Mahmoud Assaf: The Master Reader

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Assaf discovered that the Masters degree in Arabic literature he had gained years before allowed him to try his hand at other professions based on writing.

By: Rasha al-Ameer

Published Sunday, July 15, 2012

Colleagues at the public and private schools where he spent his professional life are filled with admiration and affection for Mahmoud Assaf. At the mere mention of his name they start to sing his praises.

Those who know first hand the hardships of the profession praise his fortitude and patience. Burj al-Barajneh public school in Beirut’s Dahiyeh was preparing this year to organize a celebration in his honor as he reached retirement age...But fate intervened.

“I learned of my diagnosis on Teacher’s Day! Don’t you think fate is a nihilistic, playful creature?” He asks with a tired smile.

But he has known kinder times, marked by his talents and perseverance, making him Lebanon’s number one reference in proofreading manuscripts and editing.

Assaf was born in Bodai, a village in the Bekaa (eastern Lebanon), in a peasant community where people sought to teach their children using all means available to them. First in a Quranic school, then an elementary public school, all the way to a middle school in Baalbek 15 kilometers away from the village. It was not easy to cross this distance in the snow, the heat, and with bandits on the road.

After middle school, the shy young man from the Bekaa joined the Teacher Training Institute in Beirut. Seeing the vast sea for the first time and the lights of the city stunned the young teacher.

Graduates of the Teacher Training Institute go on to teach all subjects of the curriculum. Assaf did so in his village’s public school for two years, before moving to Bawarej public school where he taught during the day and studied at night for a degree in literature.

When the civil war broke out in 1975, Lebanon witnessed a process of sectarian segregation. The Ministry of Education charged with public education – which is supposed to include all citizens – found itself in a weak position. It was no longer able to impose its choices of where to assign teachers, who instead took shelter in their regions where they felt safe.

Unlike many of his colleagues, this man – who was smitten by Beirut and its charm – chose not to leave. He remained in the city and watched it be destroyed.

“War is a repugnant ravenous creature. If I could, I would have slain it so it wouldn’t make us endure what we cannot tolerate,” he says, adding, “I saw a militiaman cut a student’s ear off. On another occasion, a mere coincidence saved me when I was kidnapped at a Lebanese Forces checkpoint.”

“I was heading to my village and they found something that saved me,” he explains. “My picture with a colleague of mine, which they found in an album when they searched my car, pleased the investigator, whose nom de guerre was “Il Duce” (after Mussolini).”

“My colleague who saved me,” he continues, “was one of that militiaman’s best friends! How civil was our civil war! The coincidence that extended my life granted me a passport stamped with my captor’s signature that made my movement from one area to another easier.”

He says: “For as long as I live, I will never be able to forget the ugliest chapters of 1982, which are engraved in my memory. The Israelis invaded Lebanon and in September of that year I happened to be near the Kuwaiti embassy in Beirut when the Sabra and Shatila massacre took place.”

“I saw Israelis and I saw people running away terrified. As I was trying to get somewhere safe, I felt the kind of panic that still afflicts me everytime I hear about or see the massacres that human beings around us have not ceased to commit,” he adds.

In the midst of war and the devaluation of the Lebanese currency, Assaf discovered that the Masters degree in Arabic literature he had gained years before allowed him to try his hand at other professions based on writing.

He worked as a journalist and wrote speeches and poems. When he finally tried proofreading – double checking manuscripts for spelling and grammatical mistakes – he discovered that he enjoyed that kind of work. And the “behind the scenes” world of books became his favorite playground.

“Proofreading is a profession covered with veils and secrets,” he says, humbly excited that the scholar Ahmad Beydoun singled him out in the acknowledgements of his reference book Riad al-Solh in His Time.

“I lived as a forgotten manuscript proofreader like hundreds of my colleagues until I got to Dar al-Jadeed publishing house,” Assaf says.

“Before Dar al-Jadeed, I was a measly proofreader. But in that publishing house, working on its renaissance books changed my view of language, dictionaries, and the making of books,” he adds.

The professional proofreader remembers the enjoyable hours he spent with Sheikh Abdullah al-Alayli. No other proofreader in the Lebanese Republic had that honor.

“I tell my children, it is honor enough that your father worked on the manuscripts of this enlightened Lebanese sheikh. How we need more people like him. How we need men and women who think about language and religion as he did,” he says.

Assaf does not tire of reading. He examines the pages like a doctor examines the human body. He does not complain about having to reread books in a technical way, time and again.

“Rules have a logic that suits me – a fun, chess-like logic. If I could go back in time, I would choose to study a scientific discipline. Mathematics and grammar are soul mates. The Arabic language needs lovers, reformers, and dictionaries to revive it,” he says.

“You know how much those watchful over what is left of this language suffer. Yesterday an editor colleague who works at a new publishing house in Qatar called me to ask me about punctuation marks...Ah, all the inaccurately deployed punctuation marks in our books,” he complains.

Assaf falls silent, smiles, then daydreams as he stares at a flower nursery that we see from the balcony at the Mount Lebanon Hospital where he is receiving the third dose of his treatment.

“You will defeat this damned disease,” we tell him joining his wife, sons, relatives, and admirers in the same supplication: “You will defeat this disease! You will defeat it for the sake of those who love you and a handful of projects that you are destined to finish for our sakes.”

We bring a manuscript that is a work in progress for him to read. He reads the questions and confusion in our eyes and says: “Don’t worry! Reading is my profession and my passion. The disease is a mistake that scientists and doctors will take care of just like I take care of the mistakes on my pages.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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