[Original of article published in Arabic in Al-Hayat on 14 September 2009]
George’s Zakhem’s memoir
At book fairs and international seminars on Arab literature, participants often lament the fact there are so few memoirs and autobiographies by Arabs available in English. In Britain and the US, memoirs are an increasingly popular sector of the book market. As well as being an account of a particular life, a memoir can deepen our understanding of particular times, places and events.
The few memoirs by Arabs that have been published in English tend to be by writers, scholars or political personalities. There are fewer by figures from the world of business. The publication of “Men Who Can Dream: A Memoir” by prominent Lebanese contractor and engineer George Zakhem is therefore to be welcomed. Zakhem’s memoir was published recently by Quartet Books, the London-based publishing company founded by Palestinian publisher and businessman Naim Attallah.
It is an appropriate time for Zakhem to look back over his career and life. It is only now that Zakhem, who is 74 this year, is planning for his retirement. His sons Marwan and Salim and his youngest brother Albert are spearheading the growth of the Zakhem business.
Zakhem has led an eventful life. From his humble beginnings in the village of Deddeh in the Al-Koura district of North Lebanon, where he was born in 1935, Zakhem and his brothers built up an engineering and contracting business that has operated in many parts of the world including the Middle East, Europe, the US and Africa. The business has been though major challenges and setbacks, as Zakhem describes, but it has grown to have an annual turnover of hundreds of millions of dollars.
At the same time, George has over the past quarter of a century been a major philanthropist in the field of Lebanese higher education. He writes: “”By the year 2005, we had contributed over $18 million to institutions of higher education in Lebanon. This is a figure I believe was only matched by the late Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.” He adds: “Although many of our countrymen have amassed great fortunes and are much wealthier than we are, they have failed to make similar contributions to promote education in our country.”
Zakhem has written the story of his life in straightforward prose, with no attempt at a flowery literary style. Contracting and engineering might be thought of as dry and factual subjects, and Zakhem gives technical and financial details of the projects he has undertaken. But he also conveys something of the excitement in bidding for new contracts, of the fierce competition to win business and of the personality clashes and feuds that are sometimes seen.
The district of origin, Al-Koura, was notable for two reasons: “First, it boasted the highest percentage of educated people in Lebanon, and second, its inhabitants produced the best olive oil in the land.”
Zakhem was born in Deddeh to parents who had experienced considerable hardship. His father Salim’s father Tannous had gone out to Brazil to find a better life for his family, only to die in an epidemic there in 1918 leaving his widow Tarfa in Lebanon with three young children.
Zakhem dedicates his book to his parents Salim and Hanneh, and when he financed the construction of a building at Balamand University named it after them. His parents were determined that their children should have the best education possible despite their modest means. His father Salim had a grocery shop and later became a trader in olives and olive oil. He frequently found it difficult to pay his children’s school fees on time.
George Zakhem still has much feeling for the Al-Koura district, and remembers its hills and olive groves, valleys and brooks, and the different types of tree. The first English he ever heard spoken was from Australian soldiers who requisitioned the upper floor of his family’s house in the Second World War.
The Zakhem family is of the Greek Orthodox faith associated with the Church of Antioch, and this religious background was a mainstay to George and a source of values. He is secular-minded and non-sectarian, but at the same time proud of the role of the Greek Orthodox “as catalysts of dialogue, as educators, scientists, doctors, and businessmen.”
George pays tribute to an outstanding educator of boys in the Koura area, George Ibrahim Abdullah who opened a school at Bishmizene, 12 kilometres from Deddeh. George and one of his brothers would walk for two hours there on Mondays with their mother and stay there with an aunt during the week. When George Ibrahim Abdullah moved and set up a school the village of Aba, George transferred there, walking for two hours from Deddeh to get there every morning.
In 1948 George began his secondary education at Tripoli College High School, founded by Ilias Milhem. When he finished there he was recommended to the American University of Beirut (AUB) and entered the new engineering school. The dean of the engineering school, Ken Weidner, “was devoted to the idea of creating an Engineering school that would serve the ambitious construction and development projects of countries located in the Middle East and Africa.”
There was one Lebanese business personality above all who was a role model and mentor to George, and that was the legendary Lebanese MP and contractor Emile Bustani, the founder of the Contracting and Trading Company (CAT). Whiles studying at AUB George had summer work experience with CAT in Qatar. He joined the company after graduation, and was sent to work on projects in Pakistan.
When Zakhem decided to leave CAT in 1962 because he did not feel he was being properly rewarded., Bustani suggested that he and Zakhem set up a company in which Bustani would be the “sleeping” partner and Zakhem the active partner.
This joint venture undertook several projects in Pakistan. Bustani was keen that it should win a contract for work on the construction of the first Atomic Centre in Rawlpinkdi. He lobbied the President of Pakistan Ayub Khan by letter, and he when Prime Minster Rashid Karami went on an official visit to Pakistan in January 1963, Bustani was among those accompanying him. Zakhem came to admire Bustani’s qualities even more. “During his visit to Pakistan, Emile exemplified the ideal Lebanese politician and the experienced international businessman.” [picture shows Emile Bustani (with trademark cigar) with CAT employees on his trip to Pakistan, George Zakehm second from R]
Bustani was expected by many to become president of Lebanon. But tragedy stuck in March 1963 when his plane crashed in Lebanon. Emile was killed together with Palestinian engineer Marwan Khartabil – who was George Zakhem’s best friend – Dr Nimir Touqan of AUB and the pilot John Ogilvi.
