BEIRUT: Lama Badreddine Salam reveals that the moment the government of her husband Prime Minister Tammam Salam won the vote of confidence in Parliament, she set herself a goal to make the Grand Serail a meeting point for all Lebanese.
With the help of the Memac Oglivy team in Lebanon and her friend producer Josiane Boulos, Salam came up with the concept of “A Date at the Serail”; a weekly rendezvous held at the prime minister’s headquarters in the Ottoman-era Grand Serail in Downtown Beirut. The weekly afternoon meetings are meant to highlight a wide array of social issues.
“I cherish teamwork, because the solid team we are succeeded in coming up with good ideas and concepts so far,” Salam told The Daily Star during an interview at her elegant quarters in Villa Salam in Beirut’s bustling neighborhood of Moseitbeh. “With full backing from my husband, I wanted the Grand Serail to become a place where all the Lebanese, regardless of age or sect, converge to share agreeable moments.”
In fact, the graceful Salam is the first prime minister’s wife to use the Grand Serail premises as a social hub where dialogue and interaction can abound. Over the past few weeks, orphans, elderly, women entrepreneurs and nurses converged at the Serail to make their voices heard.
“The most heartwarming moments of my life happened when hosting a Date at the Serail,” she says. “I will never forget when women from all backgrounds engaged in a dabke dance during the event to honor the elderly.”
Salam, a francophone, admits that essentially, a Date at the Serail was an activity meant to spread over a limited number of weeks due to belief at the time that the government of Prime Minister Salam was to be short-lived in light of the current presidential election underway.
But now that the election looks to be in limbo, Salam has plans to continue her project. Just ahead on the agenda is a conference on drug abuse, an environment day and a science day.
Salam, a natural beauty, who is often criticized for her “minimalist approach to things,” as she jokingly confides, likes to “escape reality” by reading historical novels. She is an avid reader of the works of Lebanese writers Amin Maalouf and Carol Dagher. “I must admit that I don’t read a much as I used to,” she says. “But reading has certainly been a great escape.”
Salam is not shy to admit that she is still in love with her husband 20 years after they first met.
“I admire him a lot ... actually, I am still madly in love,” she adds.
Although her husband and she do not have kids together, her eyes glow when she tells of their “perfectly united and cohesive” family of five children from their previous marriages.
Of their mixed marriage – she being a Shiite and Salam a Sunni – surviving in light of unprecedented tensions in Lebanon between the two sects, Salam says religion has never been an issue for her, insisting that her husband and she are committed secularists.
“I myself am the child of a Sunni-Shiite marriage,” she notes. “We should do away with all this labeling and pigeonholing; it’s toxic.”
She believes that the Sunni-Shiite divide is purely political. “We are all equal human beings. Sectarianism is so backward.”
Her husband’s gallantry does not perturb Salam one bit, and she says it is a sign of utmost respect.
“You know Tammam pays careful attention to women and their concerns,” she says. “He pays attention to the women around him and is keen on interacting with women. This is not true of all men.”
“You should see how excited he is for the appointment of women in high-ranking positions at the ministries,” she says. The Cabinet Thursday named two women to top posts: Magistrate Mayssam Noueiri became the director-general of the Justice Ministry and Dalal Barakat was named head of the Central Inspection Department.
Salam speaks of the common goals she and her husband share. “We both want to see Lebanese women more empowered and more involved in political life. We work toward making quality education accessible to as many Lebanese girls as possible.”
Of education, the prime minister’s wife knows a lot. Salam, who studied education in the French city of Rouen and is a member of the board of trustees of prestigious school College Louise Wegmann, firmly believes that education is a tool to emancipate and empower women.
“The more educated you are [as a woman], the more knowledge you have, and the more chances you get. If you have the right tools, men will be forced to listen to you and recognize your capacities and role.”