By Nehru Odeh
When Habib Jaafar, Nigerian-born Lebanese businessman and philanthropist, started writing his autobiography, “African Odyssey of a Lebanese Emigrants: an autobiography of sorts,” little did he know he was about telling not just his story but also showcasing his immense literary talents. And little did he also know that he had always been a writer masquerading as a businessman.
However, that was what Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka and many other distinguished guests said when the book was presented to the public on Saturday 23 September 2023 at Eko Hotel and Suites, Victoria Island, Lagos.
It was indeed an afternoon of memories, tributes, nostalgia, humour and laughter. Highly distinguished guests present at the book presentation included Professor Soyinka; the Alake of Egbaland, Oba Adedotun Aremu Gbadebo 111; the 14th Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi 11; former Governor of Kaduna State, Nasir el-Rufai: former Governor of Ogun State, Senator Abikunle Amosun; and former Nigeria’s ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations, Chief Arthur Mbanefo.
Soyinka, who was the distinguished chairman at the occasion showered praise on the book that he had recommended for publishing, saying he identified with the author on many fronts, and adding that when he first read the draft of the book he said it was something Nigerians should be compelled to read because of the incredible similarities between Lebanon and Nigeria.
Soyinka also said when he read the book, he decided, “we must do everything to bring it out. And of course I bullied my publisher immediately. He used to be my student. I told him, ‘this one must come out.’
“I stand here with a very strong sense of identification with Habib on so many fronts. First of all, you heard Dele describing Habib as a masquerader, somebody really who should have gone into the humanities but went into business. In other words, an individual with a literary sensibility masquerading as a businessman.
“When I first read the draft of this work, I said immediately this is something which all Nigerians should be compelled to read. Because the similarities were really incredible, including even the experience of internal warfare.
Soyinka also described the book as a triumph of ecumenism. “Above all, represented by the characters with whom Habib Jafaar interacted, it is also a triumph of ecumenism, of tolerance, of acceptance of people as human beings first and foremost before their religion, before their ideologies, before anything else.
“There is a remarkable thread running through this work of friendship which began right in childhood and lasted through the tribulations of a truly troubled nation like Lebanon. But its humanity came out in spite of the negativities.
“Oh yes, the aggression, the quarrels, the disagreements, even the experiences of betrayal. Ultimately, it’s the human factor that really counts in the history of existence.
“And it’s a lesson to some of those extremists who believe that because they belong to this religion but not others, that those others should not breathe, should not walk the streets, should not breathe the same air that they breathe, that they are subhumans. There is something wrong, demonic about them.
“They should read this book and learn the crucial lessons which ultimately overcome all the divisions that exist in any community, and no community is exempt from.
“Also the tenacity of the main character of the book through tribulations, the capacity to overcome the seemingly insurmountable setbacks through various ways, the boldness of it.
“But ultimately, also I want to express my gratitudr to this individual here, (Habib) who have a deep sense of philanthropy, of contributions to society. That’s the other thread that runs through it – not just what I can get from society but what can I really contribute to my environment,” Soyinka said.
Mr. Bankole Olayebi, the publisher of the book, who described Habib as a remarkable storyteller, was also full of praise for the book. The Chief Executive Officer of Bookcraft Publishers said from the very first encounter with Habib’s manuscript, he found it extremely engaging. He also gave an account of how the work transformed from a manuscript into a book and all what went into making it a reality.
“I believe that this book is the happy result of a confluence of serendipitous circumstances. i first had the good fortune of meeting Habib Jaafar through Honourable Chief Arthur Mbanefo whose autobiography, “A Fulfilled Life of Service we just published. I was immediately struck by Habib’s warmth, restless energy and infectious enthusiasm.
“Subsequently, we met again, this time in the company of Professor Wole Soyinka. So you can see that Habib certainly knows how to choose his friends.
“But I supposed I will be stating the obvious if I say that my interactions with Professor Soyinka since I became his publisher in this part of the world about two decades ago has been one of the most important and productive of my publishing career.
“But how was I to know that my life would take this turn when I first met Professor Soyinka as one of his students in Ife 46 years ago. But that’s a story for another day
“As you can well imagine, being the prominent figure in world literature that he is, Professor Soyinka does receive quite a large number of manuscripts from every part of the world, from aspiring authors of all ages, cultures and backgrounds, With the hope obviously that some of that Nobel stardust will perhaps rub off on an average manuscript and transform it magically into a bestseller.
“But every now and again Professor Soyinka will share with me some of these manuscripts for publishing consideration. However, he will graciously add the caveat that I was not to feel obliged to publish if it was not something worth my while. In order words, he was loathe to put his thumb on the scale, as it were, believing of course that every manuscript was to be judged on its own merit.
“And so when he passed on Habib’s manuscript, Professor Soyinka said to me, ‘take a look and see what you can do.’ But I am happy to report that from the very first encounter with Habib’s manuscript, I found it extremely engaging.
“And as I said to him, when we finally sat down to discuss publication, this is a book that I would be happy to add to my library, whether or not I was the publisher
“Habib is quite a remarkable storyteller. And from the get-go I found his narrative quite compelling. it is not only full of wisdom but also marked by a certain robust energy, enthusiasm and earnestness. But what comes across in the book for me is Habib’s abiding humanity.
Dele Olojede, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who anchored the programme described Habib as a literary cultured man masquerading as a businessman.
“This room substantially reflects the central theme I think of Habib Jaafar’s life, which is an act of friendship. And if you have read the book, or are about to read it, this would strike you as the one singular thread that tied the story of his life together.
“I was honoured to be asked by him to do the Foreword. Some of you may already have read it but part of what I saw in reading the story of his life as told by himself is that this actually is a literary cultured man masquerading as a businessman.”
Nasir el- Rufai, however, noted that “Habib has many lessons for us in his book, on relationships, on philanthropy, on business, on identity, on a sense of history and value.
Still, Habib, who expressed his appreciation to those who went out of their way to grace the occasion, said he had three things in mind when he was writing the book.
“Finally, when I decided to write the book, I had three reasons in mind. The first was in memory of my father whom I owe a big debt. And second, posterity, with the hope that my children, my colleagues my friends will find something of interest in the book.
“But the reason I wanted to write this book is to say thank you to this great country, to this great people of Nigeria, to this great people of Africa for their kindness, humility and generosity.
“And the way they embraced not only me, but everybody regardless of skin, of religion, of race; and then not only embraced us but also instilled in us values of family, of kindness, of generosity which the world is in dire need of,” Habib maintained.