How a meeting with Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi taught me a very important lesson

The Middle East correspondent, who covered the war in my native Lebanon, helped me understand what happened to my city during that time

Samia Badih with Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi. Samia Badih
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The news of Robert Fisk's death has been met with mixed emotions.

However, for me, the news has resurfaced memories of the time I met the controversial foreign correspondent. It was in Abu Dhabi in 2015.

At the time, I was working on my first feature documentary, a personal project about my late uncle. Fisk was in the UAE for a few days working on a story.

I remember vividly receiving a message from a friend in Lebanon telling me that the man was in town and that he'd been able to get his number (I still have it saved in my contacts list today).

That year, I had thrown myself into the production of my film. Its subject was my uncle Rasheed who was killed during the 1982 Israeli invasion of South Lebanon, which happened three years before I was born. It wasn't until around that time that the journalist in me had enough will and courage to start piecing together his story of life and death and what would later become my first film, Rasheed.

Growing up, my parents never spoke of Rasheed, how he died or about what happened during the war. It was the one subject we couldn't bring up at home. It was too painful for my parents.

What does that have to do with Fisk? Well, a lot.

Fisk was a foreign correspondent in Beirut who covered the invasion; he visited my hometown Saida and reported on the unimaginable destruction of the city during that summer of 1982. He later documented it in Pity the Nation, a book that gave a detailed account of what happened and which helped me understand what happened to my city during that time.

I had questions I wanted to ask him: maybe he had seen my uncle? Maybe he was there when they were looking for his body? Maybe his name had been scribbled down among his notes?

The opportunity to get answers to all of these questions came to me and when I reached out, Fisk very simply accepted to sit down.

We met in a cafe. He was very welcoming and he listened to my story. He also generously shared his memories from that particular time. "When you drove around Beirut you would smell corpses because it was hot. In Sidon [Saida], I remember the smell. You smelled people decaying; I'm sorry to be so frank to you," he told me.

He told me about the places he went, speaking to people in Saida, including the people who lived on my street.

Quote
I think that became my job during the war to make the dead live and that's particularly dangerous to those who kill them

And while he couldn't give me the answers I was looking for, during that interview he shared with me one of the most important lessons he had learnt as a journalist.

"My feeling always and I think I learnt it in this [1982] war was that you must always treat the dead as your friends. However terrible they looked, however decayed the bodies were, you always have to think that they could be your friends and they would have offered you coffee if they were alive and tell you their story," he said.

"And once you give a dead person a name, they live again. And I think that became my job during the war to make the dead live and that's particularly dangerous to those who kill them."

That's when I realised that was exactly what I was trying to do myself by making Rasheed.

Even though Fisk didn't know my uncle, I believe he still told his story when he told that of the thousands who were killed not just in Saida, but in Beirut and in Sabra and Shatila that summer. And for that, I will always be thankful.

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