BEIRUT: Omar Shatah’s friend knocked on his door in San Francisco at 1:30 a.m., in tears. The son of Mohammad Shatah, the slain former finance minister and adviser to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, hugged his friend and asked him what was wrong.
“I’m sorry,” he told Omar, and then asked him to check his phone, where condolence messages were already flooding in as news of his father’s assassination spread across media networks.
“I didn’t cry for the first hour and a half,” he said. “My first reaction was ‘where is my mom, how is my mom, who is with her?’”
“It sounds like a nightmare,” Omar said.
Over two hours, he and his mother Nina spoke with The Daily Star about the day of the assassination, the funeral, why they think the attack happened and their memories of a loving father and husband and a pragmatic problem-solver who deeply loved Lebanon.
Omar briefly spoke with his mother and caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, and a ticket home was booked by the Future Movement’s Nader Hariri.
Reality had not yet set in when he went to eat at a diner nearby with two of his best friends, and then went home to pack.
“I hadn’t had a breakdown yet,” he said.
At 6 a.m. he texted his neighbor, not wanting to be alone.
“I said my father has been killed, I think that’s what I said.”
His neighbor watched him watch the news. Then Omar saw his mother on TV.
“I saw my mom talking about my father. And it hit me that she’s talking about Dad,” he said. “And I started crying and shouting at the TV. Shouting ‘what are you saying? Don’t say that. Mom I’m here.’”
Then his mother looked into the camera, and for a moment, he said, it seemed she was looking at him.
“And it was that point when I just bawled,” he said.
The funeral itself was mostly a blur, suffused with moments of clarity. Being driven to the mosque. Carrying his father’s coffin. The family of Tarek Badr – his father’s companion who also perished in the bombing – there was never an entourage or a convoy. His own family at his side.
And those final moments, when he stood at the head of his father’s grave as he was laid to rest.
“I spent the whole time looking straight into that hole thinking that’s where my father’s going to be,” Omar said.
And he remembered little things. The color of a pebble near his father’s head. The twisted steel mesh in the concrete. His feet bouncing slightly off the ground as the body was lowered into the grave.
He said he was glad the body was still intact.
Omar’s suit jacket was puffed up because in it he carried a white fedora that his father loved to wear.
His brother Ronnie carried two bow ties, which the former minister had taken to trying on for style before his death.
Omar placed the fedora on his father’s head, his brother the bow tie near his neck. And then Omar personally covered his father’s face and torso with sand to make sure the fedora and bow tie stayed in place.
He never saw the body itself, but drew comfort from feeling the shape of his father’s face.
After reciting verses in the Quran, they went back to the mosque and told their mother that it was done.
But Omar grew agitated as he recalled the political rhetoric surrounding his father’s death and funeral. “I don’t give a damn about scoring these political points, it’s so frustrating,” he said. “They didn’t lose an election, they lost a man, and I lost a father.”
Omar lights up several cigarettes during the conversation. He swore he was down to four cigarettes a day before all this.
He was not surprised that his father was singled out for assassination. “All of us have been expecting this,” he said.
“I told him outright, multiple times, that if I were your opponent and thought in the bloody calculus and the bloody way they thought, then I would kill you,” he said.
Omar’s theory is that his father fit an important structural role in his political bloc – a strategic thinker whose death would not be so cataclysmic as to cause an uprising but important enough that he was valuable to kill.
In that way he fit the mold of assassinations like those of Gebran Tueni and Samir Kassir, he said.
And he had the credibility and the thoughtfulness to reach out to rivals, he added.
Omar said the monitoring of his father’s phone had started nearly eight years ago, and he had received numerous threats in the interim, saying that there was “hard evidence” for the surveillance.
During the last two years, he spent two months outside of Lebanon after receiving warnings from Lebanese intelligence services.
But Omar said his father did not take necessary precautions.
“He had an attitude which is that if they want to get me, they’ll get me,” he said.
“He thought to himself that his opponents will be too busy doing other stuff to pay attention to him. And I think that was his weakness,” he added. “That’s what killed him.”
When asked whether he trusted the investigation into his father’s death, he chuckled.
“Do I have a choice?”
While there are investigators on the ground that seemed to him genuine, he doesn’t believe there is the will to pursue the case to the end.
“What I don’t trust is our institutions and politicians’ willingness to follow through on evidence or any prosecution,” he said, criticizing discussions around politics and the formation of a new Cabinet during the funeral and in Tripoli, where the family received condolences.
“The fact that they are thinking of those things as opposed to really what just happened says to me that they don’t have their eye on the ball,” he said.
“As it relates to bringing justice for my father’s assassination, I don’t have full faith in their commitment to seeking justice,” he added.
Omar said investigators had good leads as to who might be behind the attack, and urged the media and public to press the case with the authorities leading the investigation.
