Monday 27 February 2012

The cost of gagging Beirut (Part VI)

Krikor Ohannes:
The baby panda shot in the face
Koko and his bride Rita on their wedding day
Modern Lebanon has had three camera maestros, each of them Armenian and master of more than one photography genre. Their names:
(1) Manoug Alemian, simply known as “Manoug.” He was the king of landscape, ancient ruins, nature and fine art photography and celebrity portraiture in Lebanon and the region. He passed away in 1994 at age 76 in Canada, where he had sought refuge with his family from Lebanon’s fratricidal war. We were neighbors in the countdown to that war. His showroom was on the ground floor of the building where I lived on Rue Graham.
(2) Harry L. Koundakjian, or simply “Harry” – Lebanon’s photojournalism king who is now serving as International Photo Editor at The Associated Press in New York. We were colleagues during our work years in Beirut.
(3) Krikor Ohannes, or just “Koko” to everyone who knew him in Beirut. He was a wizard in candid, headshot, wedding and social event black-and-white photography. He called me “Bass” – he meant “Boss” -- throughout the 11 years he worked for my English-language weekly Monday Morning. He was just 21 when I gave him his first photo assignment when launching the magazine in June 1972. I asked him to cover a Sunday wedding at the St. Francis of Assisi (Roman Catholic) Church on Hamra Street.
He himself tied the knot -- or entered the golden cage -- with Rita Kaladjian at the St. Gregory the Illuminator Church in Antelias on a hot July afternoon in 1977. He looked like a charmer out of the Fifties in his black suit and bow tie. After the ceremony the couple spent a three-day honeymoon at the Faraya Mzaar Hotel followed by a fortnight's trip to Armenia and Russia.
Koko had the facial features of a baby panda and a magical eye that caught people and social events at their most telling moments. Photography was the love of his life. And he learned it by doing it.
Whenever he hummed a tune, it turned out to be by Elvis Presley. He simply adored the “King of Rock and Roll.”
After his love of photography and Presley came his love of “Action” -- the code word he coined for his occasional womanizing.
Koko snapshots of Beirut socialites Paula Fattouh, Hiyam Saadeh and Jenan Harb (Nov. 1980)
He used his camera lens as a conduit to relay the beauty and joie de vivre of Beirut’s nymphs, It-girls and full-fledged female socialites when the city was on its deathbed between 1975 and 1985.
His brilliant images of receptions, parties, birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, concerts, art exhibitions, fashion shows, beauty pageants… for the “Around the Clock” pages of Monday Morning in a turbulent period were invaluable for the publication. Given that a picture can speak a thousand words, his images were visual storytellers of Beirut’s great social events and people of the momentous 1972-1983 years. But that does not make up for the fact that Koko is gone. 
He was only 35 when two “Unidentified Gunmen” shot him dead in his basement studio opposite the Tourism Ministry around 10 a.m. on Wednesday, May 25, 1986. Three bullets, fired at point-blank range from a silencer into his right eye, cheek and ear, killed him instantly.
Dr. Vahe Tcheupjian
At 10:45 a.m., the killer pair then broke into a dental clinic in the nearby Aswad Building, closer to the American University Hospital. There they murdered a second Armenian, Dr. Vahe Tcheupjian, also 35. They used the same silencer to lob two bullets from point-blank range into his right eye and ear.
A communiqué said the “patriotic” murderers wanted Armenians out of West Beirut.
The killings incensed Lebanon’s 200,000-strong Armenian community, which had staunchly refused to be drawn into the internecine strife. It ordered the country’s Armenian schools, institutions and businesses closed in mourning through Saturday, May 31, 1986.
When the crossings between the halves of Beirut were shut at one time during the civil war, Koko was stranded at his home in East Beirut. To survive there, he turned into a street seller of smuggled cigarettes.
One of his most comprehensive works was on a 21-page pictorial report titled “The King Takes a Queen.” It covered the June 15, 1978, wedding of Jordan’s late King Hussein and America’s Lisa Najeeb Halaby, renamed Queen Noor on her conversion to Islam
He accompanied Monday Morning wordsmith Micheline Hazou to the event in Amman. “Mich” recounts that when King Hussein and Queen Noor posed for photographers at the wedding ceremony, they readily followed Koko’s crisp orders: “This side! Look to the left. Turn to the right. Stand in the sun. Go over to the shade. Look at each other.” But his loud plea to the bridegroom, “King, King! Kiss, kiss,” was dismissed by the newlyweds with a smile.    
Koko’s last job for me as “Bass” fired him up. It came in late June 1983, when I asked him and Monday Morning’s Claude Khoury to join me for an exclusive interview with Captain Morgan M. France. Captain France was the senior commander of the U.S. contingent in the Multi-National Peacekeeping Force in Lebanon.
