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If men and women began to live their ephemeral dreams, every phantom would become a person with whom to begin a story of pursuits, pretenses, misunderstandings, clashes, oppressions, and the carousel of fantasies would stop.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
THE PEOPLE GATHER at the top of Martyrs Square, near where, some weeks earlier, he had addressed those demanding that the Syrian army leave Lebanon. It is June 4, 2005, and the procession—large but not nearly as large as the journalist Samir Kassir deserves—is there to accompany him in the one starring role (his brashness notwithstanding) that he would have surely preferred to delay.
Two days earlier—it was nearly 11 A.M.—Kassir had sat down in his silver Alfa Romeo in an eastern Beirut neighborhood. One or several people were watching him and detonated a bomb under his car, killing Kassir instantly.
At that moment a great deal was ended: the biting pen of one of Lebanon’s most daring political commentators and a scholar of the modern Middle East; but also the venomous antagonism between Kassir and a Lebanese intelligence official, who a few years earlier had had the writer harassed after being criticized in two impertinent articles. The bullying continued to the end. When he was killed, Kassir was about to pick up a bodyguard—really more a burly driver accompanying him about town.
Not long after Kassir’s assassination, the intelligence official was on the front page of the daily Al-Hayat peddling his version of events in a ten-part interview, as he defended a career brusquely terminated because of the Syrian pullout in April 2005. With his patrons gone, it was said that Major General Jamil al-Sayyed spent much time at the beach—an anteroom to irrelevance for a man moved by the tremors of authority and intrigue. But then things changed. Within weeks the beachcomber had become a jailbird, one of four Lebanese security and intelligence officials arrested as suspects in the February 14 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, Lebanon’s onetime prime minister. Hariri’s killing had prompted weeks of demonstrations against Syria at Martyrs Square, leading to the Syrian departure, Damascus being the prime suspect, indeed the only one, in the crime.
Kassir’s funeral procession makes its way toward Nijmeh Square in Beirut’s downtown area, the location of parliament and the Greek Orthodox St. Georges Church, where the requiem mass will be celebrated. A dozen or so members of the Democratic Left movement, to which Kassir belonged, hold up the casket at arms’ length. Someone shouts, “Applaud the hero,” and we applaud, because Kassir was nothing if not a superior performance. In the Lebanese tradition, when a young man dies, the funeral is often conducted as a wedding never had. There are horns and mourners feigning happiness, while a white casket, usually open, is pumped up and down by pallbearers in a wild salsa of death. Kassir’s casket is being made to dance too, but this is no commemoration of aborted youth. Married twice, with two daughters, Kassir has instead been transformed into a medium of rage, his coffin waved angrily at the doors of parliament—though why parliament is not clear. There is something unbecoming about it all: the manipulation of a dead man; the immoderation that permeates Lebanese grief; a vague sense that the ceremony might dissolve into mayhem. But there is also a sense that this funeral means something, whether Beirut’s streets are packed with onlookers or not.
As I walk toward the church, I see an old man hunched over, framed by a breach in the crowd. It is the newspaper publisher Ghassan Tueni, who hired Kassir in the early 1990s to come work for Al-Nahar, Lebanon’s leading Arabic-language daily. I greet Tueni, who responds with polite absence. The man who has serenaded into the grave most of the prominent Lebanese of the past half-century, who would do the same to his own son, Gebran, six months later, knows that this particular burial reverses the order of things. Kassir was a protÉgÉ, a taxing protÉgÉ for never shying away from a fight, but who was kept on the newspaper’s front page even as he used his column to tear into the prohibitions bolstering Syria’s order in Lebanon. Tueni was at ease with provocation, could rarely abide the smugness of power even as he searched power out, and likely heard in Kassir reverberations of his own effrontery. He stands defeated. I recall that the day before he mumbled a four-word fragment when asked what Kassir’s death meant: “. . . the great Arab prison.”
