Today, October 3, 2015, is a quarter of a century since the passing of my father Halim (Clement) Phares. I remember it as if it was yesterday, never faded, never dissipated and never sunk into oblivion. Father was omnipresent in my life until the last of his days, from as early as I can remember to as late I can recall. Born in our ancestral village Ghouma, which in Aramaic translates to “lake,” he was the oldest of seven siblings, three brothers and four sisters. Halim left the village in northern Lebanon—not to mention his family of farmers—to accompany his uncle, the erudite priest Reverend Joseph Phares, who joined the Jesuit University in Beirut, under French mandate since 1920. Halim worked hard, day and night, not only to pay for his studies, but to host his siblings, one after the other, and later his cousins and their children, to obtain education in the capital’s best schools.
A self-made man, my father served not only as head of family for his sisters and brothers, but also a role model, graduating from law school, practicing as a lawyer but also as a playwright and university professor. From his classroom came presidents, ministers, members of parliament, academics, doctors and many public servants of the young Lebanese Republic. Halim became the chief legal advisor to the Port of Beirut authority for decades, instrumental in the development of international maritime law in the eastern Mediterranean. But father had a side hobby, a passion, which he performed even better than law. He was a poet, a literary writer, a translator of poetry and a composer of theatrical plays. In 1948, his piece “The Émigré’” (al Muhajer) was a hit in Beirut. Over the years he translated Lebanese American writer Khalil Gebran, and many émigrés poets such as Amin Rihani and others.
He was dedicated to educating his children beyond what they learned in school. My childhood and teenage years with Halim were a constant thrill. From real history of the region to tales and legends of Lebanon and the Arabs, to the linguistic intricacies of Syriac, Latin, and French, our living room became an intense university. We strolled through the old souks of Beirut looking for old books and photos. We walked along the valleys looking at fortresses and ruins. He had inherited the erudite culture of his uncle and ancestors and wanted to pass it along to me. Often, on the sidewalks of Beirut we met with important people of the time, including politicians and leaders who came to greet him as their former professor. I felt he and the history of my mother country had melted in one.
But Father was a man of peace, deeply non-violent, and extremely sensitive. He abhorred wars and their consequences. The day Lebanon’s conflict erupted on April 13, 1975, his face changed and never returned to as it was during the years of peace. He was devastated for the country, hopeless for its future, but above all, worried for the family, for his children. He had imagined a happier life, where we would live all united, raise families of our own producing grandchildren he would play with, and produce many more stories to tell, and history to be taught, and legends to be perpetuated. But the war ravaged everything. We remained together, but under bombs. We achieved our education, but under the menace of invasions. Halim’s sensibility was not made for that horror. The family was often separated, members finding themselves in different regions, until we could reunite again. Life was still filled with good moments, but it was a broken plate, each piece was beautiful, but never whole.
I also stayed in Lebanon because my parents were there, because my teacher and father would never leave. If Halim would not leave, how could I? He taught me unwavering justice and the love of causes greater than one’s self. But he had hoped I would steer away from politics, from public offices, and from being more royalist that the kings. And as the free areas of the country were we lived were also heading towards internal conflict, he urged me to quit public service and revert to writing and law. He knew by instinct that an end to freedom was near.
When the last enclave of liberty, known as East Beirut, divided Halim’s hopes for peace dissipated. All he desired was my security, survival and freedom. We had to leave our ancestral home in Beirut and take refuge in a small hotel above the capital. Though my parents could have joined my sister in the north (in the Batroun district), away from the turbulences of the urban war, father, mother and my brother joined me in my last refuge. We were under the bombardments for weeks, without electricity, without water and with little food. Halim was 80 and his health was in slow decline, but he told me he wanted to be by my side until the end, or until good news returned. We took some walks, very slowly, and had marvelous conversations, mostly remembering the great old days. I was optimistic that better times were ahead of us. He was pessimistic and asked me if I would consider traveling abroad, even for a while before I returned.
