George W. Skaff
Prestige issue 260, March 2015
A journalistic and political art
Writing and politics do they meet? Both are an art, the art of expression and the art to direct. While the writings defend rights, politics work to achieve them. The writer and politician complement each other. In 1976 in Lebanon, the stakes were high, with a country at war and uncontrolled economic situation. George Skaff, journalist, writer and minister at the time, has succeeded. At the head of three ministries and Télé Liban at a critical time in the history of Lebanon, his career has been marked by stages, links in a chain which succeed with an impressive logic. How George Skaff was able to invest these stages? What was his true vocation? Retrospective on a long and rich career crowned with success in this encounter with Prestige.
Politician or writer? Journalist or CEO of TéléLiban? What is your preferred title today, and what do you feel? All these titles are dear to my heart. However I would like that of the writer-journalist because I have always believed that I was stronger as a journalist. Politically, I think it is difficult, if not impossible in Lebanon, to convince people through dialogue. Rather, it is through practice, actions, we managed to chart the way forward. As a writer, with more than ten published books, I find myself now happy and proud. My literary essay, Karmona fi Alline, is “a spring creation, an eternal Spring”, according to my friend the poet of the century, the late Said Akl. It was translated into French by Amine Zeidane and launched in 2004 in the famous Jeita Grotto.
You grew up and studied at the Oriental College in Zahle. What memories do you keep of that time? Oriental College was regarded not only as the first school of Zahle, but also of all the Orient, as the level of language and Arabic literature was excellent. Much more, the college has joined a group of friends who grew up in a unique spirit and atmosphere, like a sports team. From primary classes to High School. Within each class, there were bright students who have excelled later in life, each in his field. So far we meet annually and fall back into childhood, cheerfully evoking memories of yesteryear. In college, we had the chance to see all of our dreams realized, like the Cultural Club hosting quality literary conferences, and sports club equipped with playgrounds and tennis courts. The college has also launched the Al Sharqiyah newspaper that included in addition to articles of its chairman or the director, an Arab writing contest which involved the first of each class and the various artistic activities of the school. This publication has allowed many students to become writers in the famous newspapers of Zahle, as “Zahle el Fatat” and “Al Wadi“.
Two prizes you received from the Oriental College have strongly marked you… The first prize goes back to 1948. This is the one handed to me by the poet Said Akl who was still in his early literary momentum. He gave us, in the secondary stage at school, a weekly class of “dissection” of the beauty of a verse. One day he suggested we write a paragraph on Lebanon where the question involved the answer. A contest that I had the chance to win and win the valuable lot, Cadmus, the first collection of poems dedicated by Said Akl. Concerning the second prize, the Arab Club of the American University of Beirut organized an essay competition. Among the forty Lebanese schools participating, six students have won, including two of the Oriental College of Zahle: Joseph Sayegh and me. Pride, the news was published in Lebanese newspapers and at Al Sharqiya with the editorial.
How did you reconcile studies of law and journalism? Great lover of journalism since I was on the benches of the school in Zahle, I wrote literary and other articles for newspapers “Zahle el Fatat“, “Al Wadi” and “Al Bilad” and “Al Bayraq” The “Telegraph” in Beirut. In 1952, I enrolled at the Union of Journalists and my career in this field began in 1953 with the release of Al Jarîda newspaper. At that time, the country was living a national awakening era and awareness to the Lebanese cause, and the Lebanese Cenacle of Michel Asmar organized a series of annual conferences of the Lebanese luminaries of the intellectual world, literary and political. I wanted to attend all the meetings and was making a digest that I reproduced in my book “Haqaëq Libnaniya“. After each conference, the party continued at the restaurant “Al Ajami” located below the An Nahar offices at the end of the street Souk Tawilé. One day when I had appreciated the conference given by the famous expert in irrigation Ibrahim Abdel Aal, I had the idea to put my notes in the mailbox of Nahar, under the pseudonym of “Geoska” short for George Skaff. The next day, I was pleasantly surprised to see my article on a whole page of the daily. I continued to send articles through the mailbox, until the day the editor of An Nahar Louis el Hage, surprised me in the act. He took me into his office and asked me to write more subjects in return for a wage. I declined his offer on the pretext of completing law school.
