Kamal Salibi: A loss to Lebanon and the Arab intellectual world

By Harry Hagopian
September 5, 2011

There are times when the death of a public figure - whether religious, political, academic or of any other discipline - affects us no matter how close or distant we are from the deceased person.

After all, closeness is not measured solely by the concept of physical real-space or by the time spent with a person, but also by the empathy created from many conversations, by the fusion of ideas or simply by an awareness that one is in the company of a great mind and even a kind heart, perhaps a man or woman of vision, courage or compassion who is also capable of thinking laterally and outside the box at times.

I am sure many of us might well have experienced those precious moments in our own lives. In July 2011, I experienced this tugging feeling twice, once when I learnt that Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Apostolic Nuncio in the USA and someone who helped me immeasurably with his counsel and contacts during the forlorn Oslo years of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, had passed away and then again, when the Rev Dr John Stott, one of the premier teachers within evangelicalism and the man who refused to become a bishop - passed away gently during the very same week too.

For the third time in two months, I experienced yet again those same feelings this week upon the sudden death of Dr Kamal Salibi in Beirut. A renowned academic and historian, he and I 'connected' on the premises of the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies (RIIFS) in Amman, Jordan, during the long and tedious years of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. I often used to visit the RIIFS for my ecumenical work and spend time with my friend and colleague Baker Al-Hiyari.

At the time, Dr Salibi was the founder and director of the institute (whose patron remains HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan), and it was always a pleasure to spend time with him at the institute or in his home chatting away about politics, religion and history. Mind you, as he had been a doctoral student of Bernard Lewis, I consciously avoided discussing the Armenian Genocide with him but we never balked from talking about the Armenian Church or the Armenian communities of the Middle East.

Salibi, a Lebanese Presbyterian Elder and a friend of the good and the great in the Middle East, wrote many books about his native Lebanon. They include The Modern History of Lebanon (1965) and the challenging A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered (1988).

His style reflected his tireless questioning of received ideas and a degree of self-criticism too. In a nutshell, Salibi believed that all the Lebanese had to agree on a common vision of their past before they could attain any level of peaceful relations and a collective national identity - a truly mammoth task at the best of times!

For me though, the book that resulted in many discussions centred round his controversial The Bible Came from Arabia (1985) that shifted the geography of the Bible from Palestine to southern Arabia. In fact, I teased him about the impact of the book only few months ago when we met again in sunny Beirut. And as usual, he gave me a bunch of books to take away.

I will miss his probing mind, his careful studiousness, his impeccable demeanour but also his chuckling sense of humour and his glass of whisky! As someone who worked diligently on inter-religious dialogue, and who showed openness and inclusiveness to the followers of all three Abarahamic faiths, the fact that he passed away during the Muslim ‘Eid el Fitr a few days ago did not escape my notice either.

As one would say in Arabic when mourning a recent death, Allah yerhamo!


© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK) and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net

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