House of the President (President
their hands held firmly in their mother’s, Marina
and Madona, four and five years old, came out of
the church of the Brothers one Sunday in 1971 and
turned towards their house a hundred yards away.
One of the girls said to the other, “What is the
Holy Virgin going to do with the fifty piastres
we gave at the church?” Her sister answered her,
“That’s none of your business, she’ll do what she
wants with it.”
Walking just in front of them, a gentleman of some
seventy years of age slowed down his pace so that
he might hear the rest of the conversation; he had
no children of his own but considered all the people
of the country as his family. Once he had reached
his residence a dozen yards from the church on his
right, he turned round and asked the mother of the
little girls, “Whose children are these two little
girls?” The mother answered, “They are the daughters
of Joseph Matar!”
“Oh, it’s you, Andrée,” he exclaimed, “I
hadn’t recognized you! Give my regards to neighbor
Joseph!” He was linked by blood to Andrée,
whose grandmother was a Sheikha (Lady) Hobaish while
the mother of the President was also a Hobaish,
one of an illustrious family.
You will have understood by now that this person
who often attended Mass at the chapel of his neighbors
the Marist Brothers was none other than the former
President, General Fuad Shehab. As for the two girls,
one became an artist and brilliant architect while
the other is an eminent doctor and professor at
the medical faculty. This little incident in a narrow
street shows the great humanity, kindness of heart
and disinterested love that shone in this President.
Stories for children are most often read by their
elders. Humanity, imagination, devotion and spirit
of sacrifice have nothing to do with a person’s
profession, whether he be President or school teacher.
As far as neighborhood was concerned, the houses
in Jounieh used to be few and widely scattered.
In our own quarter, central though it was and close
to the Brothers’ school and the market area, houses
were hundreds of yards apart.
The Hobaish-Shehab were, with the Marists, our closest
neighbors and, when Shehab went to France, still
only a brigadier-general, he rented premises from
us to store there his furniture and other belongings.
Then, when he became President, he did not take
up residence in the President’s Palace in the Kantari
district of Beirut. Wherever Napoleon sat down became
the head of the table and for Shehab his Residence
was wherever he found himself.
He chose as his official residence a house a mile
or so from his own modest dwelling in Jounieh. Yes,
a modest little house, that of the only president
who did not build himself a palace or some fine
great buildings. Napoleon never settled in Versailles
but chose the Tuileries. . What interested Shehab
was the whole nation, its well-being, and its infrastructure.
As a child he must surely have crossed Zouk hundreds
of times and seen at the bottom of the slope this
house of fairy-tales, of dreams and of children’s
stories. Yes, I myself and all the children like
me were fascinated by this house. When going to
and coming from Beirut, in our school outings and
in our games, we often passed in front of this house
which held our attention and fueled our dreams.
We did not know whom it belonged to, but just saw
it as like the houses which were illustrated in
our story books. Was it the house of the Sleeping
Beauty or of Snow White or of Cinderella? Had it
been built by extra-terrestrials or served as the
home of the Little Prince of St.-Exupéry?
We would stand there, observing its lines, its symmetrical
terraces, its pines and other trees, its gateway
of wrought iron, and its grounds. Was it inhabited
by angels, by celestial musicians, built by fairies
or goddesses? And the future President Shehab, had
he not as a child stood in front of this enchanted
house like so many others?
I knew the owners in a very distant way. They called
it the Amatoury Residence, but was this true? What
is certain is that President Shehab wished to bring
this house back to life, to give it back animation
and a soul, and to make it his residence when he
was President. He wanted it to be his headquarters
for changing the country. In no time it became a
site of restoration and redecoration, but not for
long. Escorted by his guards, he needed only three
minutes to get from Ghadir in Jounieh to Zouk. This
house was to receive the most eminent personalities
of Lebanon and of the world outside, ambassadors,
dignitaries, religious personalities, and so on.
The presidential residence was transferred to Sin
el-Fil under President Helou before being moved
to its present site at Baabda. The house in Zouk
was bought by, or rather sold to, a businessman
Abtour, descended according to Mr Abtour himself
from a certain French Abbé de la Tour and
married to a lady I knew personally. She visited
me in my studio one day to buy three of my works
to decorate a corner of her reception room, before
the sad war that broke out in 1975.
Now at the demand of my son William I have been
trying to dig up memories to tell him what I know
of the place, which now has a new patron and proprietor.
There is much that one could say about General Shehab
and one could discover much if one did research
about the house of dreams. It has given me great
pleasure to know that the new owner wished to acquire
the building at any cost in order to preserve it
as belonging to the heritage of Lebanon. I wonder
how many of the super-rich Lebanese around the world
would care to do the same as Mr. El Ters. May he
serve as a good example!
“All that has served for an affair of state should
be piously preserved,” said Victor Hugo. The humble
house of Du Guesclin on Mont St-Michel in Normandy,
dating from the middle ages, has been conserved,
looked after and honored and become a historic national
place of pilgrimage. Our President, General Fuad
Shehab has honored the house by being a man of stature
and action as Head of State, such as there are few
in our land and in the world at large. This simple
building where he exercised his admirable mandate
as President deserves to be a shrine to his memory
and a monument to the great man, like the simple
but awe-inspiring stone slab which at Dog River,
Nahr al-Kelb, recalls after thousands of years the
great Ramases who paused there and then boldly passed
over the daunting obstacle. The same for Asser-Adon
of Babylon: one comes with respect and admiration
to contemplate these sites where such heroes have
passed to the wonder of their peoples. May we long
remember our simple and illustrious Shehab. Who
can proclaim and sing of his deeds? Is not this
the least we owe to him?
Joseph Matar Translation from the French:
Chehab Palace: >> View
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