Dr Salim el-Hoss is 80 now but remains a staunch defender of human rights and democracy, an opponent of the death penalty and an outspoken supporter of Palestinians. He finds it difficult to climb the steps to airliners, he confessed to me on our way back from Qatar this week, but reads as voraciously as ever. When I recommended to him a long article on American torture, he read it right through to the end and then put the paper down with a slap on his knee. "Terrible, terrible," he muttered.
El-Hoss was Lebanese prime minister when General Michel Aoun thought he was president in 1990 – when Aoun waged a "war of independence" against Syria – and no one (except for Aoun who is now Syria's best Christian friend in Lebanon) has forgotten the results. Some of Aoun's shells fell suspiciously close to el-Hoss's home in the Aisha Bakkar district of Beirut. Aoun once told me that el-Hoss was Judas Iscariot because the Syrians supported the el-Hoss government. When I suggested in an article that Aoun therefore regarded himself as Jesus Christ, the little general tried to "ban" me from Christian east Beirut.
This summer, Aoun will be standing as an ally of Hizbollah (and the Syrians) in Lebanon's elections and there are many of his Christian and Muslim opponents who are hoping he will be electorally nailed to the cross. I doubt it. Lebanese politicians, as I mentioned to el-Hoss, tend to live for a long time if they don't get assassinated. Being Lebanese, el-Hoss smiled broadly at this remark and agreed that it bore the merit of truth.
We had both been attending al-Jazeera's birthday bash in Qatar where the Gaza war – and, more to the point, news coverage of the Gaza war – was the focus of almost all debate. I had my say, in which I repeated my belief that journalists must be neutral and unbiased on the side of those who suffer. There was much al-Jazeera back-scratching, its reporters pointing out – correctly – that their station alone, in Arabic and in English, covered the bloodbath from inside Gaza. But there was a bit too much bellyaching about the international press. Why wasn't there a single Western reporter based in Gaza, one of al-Jazeera's top reporters asked? Because it was only when the story became visually exciting that foreign journalists wanted to go to Gaza – and were then banned by the Israelis.
I found this a bit much. There was never any great demand by reporters to live in Gaza. But the BBC opened an office there and its full-time correspondent was then kidnapped and held hostage for months, released only when Hamas took control of Gaza and freed him (a fact that is no longer mentioned by the BBC). A Fox News camera crew was also abducted in Gaza. Journalists continued to go there – our own intrepid Donald Macintyre among them – but it's not difficult to see why news editors are a bit chary of opening an office in the Gaza Strip. Insurers won't buy into that one. Indeed, Beirut's status as an international news centre never recovered from the rage of kidnapping from which journalists suffered in the late 1980s; even today, as one of the safest cities in the Middle East – from a Westerner's point of view – it remains a backwater of journalism.
So, I suppose, is much of the Gulf. Dubai was always supposed to flourish as a gold-mine of reporting – everything in the emirate was either the longest, deepest or tallest in the world – and I always wondered what would bring it crashing to the ground. Foreign invasion? A massive earthquake?
I never guessed that a global recession would bring it toppling down in billions of debt. Qatar, home to al-Jazeera, seems to have weathered the storm – so far. It is about to become the world's biggest producer and exporter of liquid natural gas and its airline is about to start direct flights from Doha to Houston, two of the world's energy capitals. Qatar Airways has more than 200 new aircraft on order (about $40bn worth) which puts Lebanon – virtually secure because its banks didn't trade in sub-prime loans – in the shade.
But still I prefer to believe in countries which have a long history. Lebanon's story goes back to antiquity. So does Syria's and Iraq's. And Iran's. And Israel/Palestine's for that matter. But the Gulf? No one can dispute the importance of Mecca and Medina. But I'm still waiting for a serious explanation as to why non-Muslims cannot go there. Imagine the fuss if we banned Muslims from Canterbury Cathedral or St Peter's in Rome. Just a thought – I've been trying to find a place for that one for years.
But back to my Qatar Airways flight to Beirut with Dr el-Hoss. I told him I always admired him for refusing to sign the death sentences on two condemned men. He smiled faintly and pointed out to me that as soon as Rafiq Hariri became prime minister – yes, the same supposedly saintly Hariri who was cruelly murdered in Beirut just over four years ago – Hariri signed the death sentences and the two men were hanged. Word has it that even then, the executioners messed up their work and at least one of the two had to be throttled to death by policemen who pulled on his legs. Did they ever, in their brief extension of life, thank the prime minister who tried to save them? "They didn't have time," Dr el-Hoss replied. Defenders of human rights have a tough time in the Middle East.
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