The story began in September 2015, when waves of Syrian refugees poured into Germany and I went to collect some of the accounts of newcomers, especially those who risked their lives using the “death boats” to reach Europe.
The scenes were painful and the stories agonizing. I did not find a better title for the first episode of my investigation other than what a young man who came on the dangerous boat trip told me, as he seemed very relieved having succeeded in resigning from his homeland and its horrors.
I asked him about his condition and he replied: “Excellent. Three meals a day, sleep without fear, no Baath no ISIS.” I wrote that the Syrians, who used to believe their country was a key player in the region, are now discovering that it has become an arena for interventions and militias.
As soon as I published my article, my phone rang. The caller said: “My brother Ghassan. You don’t know the magnitude of the pain that you have caused me today, and you certainly understand the difficulty of being a Syrian these days, and at the same time, to be a journalist who has been observing for years that the policy of oppression is accumulating the factors of explosion.”
Ghassan Imam was the son of a generation that committed great dreams. Dreams for his country, his nation and his professionGhassan Charbel
The caller was Journalist and Writer Ghassan Imam. He said that the Syrian man’s delight in finding three meals at a shelter in Germany had broken his heart.
He said that the Syrians were subjected to unprecedented humiliation both on their land and in the tents and shelters they throw themselves and their families into, despite the noble feelings of the host countries.
He expressed his fear that the developments in Syria would be more severe than the country can withstand and that wars on its territory would end not only with the most terrible humanitarian disaster after World War II but also with the destruction of its unity and the manipulation of its identity.
“I did not call you just because I suffered as I read the stories of the fugitives from Syrian hell. I also contacted you for professional reasons. As a Syrian, I liked the fact that the editor-in-chief of a leading newspaper would go personally to interview the refugees, while the prevailing mentality today is to assign one of the newspaper’s writers with that task. Newspapers are the memory of peoples. Their news and investigations provide the historian with data upon which he could rely after reviewing and verifying it. We will not have a sophisticated Arab press if the aspirations of journalists are limited to conveying answers to officials, whatever the size of their positions.”
I was moved by the telephone call of Ghassan Imam, who belongs to an older generation than mine. A generation that we read in the beginning of our press work; that we agreed and disagreed with, but learned a lot from.
I remembered that conversation when I was informed days ago during my travel that the heart of Ghassan Imam betrayed him a few months after he stopped writing.
More than a year ago, I returned to Asharq Al-Awsat and Ghassan Imam hurried to contact me. But fate decided that the period of deepening dialogue and affection would be painful for the writer, who enriched the opinion pages in this newspaper for decades.
There are details that Ghassan Imam’s readers have the right to know. In the last months of 2017, he called me. He said he was tired and had cancer and wanted to stop writing. I felt confused. But I was afraid to encourage him to do so for my concerns over him. I knew he was living alone with his papers, pencils, woes and memories. When a sick writer says he wants to stop writing, it means he wants to dedicate his time to waiting for the end.
I told him that it was not right for a writer to resign. I told him that as a reader of his articles and not as the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, I am asking him to go on. After the discussion, he agreed to carry on.
In the first week of this year he sent his last article. He called and said: “For me, writing has become torture that I can no longer endure. I do not hide that I have entered the last chapter.” I interrupted him trying to take the conversation to another direction. But he insisted. “This is my last article,” he said. “I hope you take appropriate administrative measures for this situation.”
My response was that Asharq Al-Awsat’s relationship with its writers was never a captive of administrative procedures. And that the newspaper was proud of those who lit up its pages and that the loyalty bond between them was more important than the terms of a work contract.
I did not have a choice but to accept his request to stop writing. I asked him to visit his readers when his health conditions permit. He replied: “It seems that I have only a few months to live. In any case, Asharq Al-Awsat has always been my home, my window and my honor. I have only written about my conviction in my long battle against injustice and domination. I might have sometimes exaggerated. And perhaps I have hurt someone unintentionally. I have not intend to harm anyone, but injustice was long and cruel.”
Ghassan Imam was the son of a generation that committed great dreams. Dreams for his country, his nation and his profession. Dreams of justice and freedom together… which are very difficult to achieve in the republics of fear, anxiety and cruelty. Like all the sons of his generation, he saw his dreams crumble and whenever he tried to take shelter in a castle, the latter was uprooted by the winds.
He wrote to express his criticism and discontent. We understood through his articles the difficult Arab struggle, especially in the 1950s and 1960s; the thorny relations between Baathists and Nasserites; and the deadly relations within the Baathist movement and between generals and civilians.
In his “Shells and Pearls” column, he used to write profiles on public figures with a colorful and sarcastic pen. How difficult it is for a writer to apologize for not sending his article because the General of Darkness is attacking his heart and moving forward to cut the thread of love and light that connects him to his readers.
This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.
Ghassan Charbel is the Editor-in-Chief of London-based Al Sharq al-Awsat newspaper. Ghassan’s Twitter handle is @GhasanCharbel.