IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Losses renew a Lebanese healer

When journalist and politician Ghassan Tueni returned to parliament this year, taking a seat he first held during the Korean War, he stood before the hushed deputies and renewed an appeal rarely heard in Lebanon. "Let us bury our grudges and grief," he declared.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

When Ghassan Tueni returned to parliament this year, taking a seat he first held during the Korean War, he stood before the hushed deputies and renewed an appeal rarely heard in Lebanon.

"Let us bury our grudges and grief," he declared, his thick, gray hair combed back but a little unruly.

The words were brief, almost perfunctory. But they suggested something about him, about his people and about the uncertain future of one of the Arab world's smallest, freest and most Byzantine of countries.

Tueni is 80 years old. He is Lebanon's foremost journalist, a storied diplomat and a respected intellectual. Some also call him a modern-day Job, the biblical figure whose string of misfortunes never defied his faith. Tueni lost his wife and daughter to cancer, a son to a car accident, and his last child, the journalist and politician Gebran Tueni, to an assassin's car bomb in December. Tueni speaks little of his pain, out of pride and dignity. But in a country defined less by citizenship and more by its fractious sects, his suffering and reputation have placed him tentatively above the fray. And in his twilight, he insists, he has another role to play as Lebanon is perched between the promise of long-delayed independence from foreign influence and a morass of competing loyalties.

"I think I can create a current, yes," Tueni said, as his driver navigated through a gritty neighborhood, clad in the posters, banners and iconography of religious Shiite Muslims. "It makes me feel very worried. I might bump my head into a wall." He paused, looking out the windshield. "But it might create a breakthrough. I don't know. I have to try. I have to try very hard."

In Lebanon today, he sees a collection of tribes, defined by collective memories. What he wants is a secular notion of citizenship, a state that becomes a nation gathering its strength through its diversity.

Tueni's return to political life is more than the story of one man's career. To some, he has emerged as a symbol, a man whose history transcends the sectarian squabbles that, at times, have paralyzed Lebanon, splintered as it is among 18 religious and ethnic communities, shadowed by an unresolved 15-year civil war and vulnerable to the machinations of neighboring Syria.

To others, he represents a figure from the past that no longer resonates in a system where authority is most often derived not by ideas, programs or even ideology, but by the color of a religious banner. In that, he has become obsolete, as Lebanon and much of the Arab world is coalescing around more primordial affiliations -- Christian and Muslim, Sunni and Shiite, Kurd and Arab, and so on.

"Lebanon is still struggling with the same fundamental issues -- how to deal with the question of citizenship, of identity, of the reform of the political system," said Nawaf Salam, a lawyer and professor at the American University of Beirut. "I think he can really play that role of a consensus builder. I believe that. There could be wishful thinking in that, but that's the role I see him playing."

Tueni sees an urgency in that role, even if time is short. "The country is living in a fanatic struggle," he said. "It's not only Lebanon, but Lebanon is a microcosm. Lebanon is a microcosm, and it is the laboratory of dialogue between Christians and Muslims. If you fail here, it's going to fail everywhere else."

Journalist and politician

By his count, Tueni has published more than 5,000 editorials in a career that has spanned nearly 60 years at an-Nahar, Lebanon's most prestigious newspaper. The newspaper was founded in 1933 by his father, Gebran Tueni, an Arab nationalist at a time when that nationalism was a progressive ideology, dedicated to enlightenment values, opposing tyranny, the rights of women and minorities, and the revival of a dormant Arab culture emerging from centuries under the Turkish-led Ottoman Empire.

Tueni inherited the newspaper and many of those ideas from his father, who died in 1947. He took to politics young, entering parliament in 1951, where he helped lead a campaign to oust Lebanon's president. He was appointed ambassador to the United Nations during some of the worst years of the 1975-90 civil war. And he served as a counselor to Lebanon's president when the country signed an ill-fated treaty in 1983 with Israel, which had invaded a year earlier. But he has probably left his most lasting mark on journalism, helping establish an-Nahar as one of the Arab world's most independent newspapers.

As an editor, he was jailed -- four or five times, he recalled, although he forgets the precise number. He takes a wistful pride as he walks past the front pages that adorn the newspaper's walls: "I feel like I wrote better then than I write now." And during 16-hour days, he plies the newsroom like a reporter, asking staff about the day's big story and what's at stake. His editorial meetings are more intellectual salon than deadline frenzy: At one meeting, the intersection of political Islam and democracy dominated the talk.