He said that some of the initiatives his father worked on “were strategically dangerous to certain groups.”
One initiative stands out to him – a letter to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that his father had drafted and that Omar had proofread.
The letter was an attempt at reaching out to the new Iranian president, on the back of a rapprochement with the West.
Omar had suggested in a conversation with his father that he ought to reach out to contacts in Saudi Arabia and propose a rapprochement with Iran, and his father had agreed.
Omar decided to release the letter to a friend who worked at the Wall Street Journal half an hour after the bombing. His father had planned on seeking the signatures of March 14’s parliamentarians.
“I don’t think the letter is what killed him,” he said.
“I think he was thinking along those lines. He was thinking how to make the Lebanese case to Iran, how to capitalize on this rarefied or imagined or true rift in Iran within these different groups, and how to capitalize on American rapprochement, and I think that was seen as a threat in particular by certain groups here, in the region and in Iran.”
Nina, the minister’s widow and Omar’s mother, said that she expressed worries when he showed her the letter of danger toward the March 14 parliamentarians who signed it. But her husband, just a couple of days before his death, said he would have to take the risk.
“He said well, there is a light somewhere,” she said. “We have to reach it even if it is half of 1 percent of a chance.”
Nina dismissed suggestions that his death was related to the upcoming trial of four Hezbollah suspects at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon over the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
“He was the man of the future of Lebanon,” she said. “Not to be elected as prime minister or what have you. They saw in him, this man, the engine that would never stop. They decided to stop him because they saw in him the moderate, eloquent, precise in his words.”
“To kill Lebanon, to kill anyone, anywhere who ever thought Lebanon would stand on its feet,” she said.
That Lebanon, his family said, was just that. A normal Lebanon.
“He used to love watching the marathon and he would look at it on television and say this could be anywhere, you know? He was so happy to see people just being people,” Omar said.
Nina gestured toward the view of the sea from the family’s home in an apartment building in Hamra.
“He would sit in his place and look around and say, what are you complaining about?” she said. “Can you ever see this beautiful sea sitting in your living room? Look at the mountains, at these nice people. You are surrounded by hospitality.”
The family recalled ideas he often shared, not all of them practical. He hated, for instance, that Lebanese police forces dressed in intimidating military fatigues. He would hold round tables for advisers from different political groups in Lebanon whose superiors were not talking to each other to share ideas.
The family said they were disappointed at the shouting and sloganeering at the funeral, saying the former minister was a “peaceful man.” And had he died a normal death, they would have buried him in his hometown of Tripoli, Nina said.
He is buried now in the same tent as Hariri, next to intelligence chief Wissam al-Hasan.
Omar said his father was always troubled by bombings and assassinations, but their sheer number had led to a normalization.
“I too had normalized the killing. In Dahiyeh [Beirut’s southern suburb], 20 people die or 15 people die, each one of them is a father, mother, son, daughter,” he said. “For families, there is no difference between them and my father.”
Normalcy was the same impetus behind his father’s leading role in drafting Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war on Lebanon, to bring a normal life to all of Lebanon.
He said that he did not blame people seeking solace and partying on New Year’s Eve, just days after the bombing. “I can totally understand the psychology of frustration and wanting to move on with their lives.”
But he added that people must not accept the status quo.
When asked what he thought of accusations that Syria and its allies in Lebanon killed his father, Omar said there was “logic” to the assertion.
But he said it did not make sense to blame an entire sect, “a stupid nonstarter and an insult,” or a whole organization because many have power centers and competing agendas within them.
“In the interest of finding a way to move forward by living together, I would operationalize the accusations and suspicions to the key people involved,” he said.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say this group or that group, or Hezbollah, killed my father,” he said.
“I would try to limit it to the people who executed, coordinated and ordered the attack, not make it the whole group.”
Deciding to accuse an entire organization, such as Hezbollah, is not pragmatic and does not serve the cause of coexistence, he said.
“It’s a baseless accusation that is not pragmatic. You scored a few points with your audience and preached to the choir,” he said.
A way forward would be to identify specific, individual culprits, providing rivals a way out.
As he recalled his father’s lessons of loyalty to Lebanon the country, regardless of the government in power, Omar said what he would miss the most would be “having someone to go to when I have a tough decision to make.”
Nina chokes up as she, too, recalls his love for Lebanon.
“For the last eight or nine months, I consistently complained that we should leave the country. What did he tell me? ‘This bubble we are living in is the best I could ever find. It is my bubble, I’m enjoying it,’” she said.
“He had a tour of this bubble when he died, in these few square kilometers, from Hamra to Downtown, he got buried in the deep heart of this bubble, in central Beirut,” she said. “He was so joyful when he was there.”
“He was the father, the husband, the man, the superman and hero for us,” she added.