Claude Salhani, former UPI photographer in Beirut, dies at 70

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Photographer Claude Salhani covered the civil war in Lebanon for UPI in 1980. Photo courtesy of Saleh Rifai

BEIRUT, Lebanon, August 22 (UPI) — Claude Salhani, a former United Press International photographer, writer and editor who covered Lebanon’s civil war and many other turbulent events in the Middle East, has died aged 70.

Salhani’s journey and passion for news began at the age of 18 in 1970, when he joined Lebanon’s leading newspaper An Nahar as a photographer. Back then, Lebanon was still a peaceful and prosperous place, but not for long.

That year, clashes broke out between the Jordanian army and Palestinian guerrillas in Jordan, known as “Black September”. This was Salhani’s first “real” mission, followed by many others: the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, the Lebanese civil war which broke out in 1975, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the war in Dhofar (Oman), Iraq of 1980-88. The Iran War, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the invasion of Kuwait in 1990-91 and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989.

He also witnessed the collapse of communism in Budapest and Moscow.

In 1973, Salhani joined the French photo agency Sygma and began accepting assignments from Time and Newsweek. In 1981, he joined UPI as head of its photo department in Beirut.

Covering the Israeli invasion of Lebanon a year later was probably the most difficult. One day, an Israeli 155mm heavy artillery shell hit the Reuters building in Beirut while Salhani was inside. It took him a while to realize he had escaped with only a sprained ankle.

On another occasion, Salhani was briefly detained by a Palestinian dissident group in Beirut. He was released thanks to PLO leader Yasser Arafat.

Although his coverage of the 1983 bombing of US Marine headquarters in Beirut led to his nomination for a Pulitzer Prize, Salhani had had enough. He decided to leave Beirut in 1984 and moved to Brussels, then London and Paris before returning to Washington in 1992.

For many photographers who knew him or worked with him in Beirut, Salhani was “different”.

“He wanted photographers to excel in their work and reach higher levels, especially young people,” Jamal Saidi, former chief photographer at Reuters, told UPI. “He respected and valued them, helping them in every way he could to secure their rights and take credit for their work.”

When he joined UPI in 2000 as an international editor, Salhani took the opportunity of Beirut hosting the Francophonie summit a year later to return to his home country and cover the special event that helped put Lebanon back on the international map. Rediscovering post-war Beirut, meeting old friends and eating his favorite hummus was enough to heal old wounds.

While in Washington, he also served as editor of the Middle East Times and The Washington Times and earned a master’s degree in conflict analysis and management from Royal Roads University in Victoria, British Columbia.

Salhani has frequently appeared on television as a political analyst specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia, politicized Islam and terrorism. He was known for never turning down a journalist’s request for an interview “even in the middle of the night”.

He is the author of four books: From Black September to Desert Storm: A Journalist in the Middle East (University of Missouri, 1998); While the Arab World Slept: The Impact of the Bush Years on the Middle East (Xlibris Corp., 2009), Islam without veil: the path of moderation in Kazakhstan (Potomac Books, 2011) and Inauguration day: a thriller (New York: Yucca, 2015).

Salhani died on August 13 in Paris.

“He passed away peacefully and painlessly. We are heartbroken to have lost a very special person with a huge heart,” his son, Justin, told UPI. “My father will probably be remembered as a renowned photojournalist, author and analyst and he would be proud of it…The void he left behind will be impossible to fill, but I wouldn’t trade the time we have spent together against anything.”

Salhani is also survived by her daughter, Isabelle.

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