Lokman Slim: the assassination of a most elegant critic

The Lebanese publisher and activist was not just a hero – he was a piece of Beirut's memory, writes Luna Safwan

Lokman Slim, who was found dead in his car on February 4, 20201, sits at a restaurant in an undated picture, in the Lebanese capital Beirut.  Slim, a Shiite Muslim secular intellectual known for his opposition to the Shiite movement Hezbollah, had not been heard from by his family since getting in his car on February 3 evening to drive back to Beirut from south Lebanon.
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The last time I saw Lokman Slim, the Lebanese publisher and independent activist, was a few weeks ago, on a sunny midweek day in Beirut. He was standing next to Riad Al Soloh square, the site of so many protests, smoking a cigarette, holding two pieces of paper in his hand and waiting to go inside a building housing many regional and international studios for one of his live interviews.

I was wearing my mask and several layers when I spotted him, and feared he might not recognise me through it all.

“I recognised you since I saw you taking a picture of the graffiti on the wall,” he said.

We laughed. It had been too long since we had last seen each other. I did not see him again on the way out. I also didn’t know it would be the last time I would see him in the sun.

I met Slim in 2012, as the Syrian revolution was dominating the world’s news, and criticism against Hezbollah, a Lebanese ally of the Syrian regime, was mounting. He was famous for his criticism of Hezbollah. I was a young journalist battling my way onto the scene, with so much to say. He invited me, through my boss at the time, to a round table between Lebanese and Syrian activists in Hamra, Beirut.

We soon became friends on social media. I used to admire him because, me being a recent graduate, in him I saw everything I had hoped to see in my university professors: a critical thinker, a fierce yet calm fighter with a distinguished voice, a listener. I was always amazed by the fact that Slim was a man dealing with politics every day who never interrupted me as I spoke, me the young female journalist squeezing her way into a challenging career.

After our round table, I learned that he was born in Haret Hreik, where in 1990 he founded an independent Lebanese publishing house called Dar Al Jadeed. Many of his and the Dar’s publications were deemed controversial because they stirred discussions, tested ideologies and put forth questions that conservative sections of our society often did not want asked.

BEIRUT, LEBANON - FEBRUARY 4: A Lebanese protester demands justice after the assassination of Lokman Slim, a prominent Hezbollah critic, who was reportedly found shot dead in his car in South Lebanon on February 4, 2021 in Beirut, Lebanon.  (Photo by Diego Ibarra Sanchez/Getty Images)
A Lebanese protester demands justice after Slim's assassination. Getty

He never left Haret Hreik. He continued living there to develop his work and never shied away from his causes – be they political, social or historical. Slim was an eloquent opposition figure. He knew what he was up against.

The fact that he came from Hezbollah’s own Shiite community lent an added layer of authority – but also challenges – to his already-controversial views. Pro-Hezbollah media labelled him as a “Shiite of the US embassy”, a term often used against those who reject Hezbollah’s ideology in an effort to paint them as “traitors”. They published recurring, indirect threats to him and other opposition members at the time. He responded with historical facts, tackling the political psychology of his society and referring back to something stronger that any propaganda: research with analysis based on reason.

And because politics were never enough, his love for Lebanon and Beirut’s memory was so immense that in 2004 he cofounded the Umam Documentation and Research Centre, where he and his team worked on collecting a large portion of resources to document Lebanese history. Preserving history was one of his missions, he used to say repeatedly, because Lebanon has so much history, and to him it was too precious to go to waste.

One of his main causes was to keep the memory of the missing Lebanese in the Syrian regime’s prisons alive. The Syrian revolution was also a cause that he strongly believed in; in 2016, he co-directed the documentary “Tadmor”.

I didn't know it would be the last time I would see him in the sun

In the fall of 2019, during an event in Beirut, I was moderating a panel about memory and history in Beit Beirut, a building which I knew Slim enjoyed so much. After discussing innovation, politics, technology and the memories of Syria, it was time to talk about Beirut.

When I asked him about the role of the memory in the revolution (which was still happening back then), he answered with a smile: “There is no revolution without memory.”

Thought never dies.

A few weeks later, his house in Harit Hreik was in the spotlight when a large group of Hezbollah supporters protested in his garden, asking him and his family to leave, sending them clear messages by hanging papers on the walls outside that said “Lokman Slim, the traitor agent”, “Lokman the Zionist” and “Glory to the one who silences him” – all terms that refer to what would eventually transpire today, his assassination.

Slim was a prominent personality who had no real political aspirations, but only hopes that Lebanon would remain a cultural hub and a space to maintain freedom of thought. It was, for him, a space to share even with those with whom we do not necessarily agree.

With Lokman Slim’s death, Lebanon lost a part of its memory. I’m afraid now that Lebanon is entering an era where all good memories, including those Slim strongly believed in, will be silenced or disappeared, one way or another.

Luna Safwan is a Lebanese freelance journalist who works on press freedom