The Emir Farid Chehab Collection
The History and Public Policy Program unveils the Emir Farid Chehab Collection, an unparalleled resource for the study of Lebanese history and developments across the Middle East in the 20th century.
The Wilson Center’s History and Public Policy Program is pleased to announce the addition of a major new collection to its Digital Archive, the Emir Farid Chehab Collection.
The collection contains nearly 2,000 files from the private archives of Emir Farid Chehab, the chief of Lebanon's intelligence agency (the Sûreté Générale) from 1948-1958 and a major figure in Lebanese politics and diplomacy for decades. The first Arabic-language collection published by the History and Public Policy Program, it is also the largest collection added to DigitalArchive.org to date.
With hundreds of notes, analyses, and correspondences from Chehab and his informants and associates, the collection depicts the Middle East from the eyes of a regional insider, a perspective often difficult to find in existing primary sources. It is an unparalleled resource for the study of Lebanese history and developments across the Middle East in the 20th century.
Emir Farid Chehab: Father of the Lebanese Sûreté Générale
Often referred to as ‘Bay al Amn al Aam,’ or ‘Father of the Sûreté Générale,’ Emir Chehab took over as chief of Lebanon’s intelligence agency in 1948, only a few years after the country gained its independence. Over the next ten years, Chehab would take on a central role in Lebanon’s fight to retain independence and stave off foreign influence during an extremely formative time for the nation.
Chehab began his career as a detective for the French Police in Lebanon in 1930. He quickly rose in influence and developed a positive reputation not only as an officer, but as “a most charming and delightful person” – a prized quality for someone in his profession.
In 1941, however, he was arrested and imprisoned without trial by French authorities for allegedly contacting Nazi officials, though he later claimed the arrest was actually the result of political infighting. Chehab spent six months in solitary confinement before being released, only to be arrested again almost immediately after and re-imprisoned for a further eighteen months. This experience shaped his views not just on the French, but the West as a whole.
Following his release in 1943, Chehab acted as the liaison between Palestine Police and Lebanese Security Forces. Soon he was the Director-General of the Judicial Police, and then the Chief of the Sûreté Générale. As his role in international affairs increased, his remarkable charm and wit became key features in his success. Part of this charm came from how he spent his free time. He spoke seven languages and his hobbies included judo, fencing, and playing musical instruments. These characteristics and passions enabled Chehab to gain the confidence of others, and to obtain an understanding of the perspectives of allies and enemies alike.
Though a staunch anti-Communist, Chehab was wary of Western interests in Lebanon and the Middle East. Understandably mistrusting of the French, given their history in the region, he also deemed Americans ‘temperamentally incapable of understanding the complexities of the Levant.’ Chehab even mistrusted the Arab League, which he believed relied too heavily on Soviet support.
Because of internal politics, Chehab felt he could not trust many of his own Lebanese colleagues, and kept many of his contacts to himself. The Sûreté Générale at the time was full of people whose allegiances were often unclear. Chehab is said to have trusted only five of the 100 officers working under him, and even then opted to analyze much of the incoming information himself. He oversaw nearly everything that came through the Lebanese agency, making his personal archive of assessments, recollections, and insights invaluable for understanding his country and the region at a critical time.
The Chehab Papers
Although many of Chehab’s papers were lost during times of political unrest or intentionally destroyed, a considerable portion of his archives survived and were eventually donated to the Middle East Centre Archive at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. A selection of the Chehab papers were also compiled by Youmna Asseily and Ahmad Asfahani and published in the 2007 volume, A Face in the Crowd.
Since 2016, the History and Public Policy Program has worked with the Middle East Centre Archive and Youmna Asseily, Emir Farid Chehab’s daughter, to digitize the collection and bring it into public light.
The collection spans over 50 years, with materials from the 1930s through the 1980s. It includes police reports dating to Chehab’s days as a detective, informer notes, wiretap transcripts as well as his personal notes both as Director of the Sûreté and as a diplomat. In addition to the documents from his work as Chief of the Sûreté Générale, Chehab’s diaries offer insights into his thinking on issues of the day, which he would then share with the country’s leadership.
The files provide a wealth of information not only about Lebanese politics, foreign relations, and society, but also about movements and trends across the entire Middle East, including Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
The papers are freely accessible in the Emir Farid Chehab Collection on DigitalArchive.org. To aid researchers and students who cannot read Arabic, a subset of the collection has been translated into English. Additional background and timeline of Chehab’s life is also available.
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