In an interview with Kassir in June 2004, I asked him whether he thought Lebanon had a message to offer, even though the values of the republic had been vandalized during the years of Syrian hegemony. “I don’t know,” he answered, “but I am sure the Lebanese deserve a better future. At least they deserve to find their own way, in accordance with a rich history that cannot be reduced merely to violence. Yes, we were a laboratory for violence, but we were also, before that, a laboratory for modernity, and in some ways we still are.”
It is a paradox, one intimately understandable to the Lebanese, that the secular, worldly Kassir is to be buried in the ancient rites of the Greek Orthodox Church. The mass begins, but it is the marginalia that draws attention: the late arrival of Saad al-Hariri, the son of Rafiq al-Hariri, greeted by clapping, chased by the hissing of those annoyed with the interruption; the placement of Lebanon’s grandees to determine which politician is sharing a pew with which ambassador; who is around the coffin and who is not. Then comes the ambulatory, slurred eulogy of Bishop George Khodr, also a weekly fixture of Al-Nahar’s front page, reaffirming the church’s dominion over the service.
Ghassan Tueni’s granddaughter reads a tribute that brings on another ovation. Kassir’s former colleague from the Democratic Left, Elias Atallah, follows, but just as he’s about to make a political statement, he is stopped by one of those anonymous dwellers of Lebanese sacristies. Atallah hesitates; he’s been thrown off his stride. No one listens to what comes next. The scene moves to handshakes of sympathy for the family, a disquieting moment after the church has been emptied when the casket is opened for a last look, the procession to the Cemetery of St. Dmitri, only a short walk from Kassir’s home, and his burial in an elevated family vault in the last aisle to the left behind the church, the closing of a story half-read on a humid Saturday at the start of a grimy Lebanese summer.
Theories circulated as to who was behind the blast. One was that Kassir made a good mark because he had close ties to the Syrian opposition and access to Arab satellite channels through his wife, Giselle Khoury, a prominent journalist at the Al-Arabiya station. He also had French citizenship, as well as Lebanese, so his death may have been a message to France to back off from its antagonism toward the Syrian regime—at least that was how French officials perceived it. According to one of Kassir’s friends, his murder was a more general warning: Lebanon must no longer threaten stability in Damascus as it did during the 1950s and ’60s, when Beirut hosted the region’s exiles, becoming a nerve center for coups and malcontents of every stripe. To Kassir’s wife he paid the price because he had designed a poster for the demonstrations organized after Hariri’s killing, demanding the ouster of seven Lebanese officials, including Sayyed, all shown with dour demeanor, an X drawn through their faces.
Were the theories too convenient? Perhaps, but they were also quickly made irrelevant. The moment Kassir was killed, it was his outspokenness, and his outspokenness from the ramparts of his own city, that gave meaning to his death. The Lebanese had believed that the Syrian withdrawal offered them a new start. Kassir himself had recently been imbibing extra doses of optimism, a narcotic he never lacked in the first place, and presumed that the time of telephoned intimidation was almost over. Yet in his death was a warning that little had changed, that there were those who would fight Lebanon’s liberal instincts, after months when those instincts were at the heart of efforts by the Lebanese to shake themselves free of Syria. Kassir had played a leading role in that shaking off. He had also been realistic about its limitations, so that his death affirmed that liberalism set free was also liberalism threatened, because it was itself threatening.
For all the abstract things Samir was to Lebanon, he was also, and quite incidentally, a friend of mine. I first met him at the old offices of Al-Nahar on Hamra Street in 1993, soon after his return from Paris. We mentioned squash and not long afterward began playing together in a run-down club near the remains of a Roman aqueduct in a Beirut suburb. Neither of us was any good, and when we weren’t slashing at thin air, we could at least survey the bird’s nest in the top corner of the court. The aqueduct would later hold meaning for me because Samir mentioned it in his last book, a history of Beirut. It supplied the Roman city with water and Samir’s noticing it was an early step in his mentally reassembling the country he had spent years away from and would later embody better than most.
Samir’s passage from those early days back in Beirut to his murder had many turns, yet also followed a straight line in that what he wrote, as George Orwell put it to describe his own motivations, came from a “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” In his more academic works, particularly his published doctoral thesis on the Lebanese civil war, S...
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