Abu Said Aburish

Grand old man of the 'Time' Beirut bureau
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The Independent Online

Mohammed Khalil Aburish (Abu Saïd Aburish), journalist: born Bethany, Palestine 1 May 1909; staff, Time 1952-89; married 1934 Soraya Shahine (died 1989; five sons, two daughters); died Seattle, Washington 3 May 2005.

Abu Saïd Aburish became part of the plot, during the Arab Revolt of 1936 against British rule in Palestine, to assassinate District Governor Hugh Foot. The plan was to shoot Foot as he left his residence in the morning. Fortunately for Foot, who later as the British United Nations ambassador Lord Caradon would be the author of the famous UN Resolution 242 of 1967, British military intelligence learned of the conspiracy.

Foot would watch Aburish ride his bicycle around and around the house waiting for his chance to strike. When Aburish was safely at the back of the house, Foot went to his car. Eventually, Aburish gave up. He later referred to himself as "the most inept assassin in history". Shortly afterwards, he left the underground to become a journalist. He pursued this career until his retirement from Time magazine, where he was the Beirut bureau's grand old man for 37 years, in 1989.

He was born Mohammed Khalil Aburish in Bethany, Palestine, in 1909, the third son of the village chief, Khalil Aburish. Khalil was described by Mohammed's oldest son Saïd Aburish, in his autobiographical Children of Bethany (1988), as an old rogue who made a fortune showing Christian pilgrims around the tomb of Lazarus.

Mohammed attended a local school in Bethany and, despite being a Muslim, the Catholic Collège des Frères in Jerusalem. In 1934 he married Soraya Shahine. Her father, Dr Musa Shahine, advised Mufti Haj Amin Husseini, leader of the Arab Higher Committee, during a time of increasing tension between native Palestinian Arabs and European Jewish settlers. From the time their first son, Saïd, was born, Mohammed was known exclusively as Abu ("Father of") Saïd. They had four more sons and two daughters.

A favourite of the Mufti's, Abu Saïd Aburish undertook occasional assignments - like the feeble attempt on Hugh Foot - for the Arab nationalists. He and two friends opened the Orient Taxi Company, the first telephone taxi firm in the Middle East. As a taxi driver, Aburish met many foreign journalists and the Mufti asked him to explain the Palestinian cause to them.

Aburish became a journalist himself, working as an assistant to the legendary O'Dowd Gallagher of the Daily Mail. "O.D.", as he liked to sign his articles, was a tireless campaigner whose signature still hangs on the wall of Fink's Bar in west Jerusalem. Aburish also spent time at Fink's Bar. Its gentleman owner, David Rothschild, used to recall him fondly, long after Aburish had moved to Beirut in the wake of the 1948 war that created Israel and dispossessed most of Palestine's Arabs. The Daily Mail sacked him when its editors learned that the reason he had been able to scoop his colleagues over the story of the bombing of the Palestine Post was that he knew about it beforehand.

In Beirut, Aburish fared better than most of the other Palestinian refugees. The New York Times hired him to assist its correspondent there. He moved to Newsweek, when the magazine asked him to open its Beirut bureau. He concluded that one Newsweek staffer was in fact working for the CIA, so he switched to Time magazine.

From 1952 to 1989, Time relied on Aburish for continuity, contacts and stories under a succession of bureau chiefs, including James Bell, John Mecklin and Karsten Prager. He made his home in the bar of the luxurious waterfront Hôtel St Georges, where he watched Kim Philby come in on the arm of the New York Times correspondent's wife shortly before he defected with her to the Soviet Union. His son Saïd recalled the journalists, spies, diplomats and politicians who hatched their Cold War plots there in his book The Hotel St George Bar (1989).

Abu Saïd Aburish was responsible for most of Time's Middle East scoops from the 1950s through the 1980s. When he uncovered a plot by his old mentor, Haj Amin Husseini, to kill King Abdullah of Jordan, his friendship with the Mufti did not prevent his reporting the story for Time. Aburish beat even his daily competitors with the story of a British attempt to assassinate the Syrian president, Colonel Hosni Zaim, to effect a union with Hashemite Iraq. He also hid the would-be assassin in his house. In 1963, the Lebanese authorities arrested him on suspicion of abetting an attempted coup d'état in Beirut. The charges were later dropped. Aburish had known the coup plotters, as he did most of the main players in the Middle East - from Saudi Arabia's King Faisal to the young Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Already the friend of the fathers of most of the Palestinian nationalists who established themselves in Beirut in the 1970s, Aburish was well placed to report on their activities. He persuaded Time's editors to put Yasser Arafat on the magazine's cover in 1969.

His private diplomacy led to the first meetings between US and Palestine Liberation Organisation officials in 1973. President Richard Nixon had appointed William Scranton, the former Pennsylvania governor, as a Middle East envoy following the Arabs' acceptance of the Secretary of State William Rogers's plan to end the war of attrition that followed Arab defeat by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.

Scranton's brother-in-law was James Linen, president of Time Inc and an old friend of Aburish. Linen advised Scranton to contact Aburish, who promptly set up meetings for the American. Scranton reported back that the PLO demands were modest and maintained contact for three years, to Israeli fury. It was said that, had the US recognised the PLO then and forced Israel to negotiate with Arafat, the Lebanese civil war and Israel's invasion of Lebanon might have been avoided.

Aburish befriended me in 1974, when Karsten Prager made me Time's bureau stringer. His distinctive, husky voice guided me through the labyrinth of Palestinian politics that were as tribal as they were ideological. When you were at his table in the Hôtel St Georges bar, you knew you had arrived as a Middle East journalist.

He remained in Beirut throughout the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion of 1982. In 1989, his wife died and Time was losing interest in Beirut. Abu Saïd Aburish decided to retire and moved to Seattle, where his son Wagieh had settled.

Abu Saïd made his daytime hangout at the Hotel Alexis. It was only fitting. The doorman, Mohammed, had been head doorman at the St Georges. Abu Saïd felt very much at home.

Charles Glass

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