After Bustani’s death Zakhem decided to liquidate his partnership with CAT and to launch his own business. In early 1964 he and his brother Abdullah registered Zakhem Engineering in Beirut. The business expanded and took on projects in a number of countries. In the personal sphere, Zakhem married in 1969 Lisa Masad. She had been born in Alexandria, Egypt to parents Nicolas Masad and Rose Kadir who were both originally from Zahle.
Zakhem gives several dramatic examples of how politics sometimes disrupted business. In Iraq in 1969, the year after the Baathist revolution, Abdullah Zakhem was arrested on his way to the airport and held for 45 days. At the time the Zakhems had around 400 people working in Iraq. They sought help from the Lebanese foreign ministry and leaders of the Baath Party in Lebanon to get Abdullah released. According to George, this episode showed “we had many enemies but few friends. Some who had appeared to be close to us immediately turned their backs at the first sign of trouble.”
In July 1972 trouble came in Italy when the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) claimed responsibility for an explosion at Trieste oil, where Zakhem’s company was building oil tanks. Italian police seized a bus load of around 30 Lebanese and Palestinian welders and fitters who had been working on the project and expelled them from Italy. They later denied George and Abdullah permission to enter the country.
“A few years after the Trieste incident, the Italian government discovered the identities of the perpetrators, who of course had no connection to Zakhem Italia,” Zakhem writes. “But the damage had been done. Our work in Italy was stopped and our company closed its offices in Milan after liquidating our Italian assets.”
In 1975 George was detained by the police in Italy after travelling there on business, despite having the necessary visa. It was not until 1987 that he returned to Italy and even then he was so worried about how he would be treated by the Italian authorities that he asked his friend Dr Khalil Makkawi, then Lebanon’s ambassador to Italy, for his assistance and Makkawi met him at the airport.
Libya was an important focus of operations for the Zakhems, but serious problems arose in 1983 as a result of a row between Lebanese President Amin Gemayel and Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi at a summit meeting of non-aligned countries.
Abdullah Zakhem’s private jet was barred when it tried to enter Libyan airspace, and the Libyans forced the Zakhem’s company to cease operations in Libya. More than two decades later, the company has still not received payment for the construction equipment that was seized in Libya, despite a Libyan court ruling that it should be paid around $10 million.
In 1975 George Zakhem left Lebanon as a result of the civil war, and moved to London. Like many other Lebanese who left at that time, he assumed that his move abroad would be temporary. However, London has been the centre of the company’s activities ever since.
Trying to working on government reconstruction contracts in Lebanon in the 1980s provided some of the biggest frustrations of his career, for which Zakhem blames corruption, mismanagement and factionalism. His brothers disagreed with his gloomy view of the Lebanese government, and in the 1990s persuaded him to go after some fresh government work.
Zakhem executed five government projects in Lebanon, only one of which ended amicably. “The other four ended up in court, and we are awaiting the court’s judgement to this day. In the process we spent over $40 million to finance the jobs and complete them on time.” The Zakhems’ successes in other countries in effect subsidised the losses in Lebanon.
Zakhem has been very active in Lebanese higher education since the early 1980s, as a donor and fundraiser. He was intimately involved in the transformation of Beirut University College (BUC) into the Lebanese American University in 1994, and in the founding of the University of Balamand. Last year AUB announced that George and his four brothers, who are all AUB graduates, had given $3 million to establish a deanship at the AUB Faculty of Engineering and Architecture.
Some of Zakhem’s activities in higher education caused controversy: there was for example widespread opposition to his pushing for the building of a campus of BUC at Byblos. The Zakhem family donated the engineering building at the Byblos campus. In the 1980s Zakhem was keen to see a university set up in at Balamand sponsored by the Greek Orthodox Church. He proposed the idea to His Beatitude Ignatius IV, Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church for Antioch and the Orient and to fellow members of the church’s Economic and Development Advisory Board, and the new university was launched in 1987. In all, the Zakhems gave $10 to the Lebanese American University and $5 million to Balamand University.
He writes of how he was never happy over MP and publisher Ghassan Tueini’s presidency of the university. Tueini was furious when Zakhem called in 1993 for his removal, although according to Zakhem he later cooperated over finding the most suitable person to replace him. Zakhem had always favoured former foreign minister Elie Salem as president of the university, a position that Salem took over from Tueini and still holds.
To cover its losses in Lebanon, the Zakhem group has since the beginning of this century sought income from other areas. In particular, it has focused on Africa. George is especially optimistic over the potential of Ghana where the company is developing a downtown area of the capital Accra including a five-star hotel which is due to open next year.
Zakhem’s memoir gives his own perspective on the events he has been involved in, and others are likely to have their own version of history. But his memoir is a lively read, and is also a useful contribution to the social and business history of Lebanon and the wider region over the past seven decades.
George Zakhem and Elie Salem on the steps of the building at Balamand University donated by him and named after his parents Hanneh and Salim