Men Who Dream Can Do is the title of an autobiographical volume published by Quartet Books last month. It is by George Zakhem, and it traces his career as a Lebanese international contractor and engineer and the dramatic times this has led him through.
Much praise was heaped on the book by his wide assortment of friends, but the British press has run true to form in not even noticing its existence. The attention of the media is gripped mainly by the memoirs of so-called celebrities and secondly by writers whose names are already established. There is little, if any, room in the book pages of our national newspapers for works that do not ring an instant, superficial bell, and matters of a more enduring value have become a rare concept.
At the very least this might be classed as a failure of the imagination. The monopolising trend and narrowing of options in the press is something we have seen gain momentum. If it continues as at present, then the British public can only become the poorer from having its horizons restricted to material for short-term populist home consumption.
Quartet has been well aware of the difficulties of securing press coverage outside these categories. It has no intention, however, of abandoning the publishing of books that fail to match these stereotypes. Titles that are well written, stimulating and show original viewpoints will always find a place in our list. We would go so far as to say that publishers have a moral obligation to disregard the new addiction to media-engendered demand, irrespective of the pitfalls that follow from a perceived lack of commerciality.
George Zakhem rose from humble beginnings, born in a small village in the mountains of Lebanon, to become as well known as a philanthropist as for his business acumen. The heights he has scaled have made him an international figure, highly regarded within and outside his own country. I first met him briefly in the 1980s, but only got to know him properly very recently. As our relationship has grown into friendship, I have realised that we have many things in common. This applies in our political thinking and is also related to the people we have known and our philosophy and aspirations in life.
George Zakhem’s background and my own are not dissimilar. We have both had to fight our way to reach levels of success that will enable us to spread our wings in areas where we can make a significant contribution to the world. Our lives have run in parallel from the point where we began our ascendancies, and we each retain happy memories of those people who, to a large degree, influenced our future development.
I vividly remember the first Englishman I met who became a lifetime friend. This was the journalist George Hutchinson, a biographer of Harold Macmillan, who had accompanied Macmillan on his important trip to the Soviet Union to meet Nikita Khrushchev in 1959 and open a dialogue with Russia over arms control. George, when I first knew him, was working for Lord Beaverbrook, the newspaper tycoon whom Churchill had coopted into his War Cabinet during the Second World War. He was also a great friend of the legendary Emile Bustani, a presidential hopeful in Lebanon. As with George Hutchinson, Emile’s life was cut short relatively early, though in his case in a plane that crashed into the sea after take-off in Beirut. On several occasions George Hutchinson took me with him when he visited Emile Bustani in the permanent suite, furnished by himself, that he had taken in the Hyde Park Hotel in Knightsbridge.
As I now realise, Emile was George Zakhem’s mentor and role model. I got to know Emile as well as one could from a few visits, and was struck by his charisma, which I found totally engrossing. George Zakhem’s description of Emile in fact verges on hero worship . It only goes to show the high esteem in which he held this great figure, but it is also typical of the author himself. Beneath his veneer of the hard practicality of a practising entrepreneur, whose survival made him the man he has become, he is notable for his outgoing urge to generosity in both spirit and worldly goods.
My own mentor was Yusif Bedas, who built up Intra Bank from its base in Beirut to a worldwide empire in the late 1950s. He taught me a great deal about finance, but was yet another one who died at the zenith of his achievements. Yusif and Emile were close friends, and George Zakhem also knew him well. Life has a strange way of linking its patterns of destiny.
A few months before George Hutchinson died, I was the publisher of his final book, The Last Edwardian at No. 10, his study of Harold Macmillan. Then I published the memoirs of Emile’s widow, Laura Bustani, A Marriage out of Time: My Life with and without Emile Bustani. Finally, to complete the trilogy, I have published George Zakhem’s autobiography, Men Who Dream Can Do.
Indeed, giants in their time have all been men who dreamed and whose dreams have become reality. The lesson to be learnt is that dreams bring hope, dedication and a passion to use our abilities to do what seems like the impossible and be remembered for never having given up. In George Zakhem’s life, many financial and political storms have raged about him, yet he has stood firm and defied the periods of crisis. More than that, he has diverted proportions of his acquired assets of wealth into supporting worthwhile causes and forward-thinking projects for the future of the region of his birth.
In the Middle East, cultural generosity is in its infancy, and George Zakhem will always be remembered among its pioneers. This November he reached even further with his ethical ideals to give $1 million to establish the George and Lisa Zakhem Kahlil Gibran Chair for Values and Peace in the Department of Anthropology in the University of Maryland. Gibran, the early twentieth-century Lebanese-American poet and thinker, was one of those rare and important advocates for peace, cultural pluralism and human rights who has had a profound influence on many minds. Certainly those were also the business ideals that Emile Bustani followed in his enterprises in the Middle East and elsewhere. In 1988 Quartet published a biography of Gibran by his life-long friend, the Lebanese writer Mikhail Naimy. I even attempted to put Gibran’s life on stage, but copyright complications at the time proved too difficult to overcome.
George Zakhem’s life story makes an intriguing narrative. He interweaves this with many telling anecdotes and insights on the personalities and events encountered along the way. Above all, his book enlightens, combining the optimism of hope with his Christian faith and ethical aims.