Tell us your beginning at Al Jarida … I was in my second year of law school when Georges Naccache launched a major newspaper in Arabic of the same caliber of L’Orient in French that he owned. An eight page newspaper with an additional page in color. A major campaign was organized for this purpose. Nasri Maalouf, his partner, wrote the editorial, and Rushdi Maalouf was the General director of writing. When I met him for a job as a journalist, there was no vacancy. Discreet and gallant, Rushdi Maalouf offered me a “modest” job in his eyes, the assistant to the head of the international service. I immediately accepted the offer I was working at night, spending the morning in law school. Proud of the great success achieved by the newspaper, Georges Naccache invited his friends every night, ambassadors and personalities to visit the premises. At each visit, he noticed my presence, I was concerned to organize dispatches. One night he came up to me frankly, appeared friendly and asked me to come and attend the next day at the editorial meeting. What was my surprise when he announced my appointment as editor of the international department. Still greater it was as I perceived at the end of the month, a huge wage at that time, 600 Lebanese pounds. Thus I decided to become a journalist, and postpone my third year of law.
And how was your evolution in this newspaper? The evolution developed in two stages, from 1953 to 1964. The first was when I replaced Rushdi Maalouf as a copy editor. Then when Nasri Maalouf became minister of Finance, and needed someone else to write the editorial. As the choice of the person was delayed, I proposed to publish a column devoted to Said Akl and took care to write an article per week. The second stage took place at a meeting of the management. The draw was excellent during the days of the week but showing a deficit on Sunday, due to the closure of markets and the lack of vendors and advertisements that day. How to limit the costs? Reduce the number of journalists? We had to find a solution. I thought the best way to attract new readers among students, writers and poets. So rather than limiting the pages, I proposed to publish on Sunday a literary supplement, scientific and artistic, with activities, promotions, an open forum. Georges Naccache approved the idea that deserved the try. The supplement was published and had strong echoes with the contribution of Said Akl, Adel Malek, Riad Honein … This was a first for a daily, artistic and scientific revival. Moreover, the Sunday issue has generated twice the daily profits.
In 1970 you became the owner of Al Jarîda … In 1969, I managed to get free management of the newspaper for five years and in 1970, Georges Naccache granted me the right of transfer for Al Jarîda. The offices were moved to a new location in Tabaris. The weekly supplement was replaced by a panel discussion around a particular theme attended by Lebanese officials and mohafezines. It was a genuine national dialogue. All of these documents have been collected in “Hiwar min doun tawilat” a book whose cover was signed by Pierre Sadek. Unfortunately the Lebanese war of 1975-1990 devastated the premises and forced us to stop publishing the newspaper. But my journalistic activity continued with the publication of special issues and political articles in An Nahar, As Safir, Al Anwar, Al Hawadès and the review of the Order of the press.
What role the press plays in politics? The press and politics are both consistent and complementary backgrounds. The press plays a key role in political decision-making. Politicians, like Raymond Edde, Kamel el Assaad, Amin el Hafez and others, met every evening in the offices of newspapers, including Al Jarîda to follow the course of events and adopt a specific position. It was the meeting place for politicians and important decisions to satisfy public opinion and to serve the interests of the citizen and the country. Let us not forget that it is thanks to the press, represented by Georges Naccache and GhassanTueni, and Henri Pharaon, that the Third Force was created to deal with political crises caused every six years by agreement. It was enough, for example, to publish a headline for a council of ministers to succeed or resign.
You participated in Lebanese politics. What impressions did you keep of this experience? I have always aspired to be an independent journalist, away from sectarian politics. Unfortunately, in 1975, the war has devastated the premises of Al Jarîda in Tabaris, which suffered major damage, which forced us to stop publishing. In 1976, I was called to participate in a national salvation cabinet composed of six ministers, to replace the resigning minister Philippe Takla. Following a cabinet reshuffle, I found myself assigned the Ministries of Finance, Telecommunications and National Economy, in a government dispatching the current issues during this pivotal year 1976-1977, before the transfer of power between President Sleiman Franjieh and Elias Sarkis. What could a journalist achieve in such a government to serve the interests of citizens?
