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Panoramic Views > Mount Lebanon > Kesserwan > President Chehab Palace


The House of the President (President Chehab Palace)

With 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: Kenneth Mortimer


- President Chehab Palace: >> View Movie << (2012-03-01)

 

 


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