Thirty-nine years ago, on 17 February 1977, Shukrallah Karam, 63, the only resident physician in the south Lebanese town of Khiam, where he was raised, was doing what he did best — tending to the sick and wounded at his house-turned-makeshift-clinic. Outside, Israeli tanks and troops were approaching on one of their many incursions into Lebanon.
Karam’s wife Wadad and their six children had fled to Beirut and pleaded with him to join them there. But Karam, a former mayor of Khiam, was determined to stay. “How can I have peace of mind when I am surrounded by thousands of miserable people?” he wrote. “Who would take their temperature and listen to their heartbeat?” Later that day, Israeli agents shot him dead.
A year later, south Lebanon fell under Israeli occupation. Karam’s town became home to the notorious Khiam prison, where hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinians were locked up and tortured. It bore witness to a brutal occupation that lasted until 2000.
Karam’s assassination marked the end of a distinguished career of public service to the residents of Khiam and surrounding villages. The poor people’s doctor, as he was known, was a community leader who used medicine and social activism as a weapon against local injustice and foreign oppression. His story sheds light on the largely neglected fight of the ordinary people of southern Lebanon at a time when armed struggle was far from the unified and formidable force that it has turned into today under Hezbollah. Karam’s actions and beliefs embodied the secular politics of national unity and economic development that animated progressive forces in Lebanon prior to the civil war in 1975, before they were gradually replaced by virulent sectarianism.
Karam obtained his medical degree in surgery from the American University of Beirut in 1937 when Lebanon was still under French rule. Unlike most of his peers, who sought success in Beirut or other Lebanese cities, Karam decided to return to Khiam and attend to the needs of southerners, who were marginalized by an indifferent central authority. He helped improve the health and welfare of southerners, operating from his home, or roaming the region, initially on a horse loaded with medicine and later in his car, to treat peasants and workers.
By the early 1950s, Karam had become a household name. In 1956, Ali Hamdan, 15, had been tilling at nearby Shebaa farms when his pickaxe hit a rock and a thin metal shard split off and settled in his right eye. “I lost vision in my eye and when I used a primitive treatment with tea drops things got worse,” he remarked decades later. After a two-hour trek, the doctor had operated on his eye: “He refused to charge my parents a penny for the visit or the operation and told them to use the money to buy eye drops and a cream. As you see, I am okay and I don’t wear glasses.”
Karam’s public service blurred the lines between private and public life. This left a strong imprint on his eldest son, also Karam, who became an accomplished physician in his own right and then health minister in 1998. As a child, Karam Jr admired his father’s vocation but lamented the price: “Rare were the meals that we did not share with patients, who frequently showed up in our private quarters and bedrooms. [My father’s] complete devotion, like taking no vacations, supplying the needy with medications, tending a dying patient for hours on end, made any later sacrifices of my own seem trivial.”
In times of war, Karam was no less committed to saving lives. Before Lebanon’s independence he had opposed French occupation. Even so, during WWII, his willingness to treat the wounded of all stripes on the battlefield earned him an accolade from the allied forces. He turned it down and suggested donating the money to those in need. During the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967, Karam, staunchly opposed to Zionist plans in Palestine, was on the frontline. In 1948, he turned his house into a field hospital and welcomed Palestinian refugees fleeing Israeli attacks and wounded Syrian soldiers stationed in Lebanon. In 1967, he headed to Mount Hermon where he supplied medical aid to Syrian fighters.
Following the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, Karam tried to prevent Khiam from getting caught up in the internecine conflict between Lebanese and Palestinians. But the Israeli authorities tried to win the support of the Lebanese by setting up a “goodwill wall” on the borders which offered free treatment to Lebanese citizens. Aware that this move aimed to sow divisions, Karam drove to the border crossing and offered free treatment to stop people seeking Israeli aid.
According to his son, Karam’s presence hindered Israel’s plans to divide and conquer. “He was the only physician in Khiam. People solicited his medical services but also his social advice. He was widely known as a warrior for all national causes and a stout opponent of the occupation of Palestine. His political influence on the region’s youth and ordinary citizens was all too obvious. So they decided to take him out.”
Karam’s influence came from his political understanding of humanitarian work. “His struggle for citizens’ rights, freedom from oppression and social equality were part of his beliefs,” his son says. Karam avoided party politics but advocated popular political causes. In the 1950s, he was a proponent of the pan-Arab nationalism of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. In Lebanon, he forged a strong relationship with the progressive leftist leader Kamal Jumblatt. In the village, he helped found the Khiam Cultural and Social Club in 1974, a project ahead of its time, before civil society had become a popular concept. But then civil war broke out, and three years later Israeli invasion nipped the club’s potential in the bud. The liberation of Khiam in 2000 revived interest in the project and people were finally able to openly celebrate the doctor’s legacy. And in 2012, following fundraising efforts by Karam Jr and others, a new complex was built, named after the doctor. It boasts dozens of annual cultural activities including poetry sessions, painting exhibitions, and foreign language classes.
Almost 40 years after the doctor’s death, Karam Jr reflects on his father’s decision to stay behind in Khiam: “It saddened me to no end [but] I did not expect otherwise.” He recalled how, before his death, the father used to listen to Adagio by Albinoni on the radio: “Whenever I hear that music, I see him holding his head in his palms and following the news.”
This piece first appeared on Le Monde Diplomatique earlier this week and is republished with its permission and that of the author.