With Capt. Morgan M. France (center, top left) aboard the USS Iwo Jima
Two details caught Koko’s imagination. One was the venue. The interview was to take place on board the flagship USS Iwo Jima off the Beirut coast. The other was the helicopter flight from the U.S. Marines barracks near Beirut airport to the fearsome amphibious assault ship. It carried a squadron of 24 Marine helicopters, a Battalion Landing Team of 1,500 Marines plus operating rooms and 100-bed hospital.
Our “expedition” couldn’t have gone better. The interview proved to be a scoop that was quoted by the local media and international newswires. Everything on board the ship was awesome. Captain France capped his hospitality by handing us an already engraved Iwo Jima seal of friendship to the magazine. And, above all, he did not decline my invitation to a private dinner at my home in a deserted building on Rue Graham, where he could meet some of my staff.
I had nightmares in the week leading up to the dinner. How do I entertain 14-16 people in a two-bed flat where I am living alone? Who does the cooking? What menu? Lebanese or international?  Who cooks and what when you need to organize a posse to find a kilo of tomatoes or potatoes anywhere in war-ravaged Beirut? And who sits where on a dining table for eight? Will Captain France and his aides find their way to the building? And what if hell broke loose on the night – will they still show up? Any safety precautions I can take?
The inspiration was not late in coming. I opted for a three-pronged division of roles.
Some of our last pictures with Koko in Beirut
Monday Morning’s Micheline Hazou, Claude Khoury, Mona es-Said and the late Lydia Georgi are to sort out all tables, seating, tableware, cutlery and decoration arrangements.
The menu is to be Lebanese mezze, with grilled Mediterranean sea bass as the main course. My able concierge Reda Naji (Abu Ali) orders and takes delivery on the night of the grilled fish from the “half-open” Dbeibo restaurant in Raoushe. Until then, he roams the streets to cater for a mezze to be prepared by his wife and South Lebanon cooking expert Fatmeh. There is nothing I can do about security -- security is the U.S. commander’s domain. He knows better.
To my great relief, all arrangements ran like a Swiss clock on the night in July 1983.
In retrospect, I was right in choosing to leave out Koko from the dinner invitation for professional rather than personal reasons. He would not have wanted to show up anyway without his olive-brown camera shoulder bag, his lenses, his portable flash, his rolls of film and his photography vest.
But he was the superstar at the sendoff barbecue hosted by Micheline at her home the following month. All members of staff attended the get-together as the sendoff was in my honor. I had told them I was bringing down the curtain on my publishing business in Beirut and planning a new one in London.
The thought that it was time for me to go had not left since I sold the Monday Morning title lock, stock and barrel to the late Melhem Karam earlier in the summer.
The late Melhem Karam
(Mr. Karam headed the Lebanese Journalists’ Union for nearly 50 years until his death in May 2010. His takeover of Monday Morning – by then the leading English-language publication in the Middle East and the most widely quoted among them -- was remarkably quick and straightforward. In essence, he dropped by at my office in Wardieh, where 10 minutes into our cordial conversation, we had this candid exchange:
M.K.: Will you sell the title?
-- Yes, if the price is right.
M.K.: I know, but why?
-- Because publishing the magazine during eight years of civil war was daunting. And I don’t think the internecine strife is ending anytime soon.
M.K.: So you don’t have faith in peace and prosperity returning?
-- No, I don’t.
M.K.: Well, I do. I’m optimistic about the country’s future.
The deal was done in a second head-to-head meeting that lasted under one hour. And the change of ownership made the news headlines on government-owned Radio Lebanon).   
It was over two years later that Koko was murdered in his studio.
By then, I had moved to London and launched Mideast Mirror, a daily English-language digest of political and economic news and views in the Arab, Persian, Turkish and Hebrew media. The digests were compiled by correspondents stationed in 11 countries and delivered to subscribers worldwide, including foreign and other ministries, government agencies, embassies, think tanks, research centers, lobbyists, major media and international organizations and specialized groups in the United States, Europe and Japan.
Filing from Beirut for Mideast Mirror three months after its launch in February 1986, was Issa Goraieb, current editor of Lebanon’s French-language daily L'Orient-Le Jour.
In his telex of May 25, 1986 around 8 a.m. GMT (noontime in Beirut), he mentioned that two Armenians, one a dentist and the other a photographer, were shot dead in Ras Beirut. He gave no names.
The minute I read the telex, I thought of Koko and asked the late Lydia, Claude and Micheline (who had regrouped with me in London) to try to get through on the phone to Issa or anyone else in Beirut and inquire about the dead photographer’s name.
He turned out to be no other than our baby panda.
To borrow from the French poet François de Malherbe: Koko lived the lifetime of roses -- the span of a morning.