DAVOS, Switzerland — It was 30 years ago that Tewfik Mishlawi confessed what might sound like a mundane ambition, but contained the sublime spark that has swept across the Middle East over the past year: He said that he wanted to create the first independent Arab news service.
Mishlawi died in Beirut Tuesday at 76, without quite achieving that dream. But along the way he created his own scrupulously honest newsletter, called the Middle East Reporter, that was the daily crib sheet for a generation of reporters and diplomats. He worked for a half-dozen other publications, and trained scores of journalists, including me. He triumphed in his abiding vocation, which was to tell the truth.
Mishlawi was one of my heroes, and I want to take a moment to remember him, and in the process explain how the fire of the Arab Spring was nurtured, over many decades, by people like him. They lived in police states, sometimes in exile from their homelands, under the threat of torturers and terrorists. But they never gave up hope that the Arab chorus of lies would be broken.
Mishlawi was my “stringer” in Beirut when I began covering the Middle East for The Wall Street Journal in 1980. I was 30, as green as they come. Although Mishlawi technically worked for me, he was my teacher. We would spend hours at his office on the Rue Spears, or propping up the bar at the Commodore Hotel while dubious characters (I suspected they might be agents from various intelligence services) strained to overhear our conversations.
He loved to stay up late laughing and telling stories, but he rose every morning well before dawn to put out the next edition of the Middle East Reporter, which was an annotated digest of the Arabic newspapers and state-run radio and television broadcasts. The newsletter was an invaluable guide to the machinations of the Arabs, mainly because Mishlawi and his fellow editors always played it straight, giving a clear, concise summary of each bombastic statement.
Beirut was a town where everyone had an angle, and most local journalists were on the payroll of some government or warlord. But Mishlawi and his longtime partner, Ihsan Hijazi, had the incorruptibility of old-fashioned wire-service reporters. They wanted to get the story quickly, accurately and without spin.
Mishlawi was a Palestinian, born in Haifa in 1935. He studied at the American University of Beirut and he spent most of his life in that city, with a few sojourns in the U.S. It was a precarious existence, especially when tensions between Lebanese Christians and the Palestinians exploded in civil war and the city was shelled for hours and sometimes days on end.
Mishlawi and his wife, Phillipa, once explained that the safest place to be if the shelling started was the stairwell — and that children were never worried, no matter how loud the artillery fire, so long as their parents stayed calm. Mishlawi was one cool customer; the noise of an exploding shell would cause him to raise an eyelid, at most, and then turn back to his glass of whiskey.
When the Israelis laid siege to Beirut in 1982 to evict the Palestinians, Mishlawi was trapped in the city. He had two children from a previous marriage who were living in Sidon, which the Israelis had already seized, and he was worried about them. I volunteered to take them some money, which meant passing through Palestinian and then Israeli siege lines. I was greeted at the door in Sidon by Mishlawi’s young son, who was wearing a Boston Red Sox T-shirt and wondering what all the fuss was about.
Mishlawi reported the story of the Israeli invasion just the way he did everything else, down the middle, pulling together all sides’ statements each morning. I got nervous that he might be in danger if the Israelis made a final push, so I went to the commander of the Lebanese Christian militia and asked for a special laissez-passer. Mishlawi thought I was being overly dramatic — special precautions were unnecessary, he insisted — and as usual, he was right.
Mishlawi maintained his dignity and professionalism in a world where powerful people tried to crush independent journalists — and the free spirit of people everywhere. The kids in Tahrir Square and all those other places of revolution would never have known it, but they had an intellectual godfather in the man who passed away this week.
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is email@example.com.