BEIRUT — After almost 50 years of dedicated service to L’Orient-Le Jour and the free press, our colleague Thérèse Saber passed away on Friday, Dec. 30, 2022.
Office manager, rule enforcer, “the mother of the office,” Thérèse was all this and more.
She was our neighbor at L’Orient Today, and would occasionally pop in for an announcement. We would talk about life and stories. When asked about her kids, Thérèse would answer: “You are all my children.”
Thérèse started working at the paper in 1973. “I was as old as you,” she would say, without revealing her age.
She very quickly had to adapt to a multitude of life-changing and sometimes traumatic events: two years into her time at the paper, Lebanon would be engulfed in fighting. L’Orient-Le Jour was forced to give up its offices in downtown Beirut and relocate to the Nahar building in Hamra.
In 1976, sniper fire took the life of editor Edouard Saab, as he was trying to cross the so-called Green Line dividing what were then known as East and West Beirut.
Thérèse once acted as impromptu hostage negotiator. As former editor Najib Aoun recalled during her funeral service on Saturday, at one point during the Civil War, he and a group of reporters were kidnapped by a militia. He negotiated to make a phone call: the first person he reached was Thérèse. She negotiated relentlessly until she secured their release. Eventually, the militiamen escorted the journalists back to the newspaper, where Thérèse promptly shooed them away with a broom.
Another former editor-in-chief, Issa Ghorayeb, remembers: “When Israelis were about to invade Beirut [in 1982], Thérèse and I went straight to the supermarket to stock up. There was no bread so we bought toast and crackers, we stocked up on tuna, sardines and corn beef.” Thérèse quickly stored these in the newspaper’s cupboard and was responsible for rationing the supply for the duration of the war.
This unofficial hall monitor role, or “chaperone,” extended to the present day. Thérèse valued keeping the image of the paper; to that end, she enforced a strict dress code on the floor: “No shorts,” she would say “in case the minister comes by.” Eventually the minister did come, and so did Thérèse’s grinning “I told you so.” Thérèse came from a generation when journalists wore shirts and chinos to work. Many of us were scared to be caught dead in shorts, but when we did follow her dress code she would pat us on the back and say “good work.”
You could always regain her trust with a kind act. If you helped her replace the water tank, or if you helped her decorate the office for Christmas, a role she took very seriously, then you had a place in her good books. She always kept a donation box on her desk which she would disperse to charitable causes during Christmas.
She was dutiful and loyal to her job. She made sure that L’Orient was in tip top shape, made sure we all had coffee, the right accreditation to get into parliament, and to get access to the right people during elections; she ordered supplies and signed gas vouchers. She also took on the newspaper’s society notebook section; the reception, invoicing and distribution of notices and advertisements; as well as the meticulous management of supplies.
But more importantly she provided her maternal support to the entire staff. She was someone to talk to, someone to share ideas and exchange hardships with.
One colleague noted that she was always a shoulder you could lean on, always ready to receive what you would share with her.
The emotional labor women like Thérèse put into their job often goes unnoticed and under-appreciated, but was essential for the smooth running of the newspaper.
She was the unofficial historian and memory of the newspaper, having lived through its many changes and evolutions. This self-starter, as a colleague described her, began when L’Orient-Le Jour was still being printed manually, and learned how to use computers and InDesign as her job evolved.
It is hard to walk around the office and not bump into her; she was a busy bee, something always had to be done. It is hard to pass by her office and not see her typing away on her iMac.
Her loss was felt today. Thérèse is survived by her siblings and her loving colleagues at the newspaper.