can build you a magazine half as successful as mine? Where’s the ‘value added’ in the offer?” I asked.

The probing ended there.

Forward six years to November-December 1979, when my maternal cousin Farid el-Khatib, then working for Lawzi at al-Hawadeth in London, rings me in Beirut. He tells me, “Mr. Lawzi would like to meet with you on your next trip to London. Anytime soon, you think?”

“I should be in London in about 10 days,” I answered. “I will buzz you when I am there and you can arrange a meeting.”

On my next trip to London, I phoned Farid to say I was in town.

Within maybe 10 minutes, Lawzi rings me at home, saying: “I understand your residence is on Moore Street. Come by -- my home is within walking distance, on Sloane Avenue.”

I said, “Sorry, but I honestly don’t know my way around in London.”

He said, “No problem, I will have my driver pick you up in five minutes.”

The driver picked me up and dropped me off at Lawzi’s home within the hour.

It was the first time I met Lawzi face-to-face.

“What are you still doing in Beirut?” he asked me.

I said, “I can’t afford to relocate the publication and its staff to Europe.”

“What would you like to drink?” Lawzi asked.

I said, “Scotch with much ice and a drop of Perrier water, please.”

Lawzi summoned the driver, whose name turned out to be James, and told him, “Scotch with much ice and a drop of Perrier for the gentleman. Do we have Perrier?”

James said no. So Lawzi asked him to go buy a bottle from the Europa chain store across the street. I realized at that point there was only the three of us at the house.

After I was served my drink and had a few sips, Lawzi opened up, saying: “Let me tell you why I wanted us to meet. I’ll start with a Perrier story. When the Perrier brand became the champagne of bottled mineral water worldwide, the owners were somehow talked into diversifying. They started producing flavored varieties – Perrier with a touch of lemon or lime and all the rest. None of the flavored varieties sold like the original, fizzy and pure Perrier.

“Ditto with me. After the overwhelming success I had with al-Hawadeth, friends put into my head that I needed to diversify. I took their advice and put out in 1977 an English-language weekly, Events (English for Hawadeth). I regret doing that. English is not my forte.

“So here is what I want to offer you: 50 percent ownership in Events, which I will keep funding in full, in exchange for your undertaking to run it from A to Z… How about that?”

I said, “It certainly is a generous offer, but I need to think, which is what I always do when making a major decision. Let me mull over your proposal and come back to you on my next trip to London within three weeks at most.”

“Okay, but don’t be long because I need to decide,” he said, adding: “We can now have a bite.”

We moved to the dining table and sat facing each other. James brought a bowl of salad and two steaks on a plate.

I smiled and said, “Sorry, Mr. Lawzi, but I don’t eat meat.”

S.L.: “Then what do you eat?”

F.N.: “Cheese, fried or scrambled eggs will do.”

S.L.: “James! Do we have cheese or eggs?

James: “No sir, we don’t.”

S.L.: “Quickly James, get some from Europa.”

I took leave after lunch, returned to Beirut a few days later and flew back to London within three weeks and telephoned Lawzi.

“You surely can find your way to my home this time,” he said.

“Indeed,” I said, and headed promptly to Sloane Avenue.

When I got near Lawzi’s house, I found him pacing the pavement outside.

“Any problem?” I asked.

“No, I am just thinking of a headline for an interview we’ve just had with (South Lebanon Army commander) Saad Haddad. We may have to leave out some of his controversial remarks...”

Minutes after we entered the house and settled down in the sitting room, James walked in and said, “Scotch, lots of ice and Perrier water, sir? We have Perrier this time.”

I said, “Yes, please,” telling Lawzi a few minutes later: “I thought very hard about your offer, which I deem both generous and flattering. The problem is that I have my own Perrier to run. Short of a merger between Events and Monday Morning, I can’t see how I can concurrently run two essentially rival publications that are based some 3,000 miles apart.”

S.L.: “I expected such a response. I knew you would say that. In fact, I have already initiated steps to fold Events.”

When we sat at the dining table as the time before, I quickly caught sight of a bowl of boiled eggs, a huge platter of assorted cheeses and a basket of French bread.

I said: “Wow, I’m being spoiled.”

But before either one of us had a bite, Lawzi looked me straight in the eye, pointed his index at me and blurted: “Listen! I reign supreme at the helm of the regional Arabic press. You reign supreme at the helm of the regional English press. Make sure to write something decorous about me in English after they kill me.”

I was shocked and lost for words. I just said: “Have faith!”

“Yes, of course,” he said, “but let me repeat: I reign supreme at the helm of the regional Arabic press. You reign supreme at the helm of the regional English press. Make sure to write something decorous about me in English after they kill me.”

We paused speechless for maybe 30 seconds, then nibbled and engaged in a mundane conversation that never touched from far or near on politics or dangers to his life.

I didn’t ask Lawzi who he meant by “they” catching up with him, and he didn’t even try to elaborate. I think he assumed I knew who “they” were.

In all, I met Lawzi for hardly three hours in his lifetime. But I never mentioned, privately or publicly, what was said in those hours until this day.

Monday Morning’s March 10, 1980, black cover, titled “In Mourning,” was a futile gesture, if you will. And the “something decorous” we wrote about him on Page 3, also titled “In Mourning,” did not resurrect him.

But my staff and I mourned him because he was a towering figure in the Arab and Lebanese press and a champion of Lebanese freedom.

“The cost of gagging Beirut (Part IV)” will be about the fourth victim, Riad Taha