"You can't run a newspaper like you run an army or a factory," he said. "Ten columns can't be like 10 pairs of shoes."

Tueni is Lebanese, but that's often code here, to conceal identities rooted in family, clan, town and sect that can sometimes be revealed in the pronunciation of a single letter of the Arabic alphabet. He is Greek Orthodox, a Christian community with roots in Syria, Jordan and Palestine that historically served as a bridge between Lebanon's more numerous Maronite Catholics and its Muslim sects. He considers himself an Arab; there is a part of Islam, he once said, in every Christian in the Middle East. He is a defiant Lebanese nationalist, but sees a shared history, culture and identity between Syria and Lebanon.

His lifelong friend, George Khodr, the Greek Orthodox bishop of Mount Lebanon, said he would describe Tueni as he identifies himself, in a complicated formula: "a Syro-Byzantine of Arab heritage and Lebanese loyalty."

Tueni's pursuits are no less eclectic. On his shelves are volumes of the writings of Imam Ali, the prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, that serve as a model for Arabic, much as the speeches of Cicero did for Latin. Other books compete for space: "The Muslim Jesus," Khalil Gibran's "The Prophet" and the works of Adonis, one of the greatest living Arab poets. He quotes Immanuel Kant in speeches, which can glide effortlessly among French, English and Arabic.

By virtue of age or interest, his conversations often meander into tangents: the impact of ancient Phoenician, for instance, on the dialect of modern Lebanese in the northern city of Tripoli. But he retains the edge of his occasionally acerbic editorials, which appear every Monday in an-Nahar. To friends, it is one of his qualities: a cosmopolitan fighter, even if as recently as a year ago his profile had faded as his 48-year-old son, Gebran, steered an-Nahar in his own direction.

"He is an open person, but not a soft person," said Ahmad Beydoun, a sociologist at the Lebanese University. "Above all, in a country where politics is far from being refined, Ghassan is a refined man, and this is very important when you find yourself in the middle of rather primitive language in Lebanese politics -- primitive identities, primitive behavior and primitive language."

Loss and renewal
Tueni's return to Lebanon's political life this year was born of tragedy.

On Dec. 12, Gebran, named for Ghassan's father, was killed. Eighty-eight pounds of TNT packed in a car blew his armored sport-utility vehicle over the side of a hill in an attack that many blamed on Syria.

Gebran was Tueni's last surviving child. He lost his 7-year-old daughter Nayla to cancer, the disease that later killed his wife, the poet Nadia Tueni. His son Makram, named for an Egyptian Christian leader, was killed in a car accident in France in 1987.

At Gebran's funeral, in a speech his friends said was unrehearsed, Tueni spoke to the mourners.

"I call today not for revenge, hatred or blood," he said. "I call that we bury with Gebran all the hatred, all the controversies. I call on all the Lebanese, Muslims and Christians to be united in the service of great Lebanon, in the service of its Arab cause."

The words reverberated across Lebanon. Here was a call distinct from the usual vows of revenge. Within days, Tueni had reemerged as someone who many Lebanese hoped could chart a path that was independent of communal politics. He took over at an-Nahar for his son and ran unopposed for his seat in parliament. He participated this week in a national dialogue, the most high-profile talks among political factions since the civil war. Among his admirers was Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, Lebanon's senior Shiite cleric.

"This is a man overwhelmed by grief who found a moment to say, 'Enough,' and this is really what endeared him to so many," said Samir Khalaf, a sociologist at the American University of Beirut. "People like this are rare in our political culture."

A frame sits on Tueni's desk. On one side is his wife in her younger days, writing at a desk. On the other is a portrait before she died in 1983. Each day, he turns the frame, depending on his mood.

Her study at his home is as it was when she died, he said, the light still on every night. Nothing was touched in Gebran's office at an-Nahar. He recalled the death of his other son, whose picture sits behind his desk. After the accident, Makram was in a coma for 20 days. "I would talk, and I didn't know if he was hearing," Tueni said. "He was looking at me, but I didn't know if he was seeing."

"I don't cope with all this loss," he said, sitting in the newspaper office.

