Gharib and Mahfouz: Lebanon’s Good Guys
By: Sabah Ayoub
Published Tuesday, July 17, 2012
The village of Rahbeh, North Lebanon, is home to two of the country’s most active labor union leaders. Al-Akhbar asked the village’s residents about their feelings on their neighbors’ battles for workers’ rights.
Rahbeh, Lebanon - “You hear Rahbeh in their accent and you see it in their anger and tenacity,” says the cab driver, smiling broadly.
He forgot the traffic congestion as well as the heat and the passengers. All of a sudden, he found time to talk...about the “good guys.”
He, too, is from Rahbeh, the village that “gave us the good union leaders” who rescued union organizing from its stupor of the past few years. “We wish they were the state!” repeat the passengers inside the cab.
The secret of the two men – Hanna Gharib (head of the Secondary Teachers Union) and Nehme Mahfouz (President of the School Teachers Union) – lies in rage as old as the neglect that the villages and the residents of Akkar in North Lebanon have endured at the hands of the state.
Rage that stems from poverty – the poverty of the peasants that do not own the land they work on and the poverty of families that live off the salary of a retired military father.
It is the kind of poverty that has dogged Mahfouz and Gharib since they were born in Rahbeh and has followed them from home, to the neighborhood, school, and university.
Hanna Gharib, the son of an army soldier supporting a family of seven, did not know growing up what it meant to have enough money or land, or even private space, in a house that consists of two small rooms.
Poverty complicated the life of the industrious student so he escaped it through education.
His mother was illiterate, but she insisted on educating her children and followed them closely through their schooling, “pretending that she was reviewing our lessons for us with complete seriousness,” says Hanna’s brother Toufic.
Toufic saw his brother do well in school and work in the summer to help out the family, as well as staying active socially and culturally in the village club that was the only outlet for him and his friends.
Hanna has rebelled against his social circumstances since his youth. He did not immigrate to Africa, as do most of Rahbeh’s residents. Instead he immersed himself in social work in his town, then became active in the Lebanese Communist Party, before taking on union organizing.
Gharib’s revolution began against the feudal lords who ruled his town and the bey (local chief) who controlled its council.
“We had to mortgage our home to the bey once to pay the cost for surgery for our mother,” says Toufic, explaining the impact of this incident on all the members of the family, but especially on Hanna.
Gharib’s drive and his rebellion against injustice and feudalism led him to Communist thought. He imbibed its ideas from his teacher in the village, Elias Barhoun. His revolutionary spirit moved with him to Halba Public School, where he participated in protests to achieve some student rights.
“He enjoyed participating in political debates with right-wing parties or the Syrian Social Nationalist Party,” says Gharib’s friend, Samih Saba.
Saba moved to Beirut with Gharib, and they enrolled in the College of Education “not out of love for teaching but because we had scholarships from the Communist Party at the time,” Saba adds.
Between membership in the college board and keeping up with student affairs, Gharib became wholly engaged in his party and college life from his early days in Beirut.
And at a decisive moment when the war broke out in the city, poverty reminded Gharib “that he has nothing in his village to go back to, so he preferred to stay in the capital,” says Saba.
Gharib’s friend is not surprised at what “stubborn Hanna” has accomplished and he is proud that there is “national consensus about him.”
Saba stresses that Hanna “does not bargain when it comes to the teachers’ interest and he does not improvise his steps,” before he adds laughingly that his friend’s “material situation is still the same!”
Nehme and Ain Halala
Nehme Mahfouz’s upbringing, his living conditions, and the beginning of his leftist political consciousness resemble to a large extent the story of his colleague Hanna Gharib. Poverty is the common denominator between the two.
“Nehme used to study here between the cows, to escape the noise of the small crowded house,” says his mother, Umm Nehme, her bright eyes shining.
“Most of the time, he used to go to the water spring near the house — it’s called Ain Halala — to memorize his lessons to the sound of its running water,” she adds.
His brothers tell us that when he moved to the city of Quba to go to college there, “he used to keep the water faucet on at home to hear the sound of trickling water as he studied!”
Nehme knew the taste of poverty early on. His father worked on land that did not belong to him. And like Gharib, he escaped his living conditions by turning to education, where he excelled and set himself apart. He gave private lessons and worked in construction as a tile-setter to make pocket money throughout his college years.
He was the first person to join the Communist Party in his family and was active with the party in his village. He was tortured by the Syrian forces who detained him several times for his political affiliation.
Umm Nehme boils with anger when she remembers those days. She stands up from her chair and bursts out: “I yelled at the Syrian officer at the top of my lungs and prevented him from crossing the threshold of the house.”
The top student received a scholarship from the Communist Party to finish his studies in France, but he could not remain abroad because of his difficult financial situation, so he returned to finish his studies in Lebanon.
He taught at schools in Tripoli, where he still lives and teaches today. He got involved in union organizing, and his political principles and zeal made him a fierce advocate of teachers’ rights.
The people of Rahbeh appreciate the union leader and feel “better that in a country of corruption, there is someone serving the education sector with honesty and determination to procure our rights,” the vast majority of the town’s people agreed.
Whoever thinks that this old woman with the beautiful face, fair skin and dark eyes might allow any veiled questions about her son to pass is mistaken.
We ask her about his “hot temper and sharp tongue.”
She says: “He’s had a loud voice since he was a child.”
We ask her: “Is he stubborn in his private life as well?”
She answers: “He’s very kind-hearted and his compassion is unparalleled...and he’s doing the right thing!”
As to what he has accomplished so far, Umm Nehme rejoices saying: “I am the mother of a union leader...I am not educated but I taught all of them.”
She likes to tell stories about people’s love for her son “who has fans in the South and Bekaa too.”
Her eyes tear up before a broad smile returns quickly to her beautiful wrinkled face.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.