Farewell to Habib Sadek (1931-2023): Friend, Poet, and Exceptionally Honest Politician

Having Self-Exiled from the Turbulent World of Lebanese Politics, Sadek Dies Peacefully at 92
Elie Chalala
Web-based photograph of Habib Sadek.

Rarely do I get personal in my notebooks and essays, but this time I will. On July 1, 2023, I lost a friend in Lebanon whom I had known for more than four decades, and even longer if I count the years before I met him in person in Los Angeles. Habib Sadek (1931-2023) was a Lebanese intellectual, poet, author, head of the Cultural Council of Southern Lebanon, former parliamentarian, and, more importantly, someone whose support deeply impacted the early years of Al Jadid Magazine, for which I will always be grateful. 
I recall my youthful years when my interest in politics was just beginning to grow. I was enthralled by Sadek’s electoral challenge against one of the most prominent figures in Lebanese political feudalism, the late Parliament speaker Kamel al-Assaad (1932-2010). Sadek ran a dynamic electoral campaign for the speaker’s seat in Marjayoun in Southern Lebanon, attracting broad support nationwide, especially among the young. That was over half a century ago. Even though he lost his bid, his score and defeat bore a lingering significance as crucial as a victory.
I left Lebanon for the United States a few years later, in 1972, and began studying political science at UCLA. My first live encounter with Sadek occurred in the late 1980s in Los Angeles as a graduate student and the moderator of UCLA's international relations seminar, sponsored by Professor Leonard Binder. Professor Binder, responsible for organizing and coordinating Arabic-language lectures on Mideast issues, invited Habib Sadek to lecture on Lebanon’s prominent intellectual, Hussein Mroueh, through sponsorship by UCLA’s Center for Near Eastern Studies. With a turnout of graduate students from both Arab and non-Arab countries in attendance, the event was lively and rich with discussion.
Like other encounters with the many intellectual figures hosted by the seminar or whom I met in Los Angeles, I assumed this meeting would be an isolated event. I was wrong, for I encountered Sadek in the city shortly after the seminar. Sadek, who had leukemia, frequently visited California and Texas for medical treatment. Despite the unfortunate circumstances, meeting him and discussing Lebanon's literary and cultural scene was a pleasure and a focal point of our discussions.
Al Jadid Magazine was founded in the mid-1990s, so his frequent visits gave us an unexpected opportunity. Still reasonably young, social media was not widely used during these years, and the web needed a more substantial presence. Most of our magazine’s content came from print media, magazines, newspapers, and interviews, of which many, primarily Arabic language sources, were still available in Lebanon despite the civil war and its aftermath.
Upon learning that we had difficulty accessing print sources financially, Sadek offered us the daily print media that the Cultural Council of Southern Lebanon had been receiving. He offered to send them to us free of charge or through mutual friends and acquaintances traveling from Lebanon to Southern California, a gesture I continue to appreciate significantly today. As technology improved, Sadek continued to support Al Jadid’s mission, making material for the magazine’s content and print accessible. Sadek’s support even went beyond his contributions to the magazine. Throughout the years, he sent me valuable books and documents I requested for my doctoral research on Syria.
Because he was a public figure, I could keep up with news about him through conventional and social media. When social media became more widely used, I occasionally sent my greetings through mutual friends on Facebook, who relayed my messages to him. 
Twenty-five years after our last in-person meeting, I reconnected with Sadek in Beirut in 2010. Returning to Lebanon for the first time in 38 years since I had left, I was in the country to attend a memorial service for my wife, who was killed in an automobile accident that same year. Having known him all these years, Sadek’s generosity, warmth, and hospitality were not foreign to me. He had sent his driver to pick me up from East Beirut to West Beirut and personally took me to lunch at a renowned restaurant along the seaside. Beirut's luncheon returned memories of our lunches along the beaches of Santa Monica and Malibu when he stayed in Los Angeles. We caught up over our lengthy luncheon in Beirut, discussing our many mutual friends and private and public matters. Since I was an "American" visitor, U.S. politics took center stage during our conversation. Most importantly, he updated me on the latest activities of the Cultural Council of Southern Lebanon, on which he had served as secretary general since 1975 until his death in July this year. Sadly, we lost touch when I returned to California. The books and magazines he had donated to Al Jadid during our Beirut meeting were his final farewell.
