Obituary: Henri Pharoun

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The Independent Online
Henri Pharoun, politician, racehorse owner, collector: born Alexandria, Egypt 1901; married 1922 Nawalli Kassar (one son); died Beirut 6 August 1993.

NOTHING about Henri Pharoun so ill became his life as the way in which he departed it. A founder of Lebanon's independence, a multi-millionaire stable owner and antique collector, lawyer, banker and linguist, the 92-year-old champion of coexistence between Muslims and Christians was discovered yesterday morning, repeatedly stabbed with a knife in the bedroom of a cut-rate Beirut hotel. He had lived there for the past 18 months, deeply embittered at the sale of his family palace by his only son to a Saudi prince.

His treasures included one of the five letters allegedly written by the Prophet Muhammad on deerskin, the finest series of Roman and Greek statues in Lebanon and one of the first Lebanese flags, stitched in 1941 and whose red, white and cedar-tree design he himself devised. For 30 years, he ran Beirut's port authority - jobs were awarded without religious discrimination - but his greatest love remained the racetrack; he owned the largest racing stable of Arabian horses anywhere. 'The horse racetrack and the port are the main bastions of coexistence that ensures Lebanon's survival,' he told race-goers in 1990 before breaking down in tears.

Born in Alexandria, Pharoun was brought up by an English nanny - his English was flawless although he also spoke French and Italian as well as his native Arabic - and was educated at French missionary schools in Beirut before attending college in Switzerland and studying law in France. At the age of only 21, he married a Palestinian heiress, Nawalli Kassar, whose beauty was compared by her friends to that of the young Rita Hayworth.

But he was a lonely man whose later private life was often the subject of gossip in Beirut. In a part of the world where discussion of such matters is still taboo, Pharoun was known to be a homosexual and the Lebanese police believe that a private relationship may have been the cause of the old man's murder. He spent his later years in his palace alone, guarded by a mastiff almost half his height, surrounded by the Delft tiles, 15th-century Damascene ceilings and antique carpets which he had collected across the Middle East. He stayed on in his front-line Gothic-style keep throughout the shell-fire of the civil war, his garden lined with Roman and Greek sarcophagi.

Despite his opposition to French rule, he was a Westerner at heart, founding the pro-European, non-Arab Mediterranean Party in 1949 when the Lebanese were fiercely debating their national identity - Western or Arab - in a contest which would, less than three decades later, detonate Lebanon's 15-year civil war. Throughout that conflict, Pharoun, bent double over a cane, his eyes shielded by thick black glasses, said his obsession was to see race-horses competing in Beirut again. 'I want to see them running again before I die,' he would tell visitors. He got his wish in 1990. He is survived by his son Naji and by the Lebanese bank which he founded and which still bears his family name.