Samir Sanbar Recounts to Asharq Al-Awsat His Journey from Journalism in Beirut to Working at the UN in New York
Samir Sanbar kicked off his career from Beirut, “the capital of Arab media,” as he describes it. He moved from one newspaper to the other during a time of emerging global ideologies and foreign conflicts that left their impact on the Arab world. He bore witness to the emergence of socialism, whose ideals were adopted by main political parties in the Arab world, ranging from Egypt to Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.
“The majority of crucial decisions come by chance,” says Sanbar, who moved from written media to an office at the United Nations, where he worked with five successive secretary generals throughout three decades. What was his personal experience with each one of them as history played out in the Palestinian territories, Golan Heights, Iranian-Iraqi war and Cold War? Asharq Al-Awsat will release a series of interviews with Sanbar that tackle political history and the media assessment of the UN’s role in making international resolutions and pursuing diplomatic efforts.
- You opted to pursue a career in journalism. In a previous interview, you said “Beirut is the capital of Arab media.” How do you asses your choice? Is Beirut still the capital of Arab media
After many years, I have grown more and more convinced that journalism was the best career for me, even though it may have not been the most profitable. Beirut indeed was the capital of Arab and international media. Foreign journalists who worked there excelled. The most famous Arab writers considered it the platform towards success. Political movements found room there to breathe. Presidents from all over the world used to receive Lebanese newspaper and magazine owners. President Elias Sarkis once said that one of the most important issues discussed at the Arab League was addressing what was reported in Lebanese newspapers. The situation changed in wake of internal conflicts or other parties’ wars in Lebanon, as stated by the late Ghassan Tueni. It seemed they weren’t trying to break Beirut, but to suppress it. Its golden days are gone, but despite all attempts, it will remain a living beacon for free media.
- You worked as a journalist before moving to work for the UN. Tell us what you remember the most about those days.
I recall heading with a group of university students to the Sayyad office in Beirut to present the purpose of peaceful protests. Saeed Franjieh observed us inquisitively and then suggested that I write an article in a clear style that is suitable for publishing. I sat there and wrote what he asked of me. He told me to pass by whenever I felt I had something that would interest the Arab reader.
After graduating, I worked for Dar Al Sayyad in Hazmieh where I was in charge of editing a weekly page. I later started following Arab affairs at the Al-Hayat newspaper. Kamel Mroueh used to encourage me with confident humbleness and a broad smile. Nasri Maalouf welcomed me at the Al-Jarida newspaper. I worked with Salim al-Lawzeh when he launched the al-Hawadith magazine in a modest apartment facing Faroul palace. I came to know Ihsan Abdel Quddous when I worked as a reporter for Rose Al-Yusuf magazine. He used to love visiting Lebanon. He was shy and always loved to listen to personal tales that he turned into successful stories.
- What issues caught your eye during this period?
The main issues I tried to follow was the meaning of “socialism” that attracted many major parties, including the ruling Arab Socialist Union in Egypt under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Arab Socialist Baath Party led by Michel Aflaq, Salaheddine al-Bitar and Akram al-Hawarani in Syria, the National Socialist Party led by Suleiman al-Nabulsi in Jordan, the Arab Socialist Baath Party led by Saleh Habr in Iraq and Lebanon’s Progressive Socialist Party led by Kamal Jumblatt, with whom I formed a humanist and cultural relationship.
- In brief, what is your opinion of the Lebanese politicians whom you met?
Prime Minister Rashid Karami was the keenest of all politicians on public service. President Rene Mouawwad was one of my dearest friends. I learned a lot from Hamid Franjieh and his brother President Suleiman Franjieh. PM Saeb Salam cared for journalists and always asked about how they were doing professionally and personally. President Fuad Chehab was dignified. He ruled over the institutions and was keen on the constitution and the unity of the people. He refused to renew his term and lived off his retirement salary. His wife sometimes did not even have enough money to pay for groceries.
- You started working for the UN in Beirut and later traveled to Arab and foreign capitals. How did you decide to leave journalism and embark on this journey?
The majority of major decisions are taken by chance. One day Mohammed Hassanein Haykal invited me to Cairo and suggested I work as a reporter for the al-Ahram newspaper in Beirut to cover Arab affairs. I was in Rome at the time and was considering the offer when I received an offer for temporary media work at the UN. I was offered to work for three months with the director of the UN office in Europe, based in Geneva. He suggested that I take up temporary work at the UN secretary general’s office in New York.
- What was your first impression of your first visit to the UN headquarters in New York?
I was impressed with the professionalism and humbleness. Throughout my time working as a journalist, I would come across photos of that international building and wonder ‘what happens there?’ It was a chance of a lifetime.
I didn’t know anyone in New York, but the warm welcome I received from colleagues from all over the world left me at ease at the UN headquarters. I headed with my friend Riad Tabbarah to the delegations lobby. I waited for someone to pick up my application. I waited until someone pointed at Henry Kissinger, the national security advisor to US President Richard Nixon, and John Rogers, the secretary of state, who were carrying a tray and heading towards a nearby seat. That was my first international lesson in appropriate behavior.
- You worked with five UN secretary generals throughout three decades, what was your experience with each of them?
Each secretary general led during a different period in history. The UN needs major countries to continue and for small countries to succeed. Every one of them tried to reach an effective balance at the right time.
I worked with U Thant at his personal office. He was humble and confident in dealing with countries, large and small alike. He opposed American military intervention in Vietnam and the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia. I watched him bow only once and that was to kiss his mother’s hand in Rangoon, the capital of his country Burma (now Myanmar). He refused to renew his term and was succeeded by Kurt Waldheim of Austria. Central Europe at the time was caught between the US and Soviet understanding during the ‘Warm War.’
He showed a particular interest in Middle Eastern issues and the situation in the Golan Heights. He sensed a bond between his country and Lebanon. He traveled to the heart of Beirut during the civil war. He stood from among the rubble at the Souk al-Tawileh and asked before the media: ‘What have you done to this beautiful country?’ The first meeting between the UN secretary general and Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat took place in Beirut. The practical goal of the meeting aimed at facilitating the passage of UN forces from Beirut airport to the South. Its symbolic and political goal was garnering international recognition of the PLO. He was the first secretary general to travel to the Gulf region and last official to meet with King Faisal before his untimely assassination. He was received at the airport by then prince of Riyadh and current Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz.
Waldheim’s successor Javier Perez de Cuellar had not closely followed Arab issued before he assumed his post. He believed that crises imposed themselves on the secretary general, not the other way around.
Naturally, I had a special relationship with Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Some tensions had emerged at the beginning of his tenure - and is always the case with any new secretary general - some claimed that I did not heed his leadership. In fact, he requested early on that my work at the UN be terminated. I then met with him and respectfully and calmly explained to him that I was working according to a permanent contract. But I also informed him that since he was the first Arab secretary general, I cared more that he succeed in his new duties. If he believed that I was an obstacle in his way then I willing to terminate my contract on Monday. On Friday, I was surprised when he called me and requested my help in drafting the study, entitled “Peace Agenda,” he had prepared after a Security Council summit. A close relationship was formed on that day and I showed him my complete dedication and loyalty.
Kofi Annan was my colleague and friend for several years. I made it clear to him though that my allegiance was with Boutros-Ghali. I stayed with him until his final day in office and walked out the door with him. I retired during Annan’s term.