Albert Samaha: An alchemist of situation

Albert Samaha, the unofficial "patriarch" of the Lebanese community in Luxembourg, is known and loved for the passion with which he celebrates his culture and engages with others. Five years ago, in recognition of his loving leadership during his years in Luxembourg, this community made Albert Samaha an Honorary President of the Cercle Libanais de Luxembourg.

Albert's peripatetic life has enabled and required him to make friends across cultures. Naturally charismatic and caring, he delights in sharing what he has learned. A passionate teacher, he has always loved to inspire and mentor children and adults, whether in his professional field of chemistry, his mother tongue of Arabic, or arranging community meals and cooking delicious food for Lebanese friends and new arrivals in Luxembourg.

In honour of the five-year anniversary of the founding of the Cercle Libanais de Luxembourg, we present here a profile of a man who has always followed his heart while using his head!

Baalbek: A Multicultural Starting Point
View of Baalbek 1890-1900 by Tancrède Dumas PD

View of Baalbek 1890-1900 by Tancrède Dumas

Albert was born in 1931, into a Lebanese Christian family. He spent his early childhood in Baalbek, a town of about 20,000 people of various faiths and persuasions, in Lebanon.

He was the youngest of five brothers and also had a younger sister. Although too young to be aware of the touristic interest in Baalbek's second-century Temple of Bacchus and many other relics of ancient religions, he enjoyed his childhood and primary education (1935- July 1942).

Through his large extended family, Albert has maintained his connection to Baalbek, now a very different place as the population has grown to about 100,000.

Jerusalem and Rayak: A Layman amongst Religious
Church of St Anne in Jerusalem

Church of St Anne in Jerusalem

It was common then for the Pères Blancs (Catholic priests) to recruit from large Christian families young boys to train as priests for the Greek Catholic parishes of Syria and Lebanon. One of his older brothers was already there when, aged 12, Albert was sent to board at the Greek Catholic Seminary of St Anne (Séminaire St Anne) in Jerusalem.

Albert remained in Jerusalem from 1942 until July 1946, when the Seminary relocated to Rayak in Lebanon. (The school had been offered the use of several military buildings left empty by the ending of the French occupation.) Albert moved with them and continued at the Seminary until July 1949.

He was never interested in the priesthood, but this very strict school was recognised for a high standard of general education. In fact, his brother had done so well there that he had gone straight into a B.Phil. in Lebanon without an entrance exam.
And, although it was tough, Albert feels it benefited him too.

Beirut: A Chemist amongst Teachers
A hand in a surgical glove holds a flask containing liquid above test tubes. A pipette with a drop hanging from its end hovers on the left of the image.

Chemistry was a passion for Albert

In 1950, eschewing the priesthood (and doubtless disappointing both the priests and some in his family who had hoped he'd take up the cloth), Albert too followed his own interests. He studied Industrial Chemistry at the Ecole des Arts et Métiers in Beirut, aiming to work as a factory chemist.

In his third year, Albert began practical experience in the chemical lab at the Ecole d'Ingénieurs des Pères Jésuites in Beirut (the only laboratory then qualified to do industrial chemical analysis.) He managed that work until April 1952.

While at the lab, he saw a man who had served 25 years suddenly made redundant. Concluding that the job was not secure, he decided to work instead for the Lebanese State and became a Maths, Physics and Chemistry teacher in technical schools linked to the Ecole des Arts et Métiers. Finding that he very much enjoyed teaching, he stayed for three years. He explains simply, “J'aime donner mon savoir aux autres.”

Belgium: A Craftsman amongst Smelters
A bronze of a woman with long hair and closed eyes, face slightly upturned, with a calm, half-smiling expression, cast in bronze for the artist by Albert Samaha

Womans head cast in bronze for an artist by Albert Samaha

In 1955, Albert sat an exam for an OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) bursary.

Lebanon had identified certain areas of study beneficial to the State. Albert's chemistry background and technical experience enabled him to choose a “Fonderie” specialisation that matched his skills and interests, and gave him some advantage over other candidates.

He was awarded the bursary and moved to Charleroi in Belgium for two years' study at the Université du Travail Paul Pastur. The study was interesting and challenging, and included learning how to cast works in bronze.

Albert cast a beautiful statue of a woman's head from a plaster model supplied by an artist. He graduated with a distinction in “Cours de Perfectionnement — Ecole Technique de Fonderie”.

