Robert Fisk: I've lost a good, brave, honourable friend

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Tewfik Mishlawi was the first Palestinian to report for The Times.

I was the paper's Middle East correspondent in the early 1980s and had come to admire this tall, humorous man with his giant eyes and deep voice, able to interpret civil war Lebanese politics like a seer. When I signed him up as my "stringer" in Beirut – a "stringer" is the reporter who covers for the full-time correspondent when he's away – The Times was attacked by readers who, in some cases, declared themselves friends of Israel, all of whom told us that a Palestinian would only be writing on behalf of "terrorists". The readers were told to get stuffed.

Tewfik proved so honourable in his coverage, so unwilling to cast blame on anyone even under fire (I especially remember him filing from the awful siege of Zahle in 1981), that I had to call him up and say: "Tewfik, in God's name, tell us who the bad guys are – and say what you fucking well think!"

He once came home, his English wife Phillipa remembers, with a notebook full of instructions. "They have all these words you can't use," he told her. "On The Times, we don't say 'terrorist' unless someone uses the word in quotes." Those were the days. It was a rule that I pushed through on the paper, thus deleting the generic, often racist use of this word. Murdoch's Times has long since rediscovered its usefulness.

So when, last week, an old Lebanese friend told me over lunch that Tewfik had died, I realised that another of those figures who would never die – Tewfik suffered a stroke in 1998 but with inhuman determination taught himself to speak again – had indeed proved mortal. I now have quite a collection of colleagues and friends and drivers in my contacts book, all of whom have the word "DEAD" written beside their names. Farouk Nassar, Juan-Carlos Gumucio, Muhieddin Habal, Hussein Kurdi. And now Tewfik Mishlawi, born Haifa, Palestine 1935, the youngest of 10 children, died Beirut, Lebanon, 24 January 2012. Or was it 1940 he was born? After the family fled their home in the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948 caused by Israel's creation, the Mishlawis managed to obtain Lebanese citizenship, but Tewfik always suspected his mother had "aged" him by five years so that all her sons could vote in Lebanese elections.

Tewfik came back to life a week ago when I listened to Phillipa talk about a man I clearly didn't know as well as I thought. I knew him as my stringer and then as the indefatigable editor of Middle East Reporter (MER), a daily digest of Arab news that he sold to journalists, businessmen, spies and diplomats, some of whose job definitions were interchangeable. Kim Philby used to come up to see him each morning and ask: "What's the news today, Tewfik?" When Philby did a runner, Tewfik went to check on his wall and, sure enough, there was the cross traditionally marked on any spy's house to tell him that his cover was blown.

"Tewfik loved journalism," Phillipa said. "It was his passion. He equated MER with his marriage and his life. When I first met him, he was stringing in Beirut for the Daily Express. He got shot in a Beirut street and I'll always remember the headline: 'How I was gunned down in terror alley.' He had two holes in the back of his legs. I worked on the Express foreign desk and every morning, the foreign editor, John Ellison, would come in and ask, 'What's Fisk saying? – get Mishlawi on the line!' Then he asked John if he could drop by the office when he was in London, and he came and asked, 'Which one is Phillipa?' He didn't know if Phillipa was a man's or woman's name. And when he was introduced to me, he said: 'Do you want to have a drink?' He asked me to come out to Beirut. I was 24 years old. He'd never tell me if things were bad. He'd just say, 'Everything's fine, don't worry darling.'"

Tewfik rarely showed his soft heart to the rest of us. I never knew until last week that when I called his office "drab" – in print – he quietly refurbished the whole place. And I never appreciated the extent of his personal suffering, his initial stroke in 1998 after he fell down a manhole at Beirut airport – after one week, he could just say Phillipa's name – and of his last days when he fell in his bedroom, how Phillipa and the concierge had to lift him on to the bed, how he spent three days monitored in emergency because they could not find him a room. But he died in the hospital attached to the institution he cherished, the American University of Beirut, where he graduated in economics more than half a century ago.

In the last years, Tewfik's daily digest, which Phillipa edited with him, was losing money and, only a few weeks before his death, it went weekly. "He knew the MER was dying," Phillipa said. "Now I'm trying to find a place for his archives." So we went round to Tewfik's old office in Spears Street. The electricity had been cut; the building is to be torn down in May. But there were the files, the tens of thousands of pages of history compiled and edited and printed every day by the great man himself. I could even make out the parquet floor which my cruel description had provoked him to install. Tewfik's desk was in semi-darkness, although his presence was almost palpable. But the light had gone out.

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