Those not knowing Sadek personally remember him through his political and cultural work. He was the respectable “Conscience of the South,” as his supporters called him, perhaps best known for his dedication to preserving the freedom and pluralism of Southern Lebanon and celebrating the difference. One of his poems, “The People of the South,” was immortalized in a song by famous Lebanese composer and musician Marcel Khalife. However, given his upbringing, one would not have expected him to be a staunch opponent of feudalism, both the old and its newer iteration. 
Sadek was born into a religious family, the son of Sheikh Abd al-Hussein Sadek, a prominent scholar of the South loyal to political feudalism and a symbol of “religious feudalism,” according to Ayman Jezzini in Asas Media. Quite the reverse from his father, Habib Sadek was ideologically a progressive leftist, intellectual, and educated politician who opposed feudalism and reactionist views, exploitation, and sectarianism.
Politically and professionally, Sadek spent much of his life archiving and codifying everything related to the South. In the process, he also made education accessible to many living in the region. Jezzini said he secured 15% of scholarships for southern Lebanese students to study in the former Soviet Union, earning him a reputation as the “spiritual father” of many university graduates. However, Sadek’s relationship with the Communist Party was not reflected in his leftism and remained ambiguous throughout his life. Rather, wherever he came and went, he was simply “Habib Sadek,” who left his mark in the homeland and worldwide, from his poetry to his work in the South, according to Jezzini.
His work for the Cultural Council of South Lebanon stands out among his many contributions to the South. In addition to providing a valuable platform for influential cultural figures, it also served as a vehicle for exchange between intellectuals from the South and across Lebanon.
Founded in 1964, the Council was one of a few Arab cultural institutions not subject to authoritarian financial interventions. Thus, Sadek contributed significantly to the institution's development as a cultural platform. As secretary general of the Council since 1975, he contributed to its growth into a vital pillar of Lebanese and Arab cultural life. The Council was originally located in southern Lebanon but moved to Beirut’s Ras al-Nabaa area due to the successive Israeli invasions and prolonged conflicts between Lebanese parties and militias in the region. However, militias plundered all its paintings, publications, and archives, forcing the Council to relocate again to the Burj Abi Haidar area, another West Beirut suburb. Even at this location, the institution faced setbacks, losing literary manuscripts concerned with scholars and writers from southern Lebanon to looters. Despite ongoing challenges, the Council continued to preserve and educate about Southern Lebanon issues and gradually expanded to discuss Arab issues and Palestine. In the mid-80s, when many southern intellectuals and thinkers were assassinated, the organization continued operating despite difficult times. 
As an essential station of Lebanese and Arab culture, the Cultural Council of Southern Lebanon remains a significant source of information and was a valued destination for intellectuals who frequented its weekly seminars and musical evenings. Whether intellectuals, academics, or composers, it hosted several known figures nationwide. To name a few, the Council invited Mahmoud Darwish, Radwa Ashour, Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati, Abd al-Muti Hijazi, Tayeb Tizini, Latifa al-Zayyat, Mamdouh Adwan, Ali al-Jundi, Muhammad Ali Shams al-Din, Joseph Harb, Elias Lahoud Muhammad Al-Abdallah, Hassan Abdallah, Shawqi Bzaih, Georges Jardaq, Salam Al-Rassi, Emily Nasrallah, Muhammad Dakroub, Mahmoud Amin Al-Alam, and Abdul Rahman Munif — the list goes on.
