Letters to Diaa' is a love story. A publication of letters from one man to his wife, the book tells the story of Antoun and Juliette, his love who in the letters, is addressed as Diaa': his light, the light that guides him through his darkest hours.
They were part of the generation that saw the world redefine its boundaries and colonialism disappear, leaving in its wake many unanswered questions. They were intelligent and educated, and possibilities seemed endless.
Letters to Diaa' reveals through a beautiful correspondence the story of Antoun Saadeh, the founder of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and his wife Juliette El-Meer.
Sofia Saadeh, the couple's eldest daughter, who's doctorate from Harvard University in Modern Middle Eastern Studies has made her a natural guardian of her father's legacy, put together the book that documents the correspondence between her parents during the last 10 years of her father's life, from 1939 to 1949. This book, her fifth, is her second publication dealing with her father's life and work.
"Some things need time to mature, as indeed did the idea behind this book," said Sofia in an interview after the launching of her book at the Commodore March 1, her father's birthday.
"Publishing my father's letters was a decision my sisters and I arrived at when we realized that time was passing and that it had become a matter of now or never," she said.
The preface to the book reveals another reason behind bringing the letters out of hiding: Sofia recounts the difficulties that her mother had in saving the letters from many destructive rampages through their home by both Syrian and Lebanese forces.
The letters were always kept in a wooden box, as was a lock of her father's hair. When Juliette Saadeh was laid to rest, Sofia fulfiled her mother's wish by putting the box in the coffin next to her, while keeping the letters with the family.
A preface to love
Sofia recounts: "My parents met in Argentina,". "My father left Lebanon in 1939 for Brazil (where he grew up.) He was fleeing French persecution. His exile was intended to last no more than a few years, but when World War II broke out, he moved to Argentina where he met my mother."
As the founder of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, which advocated a Greater Syria, a secular country comprising Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Cyprus, Saadeh was considered a dangerous man. His ideas were perceived as undermining the core of British and French mandate rule.
"The idea of Greater Syria was prevalent in the 19th century," says Sofia. It was referred to as Bilad el-Sham. "My father felt that the French and British mandate cut this area up to weaken it, thus making it easier to control and making each of these countries incapable of mounting a powerful defense."
Faithful to his ideal, Saadeh wrote all his correspondence to Diaa' in Arabic. Despite being multi-lingual, partially due to his split childhood between South America and Lebanon, Saadeh felt that if he and his wife corresponded in foreign languages, they would be expressing their love in the mother tongue of their oppressors.
"My father insisted on speaking Arabic because he felt that it was very important to be strong in one's mother tongue," Sofia says.
Indeed in several letters addressed to his wife, Saadeh urges her not to be lenient with their three girls during his absence when it came to Arabic. They had to speak it at all times and correctly, Sofia recalled.
"When I was young, my father spoke to me in Classical Arabic, not folkloric Arabic" she said. "Therefore by the age of four, I was able to read easily because I was reading what I already spoke."
In fact the whole of the 120 letters published are written in Classic Arabic.
The letters begin with different affectionate greetings varying from 'my friend Juliette,' to 'Diaa;' to 'my love.' All of the letters end with kisses to their daughters as well as expressions of devotion to his wife. Above his signature, he always added "Long live Syria." The years covered in Sofia's book on her father's correspondence with her mother were very frustrating ones for Saadeh. They spanned the period of his forced exile from Lebanon.
The Politics of the affair
Saadeh founded the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in 1934, in support of a secular Greater Syria, an idea which offended not only the French mandate but several sectarian groups already beginning to form in pre-modern Lebanon. Nonetheless, the party drew members from all sects and classes. The French authorities moved quickly, arresting Saadeh in 1935.
Years of alternating between jail and defending himself damaged his health. At one point, as yet another arrest warrant was issued, Saadeh went into hiding in the wilderness, further affecting his health.
By 1938, Saadeh saw that departure was inevitable. He left Beirut and headed for the country where he grew up, Brazil.
"When I left Lebanon," wrote Saadeh to a friend, "my nerves were shattered, and my health was in a very, very bad state." By then he suffered from a weakened heart and a painful ulcer.
Leaving for Brazil was no escape, though. Saadeh had a plan. He intended to reconnect with the Lebanese-Syrian communities in Brazil and raise funds for his party.
To his great disappointment, however, once there, he was refused an extended stay, forcing him to move on to Argentina.
