The heart aches proudly when you see them, our knights of the 1920s and 30s, refusing to dismount as if they were on a quest or a journey. Although their lives were full of disappointments they never gave up. They lived independently, proud of their heritage, resisting pressure from external forces and Zu’ama and holding their heads high. They had a dream of a nation that, they knew very well, may never flourish. Assem Salam is one of those professional, honorable, quiet and steady knights who exhibited and practiced chivalry as a professor at the university, in his architects’ office, as President of Lebanon’s Order of Engineers and Architects, and in every aspect of his life. Mighty like the cedars of Lebanon, jubilant like Egypt, audacious and polite like the nobles of the Round Table, rebellious like Algeria, civilized and cultured like Sumer, Assem Salam is a Shami Arabist, an aristocrat, a commoner and universal citizen who has an ever-present smile for us even in the bleakest of times.
Assem Salam is in hospital, a restless patient and an unyielding knight. His mid-nineteenth century house is still in Zqaq el-Blat- Batrakieh, surrounded by dominating towers of hideous concrete, as if his big heart of gold and the architectural nostalgia he has for Beirut insisted on keeping this house as a witness to an era of hunger, greed and oil. As if he is telling us: this is how I think and how you too should think. But as usual, his words fell on deaf ears in the Council for Development and Reconstruction, the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, the Ministry of Housing and even the Order of Engineers. Neither in A’anjar, nor in Parliament or the Cabinet did they listen to him.
“There are people in Lebanon who are above and beyond positions and posts”, he told Abd Halim Khaddam, Ghazi Kanaan, Rustom Ghazali and their followers at all times. Being blacklisted by them was a beacon of light, not a dread to him and a glimmer of hope for this country. He was forbidden from taking a post, for this would have been a threat to the so-called “investors” and “slave traders” of this country as well as Solidere. Unfortunately, those who do not play their Sunni-Beirut card may not be blessed with a moment of peace and tranquility. A noble friend of the late Nassib Lahoud and Walid Jumblat, after the 2005 demonstrations against Syria, he did not hesitate to state when the demonstrators denounced the Syrian enemy: “Calls for Lebanon’s independence from the Syrian tutelage and positions against the practices of Syrian and pro-Syrian officials were distorted by the March 14 Forces themselves due to their sectarian divisions and racist feeling towards the Syrian presence in the country”. (The Monthly’s issue no. 67 of March 2008)
On another occasion, he told a diplomat at the American Embassy in Beirut: “Banning certain Lebanese from entering your country simply because they expressed their opinion is a kind of oppression nowhere near democracy…”. Surprised at his words, she thought that he must be gloating over his tormentors’ punishment, but he proceeded by saying: “Your stance on the Palestinian issue is the problem.” “But you are Lebanese?” she asked, confused. “I am a Palestinian and a Lebanese. And my children are Palestinian,” he answered.
Assem Salam is a fine knight but a bad investor. He is a man of the Renaissance in an era of decline. He is a noble man and I had the privilege of sitting at his round table. The image wouldn’t be complete unless we quote his words on Solidere: “.. Around 135,000 Lebanese, including residents and right holders, were forced to leave the area and denied the right to return, and 85% of the capital’s urban memory was destroyed, which put an end to the history and unifying role of the downtown”. (The Monthly’s issue no. 67 of March 2008)
Assem Salam has never been far from the events and for the hundreds and thousands of us, he himself is the event. He is the custodian of our values. Great men are like eagles. They spread their wings in the winds and soar high in the skies. Assem Salam, you are the eagle and the president of both the Order of Engineers and non-engineers. Assem Bek Salam, it is to you we give the title and the glory. The Cedars of Lebanon, Assi, Dijla and Eupherates know you very well and, together with us, toast you, for aged wine was made for those moments.
Assem Salam is in hospital now but forever in our hearts.
Jawad N. Adra