Luxembourg: A Speaker of Arabic Falls in Love in French
Black-and-white photo of a handsome couple, smiling. Jeanine is turned slightly towards Albert, with her right hand on his chest.

Albert and Jeanine Samaha
Wedding Photo

The move abroad was important for Albert for another reason besides professional development. Five years earlier, he had begged a friend to ask a French-speaking female pen-pal in Luxembourg to recruit one of her friends to help him similarly with his French.

He had been delighted a few months later when Jeanine had volunteered. Over the years, their friendly correspondence had deepened in intimacy and they were feeling a mutual attraction.

So the move to Belgium gave them the opportunity to meet and decide whether there was anything in it. There most definitely was!

Albert and Jeanine married in Luxembourg in 1956. They had a wonderful honeymoon in Lebanon, where Jeanine met Albert's family and fell in love with the country.

Then, as Albert still had a year to finish in Charleroi, he returned to university, while Jeanine stayed with her parents in Luxembourg.

Lebanon, Belgium, Luxembourg: Choices amidst Love and War
View of the town of Zahlé nestled amongst gently sloping hills in Lebanon

Zahlé

After graduating, Albert sat another exam and was offered the job of Head of the Ecole Technique de Zahlé, a state school in Lebanon, not too far from his home town of Baalbek.

He and Jeanine moved to Jdeideh, Beirut, in 1957. Jeanine worked as a secretary at several Italian firms, and at the French embassy. Their daughter Marie-Claire was born in Lebanon.

In 1961, while visting Jeanine's mother in Auderghem, Belgium, the twins Jeanine was carrying decided to come early. So twins Nadim and Robert were “holiday children” born in Auderghem, to the delight of their grandmother! Then the family returned to Beirut, where the children spent a happy early childhood.

The war that began in April 1975 changed everything.

View from the ground of a grey statue of the Virgin atop a tall sandstone-coloured building

Our Lady of Bekaa

As hostilities intensified, Beirut became a very dangerous place to live. The situation was more than unstable; it affected their daily lives.

Nadim and Robert, who should have been free to enjoy their childhood and to concentrate on their studies, were afraid. Marie Claire had finished high school, but the boys were at risk from snipers on their two-kilometre walk to and from school.

Albert still had his job, and Jeanine was working at the French embassy in Lebanon and did not want to leave her adopted country, but the two boys had years of schooling left to finish and the country's future was uncertain.

Albert and Jeanine reluctantly decided that, to keep the family safe and to guarantee their education, they must take them out of Lebanon. They all thought it would be temporary (Jeanine would never have agreed, otherwise), and began to make plans.

This was a scary, difficult time of stress and separations for the whole family.

Luxembourg: An Academic Survives in Commerce

In December 1975, Marie-Claire had finished her baccalauréat in Lebanon and was visiting her grandmother in Luxembourg for a planned two-week holiday.

Gold statue of a woman in a flowing dress holding a golden wreath aloft as she looks down from her stone pedestal

Gëlle Fra World War I Memorial Luxembourg City

She was out of physical danger but, even though safe from bombs, she was touched by the war too. Albert advised Marie Claire to stay in Luxembourg, and to find a job.

Only 17 years old, sharing a small studio with her grandmother, she was thrust unexpectedly into an adult world working at a bank amongst people who did not understand her culture, her background or her fears.

It was urgent for Albert to reunite the family and to make them all secure.

He followed Marie-Claire to Luxembourg in November 1976, reluctantly leaving Jeanine and the boys behind. A previous student of his alerted him to an opportunity as Commercial Director of a construction company, where his background in metal foundry helped him get the job. However, he had much to learn about operating in a commercial environment. Although he was grateful for the work and applied himself as always to learning the new skills required, he was never one hundred percent at ease in the business world.

One advantage of working for a construction company, though, was that he could buy from them some land on which to build a house. Jeanine then moved to Luxembourg, while Nadim and Robert stayed with their uncle in Beirut until school places at the Institut Sainte-Marie d'Arlon in Belgium were confirmed six weeks later.

Even though the boys were at boarding school, the new house gave the whole family a secure base for a few years, a place to be at home together again.