"I've built myself a world where I think the dead people are still alive with us, particularly Nadia."

"I think . . . . " His breath quickened, then he fell silent. He nodded his head.

"I've decided I'm going to be two men: the man I'm speaking about and the man who's speaking," he said.

The night Gebran was killed, Tueni addressed weeping journalists in the newsroom. "It is not the time for tears, but for action," he said. "Everyone to work. An-Nahar has to hit the newsstands tomorrow." He then saw the proposed headline for the next day's issue -- a mundane account of the car bomb that he recalled thinking was stupid. He dictated a new one: "Gebran didn't die, and an-Nahar will continue."

Then he left.

'Impossible victories'
Beirut is a city of perspectives. Its downtown rises from the sea, a brash vision of modernity that exemplifies the cosmopolitan culture of a coast. Much of the rest of the city slides down from the mountains, inheriting age-old disputes. Politics there, shaped by the centuries-old bargaining between religious communities, has brought long periods of stability and intermittent bursts of bloodshed.

On a recent day, Tueni navigated the two worlds. His workday began at noon, at a meeting with local officials from the neighborhood he represents. "Folkloric," he called it. It was followed by condolences for a member of parliament who had died. It was there that the mood of the country intersected with its almost desperate desire for an alternative to politics-as-usual.

Sabah Haj, a 69-year-old retired academic, ran up to Tueni as he entered the church along a busy street. "You can play a role now that no one else can play," Haj blurted out.

Tueni smiled, then moved on.

A recent headline in an-Nahar sums up the mood today: "Lebanese are drowning in their sectarianism." Some are reluctant to buy real estate too close to the Green Line that separated Christian East Beirut from the predominantly Muslim west during the civil war. Anger at the pro-Syrian stance of Shiite leaders is more pitched than ever.

"I'm afraid that we won't be able to build a state with all these confessions, especially since everyone is so hypocritical," said Khodr, the bishop. "They all speak of the nation, when all they seek are their sectarian interests."

Tueni fits uneasily in any of those categories, which is part of his appeal. He calls the sway of the militarized political party Hezbollah over the Shiite community it claims to represent "intellectual terrorism." Although he is a devout Christian, he dismisses Michel Aoun, a former general who has emerged as the country's most powerful Christian figure, as "a psychological case."

Tueni's thoughts run deeper: how Christians, a minority in Lebanon, can continue to play a role that Christian communities in places such as Syria and Egypt long ago ceded. He remains certain of one thing: The role cannot come through force.

"This is a war of impossible victories," he said, smoking a thin cigarette.

The broader challenge is how to forge a country greater than its parts. In that, he asks the questions that began his political career and that dominated the life of his father: Is there an identity -- be it Arab, Lebanese or something new -- that can transcend religious affiliations that tend toward the tribal? Is there a notion of citizenship that can ensure rights that only individual communities guarantee now?

At the same time, he worries about a social and political brand of Islam dominant today that he believes has to reform itself.

"I think the challenge precisely is integrating this country along national, patriotic lines and redefining religion. I think the real reform has to be within the religions. We have to teach secularism," he said. "Not secularism in that it's anti-religious. It's anti-transforming the religions into tribes. Because this is what we have now -- a tribal war."

Optimistic? Not necessarily, he said. "But at least I'm not desperate."

Past and promise
In his maiden speech on his return to parliament, after he called for forgiving grudges, Tueni made a suggestion unusual for a Christian lawmaker: He asked Lebanon's government to take the initiative in starting a dialogue with Hamas, the radical Islamic group that won a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament. In it, he says, he sees a potential for pragmatism, and pragmatism is good for Lebanon.

"I will probably be listened to," he said beforehand.

The debate continues on Tueni's role -- throwback or way forward?

Khodr is doubtful. Tueni's ideals may remain, he said, but his time has passed.

"He is quite old now," he said. "I don't think that he can really make any change."

But Salam, the lawyer, wonders. Unlike many of today's leaders, who preside over the peace that ended their war, Tueni has no blood on his hands. His community never had a militia. Through his career, he has been more outsider than operative. He sits in parliament as a defiantly secular voice, and his newspaper -- his once again -- reflects his vision.

Throwback or way forward?

Salam thought about the question. "Those are not mutually exclusive," he said.

Special correspondent Lynn Maalouf contributed to this report.