Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

In Memoriam: Issa Khalil Sabbagh (1917-2000)

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

In Memoriam: Issa Khalil Sabbagh (1917-2000)

Article excerpt

IN MEMORIAM: Issa Khalil Sabbagh (1917-2000)

Issa Khalil Sabbagh died in Saudi Arabia on Jan 15. He and his Swedish-born wife, Ulla, were visiting her son by a previous marriage, Samir, a Saudi resident, who had arranged for them to welcome the third millennium under the desert stars in the country where they had met and which they always had loved.

Issa, who was born in Safad, Palestine and who spent World War II at the microphones of the Arabic Service of BBC London, was such a great performer and raconteur that one has to be careful in recalling anecdotes about him. Which stories do I remember personally, and which were part of the legend that grew up around the Voice of America's and U.S. Information Agency's most colorful Arabist? I wasn't personally present when, after he accompanied a distinguished Arab leader one evening to the Jimmy Carter White House, the president insisted on taking Issa to the family quarters to say goodnight to Amy Carter. His young daughter, the president said, would never forgive him if she learned that one of her favorite visitors had been in the White House but she hadn't seen him.

I was present in Damascus when U.S.-Syrian relations were restored during a visit by President Richard Nixon in the summer of 1974. At the dinner formalizing the event Issa sat between the U.S. and Syrian presidents and, in addition to sharing interpreting chores during the meal with President Assad's Americanist adviser, Issa also translated, paragraph by paragraph for the audience, President Nixon's impromptu remarks during the traditional exchange of toasts.

It had been a grueling trip for the president, with a ceremonial train ride between Alexandria and Cairo with crowds estimated at up to two million people lining the tracks as Nixon and Anwar Sadat prepared to restore U.S.-Egyptian relations. Then more of the same in Damascus, with Amman still to come. Nixon, who knew by then that restoring relations with the Arab countries would probably be one of the very last acts of his Watergate-doomed presidency, was grey with fatigue. Perhaps it was exhaustion, but as the president began to speak, I noted that his voice was hoarse, some of his words seemed slightly slurred, and his remarks were not carefully organized. But then Issa swung into action and I saw for myself what this eloquent broadcaster, known from one end of the Arab world to the other even before he came to the U.S. and became the Arabic "Voice of America," could do under pressure.

Immediately afterward I went to the press room and found that the journalists, who could not see but had only heard what had gone on, had three distinct reactions. Those from the traveling White House press corps, who spoke only English, asked, "Was the president drunk?" By contrast, those who spoke only Arabic said, "We had no idea your president was such an eloquent man." And those very few who spoke both languages well spoke wonderingly of Issa Sabbagh's skill, as he interpreted Nixon's words, in organizing and polishing them.

But that was what Issa Sabbagh did in all of his work from the time he arrived from London after World War II to found the Arabic service of the Voice of America. He put the best possible face on U.S. and Arab relations, despite the deliberate efforts of many journalists, and the perhaps inadvertent actions of some politicians, to worsen them.


Meanwhile, less visibly, he fought a private battle of his own on behalf of his children and all Arab Americans. There was a kind of unspoken, and perhaps unconscious assumption in those days by some members of the traditional foreign service that those whose ancestors had arrived in previous centuries were somehow more American than those who came later, bearing more varied names. That feeling is now gone, totally. But in large measure that is thanks to people like Issa, who felt neither more nor less equal than any of the others who had arrived before. …

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