Beirut: Seeking Stability amidst Unrest
Bunches of grapes hang from a pergola amidst green leaves in a vineyard Zahlé

Luscious Lebanese grapes

In 1978 Albert was requested by the Lebanese government to return and run the school where he had previously taught. The children by then were grown and pursuing university studies, so they stayed in Luxembourg and Belgium, but Albert and Jeanine were eager to return to Lebanon.

Jeanine, in particular, had been longing for the warmth and welcome of her adopted country. There followed, despite the ongoing unrest, twelve good years of professional and personal satisfaction. The children flourished abroad, but visited often, and all was well enough.

… Well enough, that is, until 1990, when the ongoing discontent of the war erupted in their midst.

Photo of a burned out building behind the central sculpture in Martyr's Square, Beirut, 1982

Martyr's Square, Beirut, 1982

Albert and Jeanine were still determined to stay if they could. The boarding school was not only Albert's place of employment, but also their home. It's testimony to the strength of their commitment that they did not leave until it was impossible to stay:

The school had given sanctuary to some soldiers and the war came to them. It was only after their apartment was destroyed and Albert and Jeanine were literally hiding behind the stairs in the school while a gun battle was fought within its walls, that they decided to leave again.

Luxembourg and Lebanon: Forging Links that Last

Luckily, the Lebanese State had offered Albert the opportunity to take early retirement. This enabled them to settle their affairs and return to Luxembourg. After some months with their daughter, they were able to buy a studio in Belair and establish themselves. In 1991, they bought an apartment in Bonnevoie which they made their home.

Black-and-white close-up photo of Albert and Jeanine Samaha. They are both older people and each wear spectacles. Jeanine leans on Albert's shoulder. They are both smiling. She is looking directly at the camera, while Albert is looking down as he focuses on something in front of him.

Albert and Jeanine Samaha

However, Albert affirms, “Ma relation avec le Liban n'a jamais été coupée.” As soon as possible, he began visiting his homeland several times a year, as a tour operator! Using a rented apartment in the mountains as a base, he delighted in sharing with tourists from Luxembourg the beauty and history of the beloved land of his birth.

Yet Albert is grateful for the peacefulness and safety of the country that offered his family refuge. Living in Luxembourg enabled Jeanine and Albert to stay close to their children, while frequent trips back to Lebanon maintained their and their children's contact with his brothers, the children's cousins, and the many friends acquired over the years.

Albert's beloved Jeanine passed away in June 2016, one month before their 60th anniversary. She is much missed by the family and those who knew her in both countries.

Putting Lebanon on the Luxembourg Map
View of sweets and pastries at the Lebanese Stand at the Bazar International de Luxembourg

Lebanese sweets at the Bazar International de Luxembourg

Reflecting on cultural differences, Albert comments with a smile that, “If you visit friends in Lebanon anywhere near lunch time, you always stay for lunch! In Luxembourg, a meal at someone's home is a much more formal, scheduled arrangement.” But through his Lebanon tours, and teaching Arabic in Luxembourg, he has also over the years made Luxembourgish friends, and shared meals with them!

Also an alchemist in the kitchen, Albert was always the main chef at home. Together, he and Jeanine brought people together around the family table for the sustenance of body and soul with delicious home-cooked food. In Luxembourg, he developed such a reputation for his Lebanese cooking that he was in demand for many years as a caterer for private parties.

And, for almost 25 years, while Jeanine ran the authentic Lebanese coffee service, Albert contributed his signature dishes to the Lebanese stand at the famous annual Bazar International de Luxembourg. He hopes to see you there 25-26 November 2017!

Celebrating the Cercle Libanais de Luxembourg
The family faces the camera, Albert and Janine seated, with their trhree grown children standing behind them.

Samaha Family LtoR: Albert, Nadim, Marie-Claire, Robert, Jeanine

Albert hugely values the support and comfort of family and community in both countries. His wide network has opened many opportunities, made every blow bearable, and created thousands of moments of happiness.

He encourages all Lebanese and all friends of Lebanon to make the effort to get to know and support each other, via the Cercle Libanais de Luxembourg. He says, “C'est une bonne chose pour faire connaître le pays et le peuple.”

Why not try it? Even if you haven't been for a while, or you've never been before, you will find a warm welcome at the Cercle's fifth anniversary celebration, to be held on 22 November 2017 in conjunction with La Fête de l'Independance du Liban.

 

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Albert Samaha was interviewed by Tia Azulay, assisted by Nadim Samaha
October 2017

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