I had no intention of leaving him or the mother country. But destiny had decided otherwise. The last day I saw him was an ordinary morning for me. I hugged him, smiled and said, “See you tonight, Papa.”
He looked at me with sad eyes and said as he always repeated since childhood: “God be with you. Be careful and come back soon.” I will never forget his face.
My mother looked at me and said prophetically, “come back early, we never know (on ne sait jamais).” I left but with some trouble heavy in my heart. I felt something inexplicable warning me to stay, but a magnetic force kept me moving away.
That day in late September 1990, fate was at the corner of our lives. On my way to the radio station where I was to be interviewed, waves of shells slammed around the building, forcing us to hide in the shelter till late at night. The next day as I arrived to the apartment, I found it empty with a note. “Your sister arrived and she took us with her to the north. Love.” I felt relieved that my parents were safer with her, but I also felt a tearing in my heart, remembering oddly scenes in the movie Doctor Zhivago and the pain of split families. I did not yet know that the last day I saw my dad was yesterday.
Clashes and bombardments resumed the entire week and escalated. Fear and desolation was everywhere in the encircled zone where I temporally lived. I doubled efforts in my outreach to diplomats, worked with media and writing, but the expiration date of the country’s last enclave of freedom was close. One night we heard that peace demonstrators were killed as they called for cessation of bombardments. I visited hospitals to interview survivors and listen to accounts. That night I came back depressed and saddened by the vision of desperate people who lost dear ones or their limbs. It was a hard night. The morning was even harder.
At 7 AM a relative knocked on the door and informed me that my dad had passed away the previous night from internal bleeding at a Batroun hospital in the north. Halim had been extremely saddened by our separation, was depressed by the news of violence coming from my area, and did not know where I was during the shelling. We were like one soul torn apart. He was taken to the hospital, which was poorly equipped at the time. No one detected his bleeding and he died at 3 AM, silently, with my mom by his side. I was half the world away from him, separated by armies and militias, in the middle of a war zone. At the news, suddenly everything dissipated around me, made little sense, had no more importance. I was not prepared for that loss. I wasn’t near him when he left and I had not held his hand or said goodbye. I was broken.
The saga took an even worse turn over the hours as I was forced to make an earth shattering choice, the most dramatic of my life in the old country. My whole being wanted to accompany my father to his burial. That moment could not also disappear from my grasp. But the horror of reality surrounded me. I was told if I wanted to travel to that part of the country, where Halim was to be buried, I had to make a statement, to change my commitment and not to come back to the free areas. I was facing the greatest dilemma of my life: walk under the casket of my lost father to his last residence and abandon the cause of freedom—or stay where freedom still reigned and live my life with the wound of never saluting the greatest man in my life as he departed this world. I heard his voice in my mind telling me to stay where I was, to be who I was, and not to change my principles even for a matter of death. Everyone around me pressed me to attend and lead the burial ceremony, but my conscience and the legacy of my father told me otherwise. I could not, even for the highest duty of my life, destroy the principles upon which my life was built. With tears in my eyes, I told my brother Sami who left to join the family in the north, “Tell him my heart is broken, the wound will never heal, but I am staying with freedom. I won’t meet him at the graveyard, under occupation, but we will meet one day up there, where all souls meet, in eternal freedom…”
The days that followed were nothing but pain and sorrow for the distant separation. Ten days later, destiny increased its weight. The last free enclave which I never left, even to pay respects to my father’s remains, fell to the invading Syrian forces. I had to leave the last zone of liberty to freer lands. Had I not stayed until the end, until the last day, until all was over, I would have gone to the burial but sold out my values and probably never emigrated. I would have become a different man, accepting of oppression and occupation. By leaving this world at that time, Halim forced me to stay true to my principles, defending freedom until that freedom dissipated like a mist. In this way, he thus played a role in my emigration towards the free world and a new life dedicated to the same values, but with greater horizons. By passing his education on to me and by passing away on a particular day, my father shaped my ultimate destiny.
A quarter of a century later I miss him so much. It has been 25 years without Clement, and I owe him my destiny…
Washington DC, October 3, 2015
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