Sepia-colored photos fill the walls, transporting you to another time and place. Suddenly the chatter and talk filling the space in the ballroom of the Commodore Hotel recede to the level of whispers as another era beckons. These photos look like family pictures we have all seen in our grandparents' homes, but they of course pay tribute - as does the function - to a life less ordinary, that of Juliet Elmir Saadeh, wife of Antoun Saadeh, the founder and chairman of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). As the 100-year anniversary of Antoun Saadeh's birth was being commemorated with the launch of his wife's memoirs, ministers, professionals and intellectuals alike humbly stood in line to receive their signed copies of "Memoirs of the First Lady, Juliet al-Meer Saadeh."
Elissar Saadeh Abou-Nassif, Antoun and Juliet Saadeh's second daughter, performed the honors. Meanwhile, her sister Safia, a doctor in modern Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University, pointed sadly to the pictures on the wall and said: "When you see her dressed in black in the pictures, it means he is gone." She is referring to her father's execution in 1949 at the hands of Beshara al-Khoury and Riad al-Solh's government, leaving her mother a widow with three young daughters to take care of.
Advocating a secular Greater Syria, which would have included the lands referred to as "the fertile crescent," - meaning Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq and even Cyprus - Saadeh's ideals were met with great resistance in an era where countries like Lebanon, not to mention Israel, were slowly emerging and seeking legitimacy.
Saadeh paid the ultimate price for his vision, leaving behind a young family to weather the storm.
"My late mother's memoirs are very important for three reasons," explained Safia Saadeh. "They deal with an important period in Middle Eastern history, and cover the relationship between Syria and Lebanon from 1947 until 1967, which is a very (significant) time in Syrian history."
Another reason for the book, Saadeh said, is the exceptional fact that her mother carried on her husband's work after being widowed, an image more akin to Eleanor Roosevelt than the usual Middle Eastern pattern of the wife receding once the husband has passed away.
But the most important factor is the mere existence of the memoirs, written in 1967 after Juliet Elmir's release from a Syrian jail, where she had been imprisoned for 10 years. Encouraged by party members to put down her life story - one so intertwined with that of the party as to be inseparable - on paper, Juliet Elmir goes even further by offering a candid critique of the party she so totally devoted her life to, at great personal cost.
Born into a Lebanese family that had long since immigrated to Argentina, circumstances determined that Juliet Elmir would come into this world in Tripoli, Lebanon, where her mother was visiting an ailing parent. Throughout her turbulent life, Juliet would witness all the ups and downs of the Middle East, whereas all her siblings would remain in South America. Having met and married the charismatic Antoun Saadeh while growing up in Argentina, this former medical nurse naively envisioned the life of a politician's wife ahead of her, Western style: "From her perspective," explained Saadeh, "my mother thought that her husband espoused a very nice ideology and that he would be active in convincing people of that, but not that he would be persecuted for it."
Written in a very straightforward and compelling Arabic, taught to her as an adult by her husband, Juliet Elmir's memoirs have so far inspired a lot of interest among readers. Bearing witness to a life full of high emotion - from true love for her husband, to excruciating despair at his execution and betrayal by a party she had given everything to - one can only sympathize with a woman whose extreme loyalty to her husband and his vision came at a very high price. "I would have rebelled if I were leading (her) life," explained Safia Saadeh, "but my mother was a very, very loyal person, until the end."
The particulars behind Antoun Saadeh's execution - brought on by a failed SSNP uprising against the government of the day - are common knowledge. It is the other side of the story that is described in these memoirs: That of a mother and three young daughters, the eldest of which was a mere seven-year-old, being held in a monastery in Syria, oblivious to the tragic events. "My father had taught me to read and write classic Arabic at a very early age," explained Safia Saadeh, "but the nuns at the monastery were not aware of that. My mother was not given access to newspapers, but I remember seeing the papers and reading 'Antoun Saadeh executed.' I dared not tell my mother." Two days later the news would be broken, and Saadeh recalled painful images of her mother no longer able to stand on her feet, while trying to get downstairs to hear the news. "Although I was only seven years old at the time, I remember being full of worry," recalled Saadeh.
As leaders of both Lebanon and Syria battled over the future of Antoun Saadeh's family - with the Lebanese government wanting them sent back to Argentina - it was Juliet Saadeh's insistence at staying, despite the Argentinean ambassador's encouragement to leave, which prevailed. "I regret her not taking us away" said Saadeh, "but for her there was no question. She perceived it as loyalty to my father and the cause he died for."
As the events unfold throughout the memoirs, this missed opportunity of flight takes on a tragic tone - as the future for Juliet and her girls would prove bleak. The family's house arrest at the monastery would come to an abrupt end when the first of two consecutive coups d'etats in Syria put a member of the SSNP party, Adib Shishakly, in power. It was Shishakly who went to the monastery to liberate the family. The irony is that it happened only one month after Antoun Saadeh's execution. "Shishakly had told my father that he was capable of pulling off a coup in Syria," explained Saadeh, "but my father was against military coups, what he was seeking was a popular uprising."
Liberated and supported, Juliet, according to her daughter, missed another chance to secure her future and that of her family. Being offered anything she might ask for, Juliet Elmir only asked for entrance to the safe haven in Syria for persecuted Lebanese SSNP members. In that group was Georges Abdel-Massih, who would come to play a very Machiavellian role in the party's history, and in the lives of Antoun Saadeh's family. Having a party member as head of the Syrian government was a big boost for the SSNP party, but after the execution of its leader, it remained headless.
Vying for that much sought after spot, Abdel-Massih imposed himself as leader and moved in with the young family in Syria, making the house the party's headquarters. "The day my father died, I no longer had a home," said Saadeh. The six years that followed were very painful ones, as Abdel-Massih's domineering presence caused much of the family's suffering. Comparing him to Rasputin, Saadeh said: "He took everything from us, he wanted to crush us and with us the legacy of my father. We lived in an atmosphere of fear."
This downward spiral hit rock bottom when her mother and all of the party's top echelon were thrown in jail in 1955 for supposedly ordering the assassination of Adnan al-Malki, a general in the Syrian Army. Abdel-Massih's flight to Lebanon led to these momentous events becoming greatly contested between different party ranks as to who was behind the order. Again Elmir's memoirs play a great role in clarifying this important issue.
The last third of the book deals with Juliet Elmir's imprisonment. Sentenced to 21 years behind bars, Elmir serves 10 excruciating years before being freed on grounds of ill health. She had developed cancer. Reconnecting with her daughters, who were by then young women, was not easy, and a chapter in the book deals with her understandable anxiety.
Asked if she blamed her mother for the difficult turns their lives had taken and if the book had helped her to forgive, Saadeh said: "There was nothing to forgive. This is a woman who chose this path until the end; she was very honest with herself. The memoirs showed me how much she suffered, I thought I knew, but not really."
Juliet Elmir Saadeh: A Life Lived in Exile, Dedication and in Memory of a Slain Comrade
Samia Nassar Melki