It’s not easy to write something fresh about the late Ghassan Tueni. The prerogative of men like him, who have filled up large, invigorating spaces in Lebanon’s modern history, is to have their complicated lives grounded down to more manageable and mundane generality. Yet what was most unnerving about Tueni’s death was that he took with him a large fragment of our idealized past.
I would wager that it was the photographs of Tueni that caught the rapt attention, and envy, of most readers as they read his obituaries. Here were celluloid windows into a Lebanon of another time, one which we are reminded has been lost forever, peopled by the founding generation of our unsettled republic – Tueni, Raymond Edde, Bishara al-Khoury, Camille Chamoun, Kamal Jumblatt, Fouad Chehab, Saeb Salam and many others – all men of the world, a cigarette or cigar in hand, for whom power seemed to bring especial vigor, standing in lustrous black and white contrast to the degraded grays of today.
How real is this image? Lebanon’s old political class was a more interesting collection than what we now have. But there is also much exaggeration. When even Tueni’s photos from the Civil War years elicit tremors of nostalgia, we can assume that this says more about our present frame of mind than about the existence of any golden age.
Ghassan Tueni lived a life of hyperreality. In him the differences between fact and representation were frequently blurred. His personal suffering became an absolute representation of suffering; his passion for journalism and politics became the unconditional form for such passion; and his myriad ambiguities and contradictions became the essence of ambiguity and contradiction, pointless to disentangle.
In trying to draw a straight line through Tueni’s life, many commentators missed the point. Yes, he was a man of visceral liberty, but could also be an autocratic father to his newspaper. He was a believer in God, and yet his fierce struggle for life, when all those around him were dying, revealed underlying doubts about what came afterward. He was the most ecumenical of men, and yet his affirmation as a Greek Orthodox could be overpowering. And Tueni was a man of genuine integrity, but also someone drawn to the roguishness and hardness of politics and politicians – to that other side of himself that proved so essential in preparing for the political, professional and personal trials that he faced for decades on end.
There was great substance to Tueni, but no assessment would be complete without an allusion to style. It is to his style that the Lebanese tended to react most intensely, in the same way that so many non-Lebanese admirers did. For Ghassan Tueni, style became a part of his aura, therefore a vital component of his influence. There may have been an element of vanity in his splendidly cut suits, his striped ties, the golden ring on his little finger, and the leonine hair, but it really was far more than that; these were the natural complements of a man who best embodied the refinement and worldliness we have come to project onto our earlier generations.
My first real contact with Tueni came at a day-long conference in 1993 organized by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies for the 50th anniversary of Lebanon’s Independence. The conference brought together authors who had written papers for a magazine that I then edited, The Beirut Review. No one expected Tueni to stay for more than the 15 minutes necessary to present his text. Instead, he spent the entire day, and it was a hot day, shedding his jacket, rolling up his sleeves, and briskly commenting on his colleagues’ manuscripts.
Style aside, this was plainly someone who was moved, above all, by ideas, by the energies that interaction released. Nothing is more tedious than people who dislike other people, or more heartening than those who are the contrary. Tueni was always a valuable guide into Lebanon’s past, whether factual or imagined, precisely because (though he practiced an often solitary profession) he needed to circulate among people and thrived in a life watered by society.
Some deaths take with them an era, and that was true of Ghassan Tueni’s. Many prominent Lebanese have died in recent years, among them Tueni’s son Gebran. Ghassan himself had been ill for years, his body bent in half, his liveliness slowly fading, and his consciousness not nearly as quickly. Yet at this moment in our national history, his death sounds a note of terrible finality, stirs up an ominous sense that Lebanon is on its own as it heads into an indefinite future.
In their darkest hours, the Lebanese could always fall back on their romanticized past for fortification. But that undervalued exercise only works when those embodying the past are still among us. Ghassan Tueni is no longer. As one of the last to go, he leaves us hanging in a netherworld of sorts, striving to find a part of ourselves in old photographs.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.