A lesson in humility and the final bullet

Ghassan Charbel

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Here you are again standing at the end of the year. You have no choice but to turn the page. You only have one bullet in your gun and have no choice but to shoot. The final day of the year. A year of your life has just ended.

At the end of each year, I have a habit of heading to a bookstore in the city I happen to be in at the time. I have learned that the journalist must stand before the treasures of a bookstore. It is a lesson he must retain in order to maintain humility and confront the illusions of the profession.

The bookstore informs you that you happen to know so little and that you have to keep seeking more knowledge. At best, your contribution will be nothing more than a drop in a turbulent ocean. News often fades hours after it breaks out. Articles have a shorter lifespan and die before sunset.

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The bookstore defies you with its treasures and classics. It reminds you of men who gambled their lives under the delusion that their experiences will stave off the sword of time. What pretty delusions. It gives these individuals the challenge of trying.

A lesson in humility. The shelves hold names that have stood the test of time. They have reached the age of Twitter where short sentences shoot out like spears.

The bookstore defies you with its treasures and classics. It reminds you of men who gambled their lives under the delusion that their experiences will stave off the sword of time

Ghassan Charbel

In awe

I am in awe at how a poem can pierce a body like a spear. Here is al-Mutanabbi, who sits in the bookstore as if he owns the place. He laughs at the ever-changing authors on the shelves, while he remains.

I am in awe at the ability of a novel written in the 19th century to keep you up at night. I am in awe of the French or Russian author’s ability to speak to the youth two centuries after penning their works. I am also in awe of unyielding pioneering men, who launched the Renaissance without heeding the dark forces around them.

I am very grateful to individuals who spend their lives trying to uncover new details in the lives of men who changed the world. They spend years attempting to put on trial again the likes of Stalin, de Gaulle, Mao, Saddam, Gaddafi and Kim, whether to exonerate or condemn them again. A critique of the past is necessary in order to refresh the minds and memories.

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I asked the young vendor about new books. How nice it is to find a new book. She pointed me to them and lamented that the young generation “does not read.” This is not true. They are the sons of a different time.

They read in a different way, whether on their smartphone, book-reader or social media. This is perhaps why a trip to a bookstore sometimes feels like a farewell visit. In the future, it may not look the way it does now. It is destined to keep abreast the new readers, their culture and habits. The new authors also share this same fate.

I left the bookstore and the taxi driver took me passed Hamra Street where I saw the As Safir newspaper building shrouded in darkness. I was saddened by the sight. I can still see the teary face of its editor-in-chief and friend Talal Salman.

Losing patience

Nothing is more painful than losing your voice. I passed by the Dar al-Hayat building, where I had worked. I also found a dark building. Such a good work experience deserves a better ending.

I passed by the An Nahar building and was happy to see that its lights were still on under the brave leadership of editor-in-chief Nayla Tueni as the industry confronts the technological revolution.

I worked at An Nahar after graduating from university. It was a strict environment. A news article is one thing, an oped is another. You have no room for error. If you do, you should never do it again. I learned to be accurate in my descriptions, concise in my headlines. You are allowed to use your imagination without misleading the reader.

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You are not allowed to use the space given to you to settle scores or for defamation. Your duty is to always respect the law, the reader’s intelligence and the image of the newspaper. Heading to the newspaper was like visiting the bookstore on a daily basis. Ghassan Tueni was good at discovering talented youth. He did not fear promising rising stars, but instead pushed them to do better.

On my way back home, I passed the dark Dar Assayyad building. Decades at an institution established by Saeed Freiha came to an end. Al Anwar also became dark and I can still see the tears of its editor-in-chief and friend Rafik Khoury. Nothing is more difficult than losing your voice.

The problem with journalism in Lebanon is the same in all countries. Sadness and elegies will not help resolve it. It has no choice but to join the massive revolutions. Newspapers do not die. They come back in new modern forms. No one has the right to close the door to the other’s freedom of expression. Change is difficult and needs a strong will, imagination and new mentalities.

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.

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