How have you managed to fulfill your duties? The jurist Antoine Baroud facilitated my task, by giving me a study of French law on exceptional powers of the minister under exceptional circumstances, such as ours. If the Cabinet fails to meet for a major reason, such as war, the minister is empowered to take alone unilateral decrees. How could a finance minister have money inflows without resorting to the ministry? How could a minister of Telecommunications work in a department where the lines were cut in most regions? How a minister of National Economy could work while all legal ports were busy, governed by smuggling and anarchy? We had to find practical solutions. So I started by the financial component by ensuring to 35,000 employees their unpaid wages for eight months after the assassination of the Director of Finance Khalil Salem, through the opening in the regions concerned, of a special account on behalf of the ministry of Finance. Then I managed to raise revenue by imposing customs duties within the legal ports working. Then I handled the mechanics premises that were restored to become, after being a devastated place in Dékouaneh, a safe and clean place where people come to conclude their operations and pay their fees. Finally, telecommunications which were devoid of recipes and communications, most of the phone lines cut. Since it was difficult to ensure a connection between them, repair of networks started in the north and in three days and thanks to the tremendous efforts of the Lebanese army, a ground campaign line was installed between Zahle and the Metn and so on, despite all the sabotage that followed.
The restaurant of the Chtaura Park Hotel was transformed into Parliament, the time of the handover ceremony between the presidents Sleiman Franjieh and Elias Sarkis. The president Elias Sarkis swearing, with on his side, the president of the parliament Kamel el Assaad. In the first row, the vice-chairman of the Council Camille Chamoun and ministers Amir Majid Arslane, Adel Osseirane and George Skaff.
© Archives Georges Skaff
You were close to President Sleiman Franjieh. What memory would you like to evoke? Much more than a memory, I would like to point nobility of soul of a president during the handover ceremony. That day, he told me that he would hand the functions to his successor without signing decrees that would create compromising future problems. At 11:50 p.m., he told the audience: “At midnight, I could finally sleep with a clear conscience.” Indeed, despite all the suggestions made to persuade him to sign some decrees of last minute, the president kept his promise.
You chaired from 1990 to 1993, the local television station Tele Liban. Can you talk about that? During the election of President Elias Haraoui after the Taif agreement, the road to Baabda was inaccessible. The minister of Information at that time, Edmond Rizk, appointed six personalities from the public and six from the private sector to form the TéléLiban board. He chose me with Fouad Obeid and Bassem el Sabeh. We lived on the first floor of the Carlton Hotel and Tallet el Khayat television had no employees and devoid of antennas. I referred to five presidents of advertising agencies, including Antoine Choueiri, Abu Assi Yasmine and Nasser Qandil. With each bid, a check of the same amount was due. But as the offers were not satisfactory, I called three times for better proposals. Of the five bidders, there remained only three. And of $ 50,000 originally proposed, I raised the amount to $ 450,000. Thus we were able to order the equipment and bring back safely, employees at their place of work. Unfortunately the TV was targeted again by shells and was burned. To ensure continuity of work, we hired a local in Ivory center from which we released the official launch of the takeover of Tele Liban celebrated at Al Bustan.
Which period of your life has been more pleasant, the richest, the most fertile? I believe that each period had agreeable and rich times. I have never accepted or performed work as a chore. As a journalist, I have managed to give several roles to play, meet several movements and achieve good results.
Which accomplishment for your hometown Zahle, would you like to mention? The transformation of the ancient seraglio of Zahle in a museum for Lebanese art, a new concept in Lebanon. The idea came to me at a meeting held on weekends in our home in Zahle, with poet and friend Said Akl and Mohafez Nasri Salhab, a charismatic personality and a very cultured man of letters. Another achievement of which I am very proud is the symbol of the city that sits at the entrance of Zahle, a masterpiece of Samih el Attar of a woman carrying a bunch of grapes, a symbol of wine and poetry.
You were engaged in several careers, how do you define them? All careers I conducted intertwine and are linked. To each one, I gave a special taste. As a lawyer, I have defended the rights of individuals; as a journalist and politician, I gave several outbreaks. Journalism opened for me large doors for contacts and communication with others. I consider happy who managed to achieve and get what he wants for himself and for his country without having to “solicit” appointment or a visit to a high responsible.
If you were not George Skaff, who would you have loved to be? Myself, again and again. Whoever wants to impersonate another is condemned to failure. Remove me from my life, I am no longer myself. Do not try to imitate this or that person, but keeping yourself and being true to yourself. In our vineyard in Alline, near Zahle, I planted 17 cedars, the same day, at the same time. The result? No cedar is like another. It is the work of nature and the environment that shapes the creature. It was under these vineyards that we gather with friends around literary and cultural encounters.
Interview by Mireille Bridi Bouabjian