Gruff voice. Piercing eyes filled with warmth. Well built. Strong manly handshake that compliments a stronger embrace. These are some of the characteristics that one notices in Walid Kalaji, or the ones who were fortunate enough to know him personally.
I met Abu Hassan in 2003. We were sitting two computer screens apart at The Star Weekly‘s office at Addustour. It was 2003. It was my second day, or third day, on the job. I was interning as a journalist.
As the ice thawed, and upon introducing myself, Walid asked me if I was the son of the very same Abu Mike, the owner of Photo Paramount the photography studio between Jabri and Al Quds Restaurant. I said yes. He burst in excitement and said, “you are the son of Abu Mike? I know your father. He used to take our portraits. He knows my entire family.”
I asked him if he was related to Fida Kalaji. He said yes adding that she is his cousin. Small world that just got smaller.
Abu Hassan, one of Jordan’s disciplined and couth journalists, and sharp opinion writers, and a true gentleman by all means, sadly passed away a few days ago.
It took me a few minutes to process that the man I knew, and whose friendship I appreciated throughout the years, no longer existed in our physical world. A mutual friend called me about his passing away. Two days later I almost came to tears as I drove to work. He was my editor; my mentor.
This amazing man edited my words for a period of eight years. I knew him since 2003. 10 years of friendship, or what I would love to call true camaraderie. We talked assignments, discussed news, talked politics, disagreed and agreed on many things like words, phrasing, syntax, passion, objectivity, journalism, cinema, the world and life.
He tested my mettle. He pushed me and I pushed back. He appreciated my being and I appreciated his being.
A few days ago his body was laid to rest and a wake was held in a tent adjacent to his childhood home, where his mother still lives. I went with my father to pay respects.
We live as if this life will never come to end. We live by the hope that we will call or visit each other in a day or two. We never realize that! I didn’t realize that either. Deep down in my heart I know but I choose not to know.
A night before his death my childhood friend, one of six in my close circle of trusted friends whom I grew up with, his wife and daughter paid me a visit. We somehow ended up talking about Abu Hassan. Yazan was a friend of Abu Hassan’s nephew. He was the one who told me about Abu Hassan’s death.
I cannot recall what was the line that led us to talking about my wedding, that was held in Syria, and that Abu Hassan attended. Yes, he honored me with his presence, which leads us to what happened when my wedding party wrapped up and I, with my other half, Nesrin, were about to leave our guests to go on our honeymoon.
Abu Hassan, with the warmest of smiles, a smile that you only see on the face of a close family member, approached me. He slipped a white envelope in my jacket’s inside pocket saying, “Mabrook Mike! See you upon your return!”
When it was time to open all the envelopes that contained money – a long time tradition to help the newlyweds to start their life with a humble sum – I was surprised to find a 10 dollar bill in his envelope. I didn’t give it a second thought for it must have been a mix up!
A month later and upon heading to work and entering The Star office Abu Hassan met me with a warm embrace. After a few minutes he pulled me aside and asked me, in a rather embarrassed tone, “What did you find in the envelope? I pulled a 10 instead of a hundred. Here is your 100 Mike. Mabrook!”
Every time I, or my wife, kids and family have a drink of water, it is from the water cooler that I bought with Abu Hassan’s 100 dollars.
In late 2008 I ended my career as a full time journalist and writer for The Star Weekly. I was leaving a home. It was more than a workplace. Colleagues became family members that you see everyday. People you love and respect. I haven’t told Abu Hassan about my intention to leave. I was blinded by my frustration of a profession and an community that looked down upon our work as English writers journalists. Sadly, many Arabic language journalists are no more than idiotic self-centered prigs who hide behind a badge.
Abu Hassan was shocked and refused to talk to me for a week. Eventually and after a few visits I managed to unlock his heart. He chided me saying, “How could you, of all people, not tell me of your plans?”
It was heartbreaking for the both of us but not as heartbreaking as The Star closing its doors for good. The idiots, behind that call, killed a great weekly that held within its pages passion, good reporting, spine and integrity penned by motivated individuals like Abu Hassan and Maha Al Sharif, and everyone who worked there from Ghassan Joha, may he rest in peace, to Marwan Asmar, Mahmoud Fares (Abu Fares), Zaki Qurban, Zeid Nasser, Ali Al Khalil, Nour Saleh and Osama Al Sharif.
“Always stick to your guns!” he used to tell me, an advice that I used more than often even when doors were slammed after heated arguments over edits or story angles. He even once kicked me out of his office and when he realized I haven’t slammed the door he said in a rather cold tone, “What? Aren’t you going to slam a door?”
What saddens me most is that of all the years we worked together we never paused to take a photograph together. We were too busy learning about each other and working our way through journalism in Jordan. The only photograph I have with Abu Hassan is from my wedding album. I ended up going through the internet hoping I’d find a photograph that captured his essence. The one in his FB profile was of low resolution. I wanted one that captured the man he was. I was fortunate, and after a few clicks, to find the one I uploaded with this piece.
The things I mentioned here are but a few things that I experienced with an amazing man, who will not only be missed by his loved ones but by his friends and colleagues. Maybe in time these stories will surface in one way or the other: Here or somewhere else. I am sure your legacy will live on dear man.
The Abu Hassan I know and love is now in a different realm. This is life: Birth and death. There isn’t much we can do about that. But now I know better. When you miss someone and want to pay him a visit with a package of hot Armenian Safeeha make sure you do it on the very same day that thought occurred to you because you will never know if he will be around to eat it with you or not.
Rest in peace Abu Hassan; rest in peace Walid Kalaji …
Love and respect to your beautiful person and soul!
Wish you were here to edit this!
Mike V. Derderian