"My mother's family was Lebanese. They emigrated to Argentina in the 19th century where they were businessmen and traders," said Sofia. "My mother was a nurse and she was studying to be a doctor when she met my father. Her family was very interested in keeping the ties with the old country, so my father was very welcomed."
Antoun and Juliette's correspondence started shortly after they met in 1939. Due to his ailing health, Saadeh headed for the mountains of Cordoba, leaving Juliette behind in Buenos Aires, the capital.
In 1940, they wed. Married life and the extension of his stay in Argentina due to the outbreak of World War II forced Saadeh to look for a job. Hence followed two business ventures, all well documented in his continuous correspondence with his new bride, as were his health concerns and frustrations at being exiled in Argentina. For Saadeh, these were wasted years.
The last years
Saadeh returned to Lebanon on March 2, 1947. Upon his arrival at Beirut airport, he was welcomed by a large crowd of supporters. There, he made a speech insisting on the unity of Syria and Lebanon which sent the Lebanese government into a frenzy. Threatened by his popularity and the content of his speech, the government issued a warrant for his arrest. Saadeh again went into hiding. "My father was not against the Lebanese State," explained Sofia. "His perception was that Lebanese Nationalism and Arab Nationalism were both religiously motivated. Lebanese Nationalism was based on a Christian ideology, and Arab Nationalism was based on a Muslim one. For him, the idea of a Greater Syria was a good combination, because it was secular for both. "His idea of a secular Greater Syria was obviously formed prior to the creation of Israel," she added.
Her father's struggles against the Lebanese Government and their attempt to keep him out of political life are poignantly described in letters he sent to his wife, for she had yet to join him in Beirut. Juliette arrived in Beirut by boat at the end of 1947, accompanied by her two eldest daughters, Sofia and Elissar. Their last child, Raghida, was born in Lebanon.
"He was aware of the danger he was facing. No one forced him to come back, he felt it was his duty," said Sofia. "His motto in life was "life is a stand for dignity."
The Lebanese Parliament, facing an imminent election, made a truce with Saadeh and his followers. However, the creation of Israel in 1948 stirred further opposition to his ideas. Israel divided Greater Syria (which included Palestine and Trans-Jordan) even further and it based its claim to statehood on a religious ideal, not a secular one.
A year after Israel's creation, the region went through political turmoil. A military coup was mounted in Syria bringing Husni al-Zaim to power. In Lebanon, the government took every opportunity to persecute Saadeh following a failed uprising by his Party: "My father, feeling persecuted by the Lebanese government, went to Syria. We followed him shortly after. There, he was betrayed by the Syrian President Husni al-Zaim who had promised to help my father, but instead handed him over to the Lebanese Authorities."
Saadeh was denied the right to a defense and was executed less than 48 hours after his arrest. "I am not concerned how I die but rather about what I die for. I do not count the years I lived, but rather the works I carried through to achievements."
With these words, Sa'adeh closed the final chapter in his life. At the time, he was in Prison al-Ramel, waiting to be taken away for execution after the Lebanese government had decided to waive normal judicial procedures or to grant him an amnesty.
"When he was delivered to the Lebanese authorities, my mother, sisters and I were secluded in a monastery in Syria," said Sofia. "The nuns did not tell my mother of my father's death. Not realizing that I could read at the age of six, they did not hide the newspapers from me. 'Antoun Saadeh Executed' were the words."
The correspondence between Saadeh and his wife does not divulge such betrayal and heartache for the last letter sent is dated June 1949 which placed Saadeh in Syria under the protection of its new leader, al-Zaim. At this point, Saadeh feared for his safety and wrote to his wife discussing a possible visit from her to him, for he deemed going to Lebanon too risky at that stage. The danger was apparent to him, but he did not foresee the betrayal that would lead to his untimely death.
"My father was killed because he was a secular person," Sofia said. "Had he been sectarian, he would have been backed by a group and therefore saved. The Lebanese Nationalists who are Christian in ideology opposed his unification ideas. The Arab Nationalists, who had a Muslim ideology, saw him as a Christian. As a secular person, you are rejected in this country."
Saadeh's execution was not the end of the struggle for his family. The power struggle between the Baath party and the SSNP resulted in the imprisonment of Juliette for 10 years, as Syria's first female political prisoner.
Saadeh's greatness is seen through his unwavering ideals. The consequence of such which is not apparent in the book, nor to the author of the letters, for daily life is given as much testimony here as the historic turmoil that was gripping the area in those formative years. "My father believed in the people of this area," his daughter said. "He felt that they were as intelligent and talented as any other, but that they were not given a chance." Indeed, nor was he.
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