Aside from championing diversity and pluralism, Sadek himself had a diverse background. Poet and intellectual Muhammad Dakroub wrote of Sadek, "You can talk about Habib Sadek, the poet, and his artistic prose, or Habib Sadek, the activist, and cultural activist, and Habib Sadek the person,  and friend who pulsates with friendship. Habib Sadek is a progressive and also a scholar, researcher, and prospector.”
Sadek’s political work was significant but short-lived by choice. He was elected a member of the Lebanese Parliament in 1992. He helped establish the Democratic People’s Movement, a democratic platform aiming to unite Lebanese leftists and secularists in an inclusive framework, as an opposition political movement. However, he withdrew from Nabih Berri’s coalition and retired six months after the election, though he continued to serve his full term in Parliament. His ‘exile’ from politics was attributed to two grand betrayals and the growing threat against anyone who shared his political position. In the 1980s, malicious dark forces targeted progressive Shiites, including some prominent cultural figures on the left with whom he was allied. He frequently traveled throughout the 1980s and 1990s, partly for medical treatment for leukemia. However, some confided to me that he wanted to avoid sharing the fate of some of his friends, like philosopher Hussein Mroueh and theorist Mehdi Amel.
Anti-Israeli resistance during the 1980s catalyzed the first betrayal. Leftist Shiites, non-Shiites, and Islamic forces (later Hezbollah or the Islamic Resistance) led the resistance to the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon. According to students of that era, the assassination of leftist Shiites resulted from intense political competition between the secular left and Hezbollah. The Islamic resistance emerged as victors over the secular left that Sadek supported. Sadek’s early departure from political exile was a physical withdrawal from those supposed to fight a common enemy.
Continued disappointment in those considered allies accounted for the second betrayal in 2005 when former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated. Secular Shiites sympathized with the late Prime Minister, who was not friendly with Syria or its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. Their sympathy also increased as the dominant theory about who was behind the assassination picked up momentum, namely Syria and Hezbollah.
Following Hariri’s assassination, the anti-Syrian and anti-Hezbollah alliance failed to deliver despite positioning themselves as allies of secular Shiites, including leftists. At the 2005 election, anti-Syrian and anti-Hezbollah forces, mainly moderate Sunni and major Christian groups formed alliances with Hezbollah and old Shiite feudal groups that Sadek had historically fought with. Several sources claim this betrayal marked the deciding factor in Sadek’s self-imposed exile from Lebanese politics. Disappointed by the sectarian and corrupt system and its laws, he withdrew from politics and devoted all his time to the Cultural Council of Southern Lebanon.
Sadek’s friends Hussein Mroueh, who was killed in his bed, and Mehdi Amel were targeted and assassinated in the 1980s. Decades later, others continue to share similar fates, more recently the assassination of Luqman Selim in 2021. Sadek’s death on his bed at the age of 92 may be “a luxury out of reach for those who imitate him,” in the words of Muhammad Barakat in Asas Media. For while Habib Sadek died in ‘exile,’ as some may view it, he died on the bed of culture, having devoted his life to the South and opening its doors to plurality. His legacy is honored In the words of Jezzini: “People like Habib Sadek do not die; they ignite their lives to light the way for us. It is the way of the free and liberated South, the way of the South to the homeland, and the way of the homeland to salvation.”
“Farewell to Habib Sadek (1931-2023): Friend, Poet, and Exceptionally Honest Politician” by Elie Chalala is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming Al Jadid, Vol. 27, No. 84. 
Subscribe to Al Jadid Digital for $15.95. Subscribers gain access to Al Jadid’s online archive, which includes 18 years of Al Jadid Magazine issues and the last two years of Inside Al Jadid Reports: https://www.aljadid.com/content/digital-subscribe-0
If you are a student and your library is not subscribed to Al Jadid, contact your library to subscribe to Al Jadid’s institutional subscription:
If you are interested in purchasing print copies of Al Jadid Magazine (Nos. 42-75), contact us at aljadid@aljadid.com or by mail:
Al Jadid Magazine
5762 Lincoln Ave. #1005
Cypress, CA 90630
Copyright © 2023 by Al Jadid