Prestige issue 29, October 1995
A PRESIDENT REMEMBERS
«I do not blame our society. In our country, there is everything, a sharp mind and a willingness to trade inherited from our ancestors who followed the path of the stars».
Photos, memories … and books line the office of the most French of the Lebanese.
Some verses of Verlaine and memories flow, sweet, beautiful, nostalgic. On the terrace overlooking the sea, under the pergola fitted in a green garden, at the library, very simply in a mid-oriental, mid-European style lounge, President Charles Helou starts the conversation. Poetry, his childhood, his youth, his days with Nina. French speaking, society and all being flavored with little politics. President Helou certainly looks forward for the future. But the past remains, dressed in its glory and reflects as is its brilliant and true images.
STUDENT OF THE JESUITS, he knows Arabic but is more comfortable in French. In 1920, this language was predominant. At home, too, we talk and read in French. His mother, a widow at thirty with five children, ensures this. Charles Helou reads Leónville, he remembers well but keeps a memory even more striking: one day, he and his brothers have to leave the house and go stay with cousins. They learn later that their father is dead. Therefore, the influence of their mother only becomes stronger. As for the French speaking areas, he does not see that it is now suffering as much as they say.
While English exercises some discrete breakouts, education in Lebanon remains at 80% in French. It is perhaps this penchant for the French that made him particularly sensitive to the French poetry. Isn’t he surprised every morning to quote some poet? He keeps in memory hundreds or even thousands of verses of all ages.
AESTHETIC SOUL. «We were told at school that only Corneille is an author of masterpieces.» It is only at 20 years in a hospital bed that Charles Helou discovers Andromache of Racine. Precious discovery, unexpected. «Andromache is a wonderful play, Racine one of the biggest masters» The president does not like big poets, those who are honored with prizes. He appreciates the prizes awarded to novelists for example. «Amin Maalouf has deserved the Goncourt but less for Le Rocher deTanios then for other books like Les croisades vues par les Arabes.»
He objects the winners of Nobel in poetry and prefers other unknown, often in his opinion unrecognized. He likes, among others, Marie-Noël, Germaine Beaumont and Countess of Noailles of whom he quotes some verses: «I only hear the voices that your ear listens to. I will recite the songs you know,» and others of Pierre Benoît: « I do not know if I have to cherish you more, In your wanderings in the midst of happiness.» But it is especially the verses of Rosamond Gerard that awaken in him the dearest souvenirs. «Because I love you, you know, every day. Today more than yesterday and less than tomorrow.» These verses from a poem recited by heart by Camille Chamoun remind him of Nina and poetic dialogues they held. «Nina was more thoughtful than me and grasped things faster he said she was admirable, the genius of the house, and had answers for everything.»
His motto? «The woman must, if necessary, suffer with the man.» Nina Helou was not without humor. Towards the end of her life, he said: «You know, I love you.» She replied abruptly: «you are quite capable!»
MAN OF POETRY… AND LAW. Before «exercising» in politics, Charles Helou was a journalist and lawyer. One day, we just tell him that the lawyer Nina Trad felt he was talented and wrote well…
She said she preferred him to Georges Naccache, first class polemicist that was ahead of most of the French journalists. He then wanted to meet this woman. Together they had a meeting, then another, then another … here and there, mostly in the courthouse. In 1940, the Lebanese appeared before the French military tribunal and Nina was driven to this kind of trial. She and Charles Helou prepared their cases together. Pled together. The work was for them a pleasure.
They also walked. They shared many common interests. Married, they went on the side of the Pigeons Grotto. Nina will long remember the wind was beating and banging Charles tie.
BETWEEN BAABA AND BEITEDDINE. At the time of the mandate of Charles Helou, Nina wants to make things easy. Baabda is under construction, the palace of Beiteddine renovated. She sets up a room of Cabinet. Adds a second floor. It is in Baabda and Beiteddine that Charles and Nina receive big personalities, among others, Leopold Senghor and his wife, the Libyan head of state Kaddhafi, Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie and Baldwin, King of the Belgians. To receive the latter, the president had to comply with the directions of the Chief of Protocol. He remained at the top of the stairs while uniformed soldiers stood guard on the steps. The king arrived, he went up to greet the president courteously. Two days later, the latter visited him at the Embassy of Belgium. Once the President Helou arrived in the garden of the embassy, the king himself goes down to greet him. He refuses to welcome him from the top of the stairs.
Nobility requires … a lesson again.
© Archives Président Charles Hélou
Guard of honor for his visit to the French President General Charles de Gaulle.
NINA AT THE CITY COUNCIL. Nina is designated member of the City Council. With her, Saeb Salam niece. The first Lady has the ambition to carry out several projects, imagines flourishing all the streets of Beirut; the Council is reluctant fearing the flowers are plucked. Not at all. Beirutis love them and protect them.
Then the President speaks of social life. «In our country, there is everything, but mainly a sharp mind and a willingness to trade that we have inherited from our ancestors. Our ancestors that were moving oriented by the stars and followed their path.»
He doesn’t blame society for anything. «In addition to business acumen we have the intelligence and spirit. We helped with the Arabs to the evolution of most sciences and at home, the artisans of the mind are famous. «He cites Neaime and Gibran. Said Akl is for him a great poet with an overactive imagination.» Unfortunately we are not often on the same wavelength: he wanted to be president even though he was prepared for other vocations.»
© Archives Président Charles Hélou
Two visions of the Middle East, two presidents: Charles Helou and Gamal Abdel Nasser.
PRESS. FAULT OR REASON. In terms of the press, he retains a single word: «The press is usually nonsense attached to the need to harm.» The Press People he likes take care to interest their readers and do not receive, or transmit news as rumors spread them. Finally, they correct all in an excellent style.
We are right or wrong depending on the quality of language and style. A polemicist language must help a journalist to succeed. And being a polemicist is ultimately to have little justice and too much imagination.
© Archives Président Charles Hélou
Visit to Rome. Official Photo of the private audience granted by His Holiness Pope Paul VI at the Vatican. With President Charles Helou, his wife Nina.
PORTRAIT OF THE FUTURE PRESIDENT OF LEBANON. From the next president, Charles Helou dœsn’t request much:
the elected will parade before the people of his district, to dominate the grocer and the hairdresser and give everyone the impression that he rotates the earth.
According to him, President Elias Hraoui did what he could. «He has the intelligence, foresight, he combines a lot of qualities, but one must be aware that neither him nor another could have done better.»
THE DAYS OF A PRESIDENT. The activities of President Charles Helou are currently very limited. The door of his house remains open. And visitors he receives mostly come looking for a favor. Weakened, he cannot climb stairs easily and his health doesn’t allow him to walk.
But this great man remains modest and charitable as usual. He does not forget to reach out to seniors. And he can only assist the needy, to inquire about their well-being. Many of his friends passed away as Michel Chiha, Bechara El Khoury and Imam Musa al-Sadr. The friendship with the latter may be a common heritage shared with Nabih Berri. He still maintains some friends in Lebanon, Michel Khoury, GhassanTuéni, Michel Kazan…
Between his international friendships, personalities such Leopold Senghor, former president of the Republic of Senegal, Georges Pompidou, Jacques Chirac, who recently sent him a very flattering letter. It’s noon. The president is weary. We must end our interview. We still had much to learn. Impossible to summarize a life, and what a life in few lines. A bunch of memories, some ideas, replicas, with a smile, sometimes laughter!
The interview is complete. And seduction? Neither age nor illness will prevent the President from making it up over time.
Interview by GHADA SCHREIM