Friday, October 10, 2008

Struck Gold – The Last Lebanese Ismaili

The Middle East Premiere - Beirut, Lebanon - Day 3 - Oct 7

The phone calls and e-mails finally led to success. I think I found what may be the last Lebanese Ismaili living in Beirut. And I think you all know him from the film.

Remember this shot:

This is 1957 when Prince Aly Khan landed in Beirut and drove to Syria to tell the Ismailis there that his son is the rightful successor to the Imamate and to follow him. Look at the person on Prince Aly Khan’s right (the person at the far left of the screen). This is Abdul Hamid El-Fil. He is a Lebanese Ismaili still living in Beirut – and I met him! The above is a frame from the film. This is Abdul Hamid’s photo of the same event:

Virtually identical.

Abdul Hamid is wonderful person with incredible stories – and lots of great photos.
This is one of them that he says is of that same event when Prince Aly Khan drove to Syria. Abdul Hamid is in the passenger seat with Prince Aly Khan behind the wheel.

Abdul Hamid (born in 1931) told me how his father was close to the previous Aga Khan and how they had gone to the funeral in Aswan. Since then Abdul Hamid has accompanied Prince Sadruddin, Prince Aly Khan and the current Aga Khan when they used to visit Beirut. It was with much happiness, he tells me, that when the Aga Khan visited Syria this past August, Abdul Hamid went there to attend an event. He retells that the Aga Khan was shaking the line of stretched hands when he saw Abdul Hamid and said enthusiastically in French, “Oh, here is the family of Lebanon. It has been fifty years.”

Abdul Hamid was very moved.

Though he has not had much contact with the community for the past few decades, Abdul Hamid still has the love and affection for it and its Imam, and with many fond memories.

The (Aga Khan-following) Ismailis are designated as one of the official religions of Lebanon as listed in Lebanon’s Constitution. There is no community remaining though as most Ismailis, he says, left during the numerous wars in Lebanon.

His wife jokes that during one of the evacuations, they started frantically packing, and Abdul Hamid ran for the photos of him and his family with the Aga Khan. His wife said, “What about the valuables and the jewelery?” He said, “Those are all replaceable. These pictures are not!”

They eventually returned back to their home. Plus they have a factory in Bekaa, Lebanon.

Abdul Hamid tells me of how he got his business started in Lebanon: it was through the Aga Khan. The Aga Khan introduced him to the Madhvani family of East Africa in the 60’s. At that time, the Madhvani's were looking to get into textiles. Abdul Hamid knew a German girl whose family was involved in textiles and introduced them to each other which eventually led to a deal. Instead of getting the 5% commission for the deal introduction, Abdul Hamid just asked the Madhvani family to invest in a glass factory in Lebanon. A deal was struck and they went into business together.

The factory has done really well until it was bombed in Israeli air strikes during the 2006 war. I had to ask if it was a legitimate business. He said of course. I asked why he thinks they bombed it. He said Israel was probably trying to destroy the infrastructure of the country. Or maybe they have glass factories of their own and saw his as competition. I asked him and his family if they have ill feelings towards Israel? They said no, rhetorically asking, “How can you have ill feelings to all of the people? You can have ill feelings towards policies, not to all the people.”

Abdul Hamid’s wife is Sunni and their three kids are the same as her. He emphasizes we are all Muslim. Later he adds that his experience as an Ismaili has been formative and wishes his kids could have that interaction with the community as it is like a close-knit family. His daughter adds, "The stories he has told you today - we kids have never heard them. We didn't even know they existed. But we are very happy to have heard this side." Abdul Hamid said that watching the film has been a spark to these memories and adds that these stories from decades ago are as if he can see them right in front of his eyes again. "It is like it is just happening. Memories I make a few months ago, I may forget. These memories are vividly etched in my mind."

Abdul Hamid gave me these links and photos to share:
An article on the bombing of his factory: Daily Star
A post on when the Aga Khan came to Beirut:

Hassan El-Fil (left), father of Abdul Hamid, with His Highness the Aga Khan (right) and Mustafa Mirza of Syria (center)

Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan with Abdul Hamid El-Fil at the El-Fil residence

Bombay 1957, the Aga Khan (left) and Abdul Hamid (right)

His Highness the Aga Khan received by a few Ismailis from Lebanon. Abdul Hamid is standing far left.

Prince Aly Khan at Beirut Airport's official lounge. On his right, Mustafa Mirza (ex Minister of Syria) and on his left Abdul Hamid El-Fil.

Prince Sadruddin at Beirut Airport's official lounge. Abdul Hamid is on the right.

At a gathering at the El-Fil residence with Prince Sadruddin.

Bombay 1957: His Highness the Aga Khan with Abdul Hamid El-Fil. Abdul Hamid says it was around this time when he pledged spiritual allegiance to the Aga Khan

On a visit to the El-Fil residence in the mountains of Lebanon, the Aga Khan and Abdul Hamid walk together.

Abdul Hamid (left) and Shamir (right) at the El-Fil residence - Oct 7, 2008


Anonymous said...


Congrates for successful premier of the FILM in Beirut Lebanon. i visited beirut 2 weeks ago, and i found/thought no Ismaili's there in beirut. pls. can u give me any contact of Abdul Hmaid i want to visit him insha allah in November.

Unknown said...

wow! kudos!!

Anonymous said...

Hello Shamir, we met briefly after your film show at Kampala. The story about the el-Fil family's connection with the Madhvani family hit a note with me as I am currently writing a book on Ugandan Asians - 1972 and all that - and had interviewed members of the Madhvani family for that. Manubhai told me about the glass factory when I told him my son was the deputy of the HCR during the Lebanon War. I'll include this snippet from your blog in my book.
Keep up the good work.
Look out for my book "around December 2008."

Shamir Allibhai said...

thank you all!

to the anon poster, pls email me and i can forward your email to abdul hamid and leave it to him to reply to you with his details.

Anonymous said...

Yam.Truely a blessed one. Congratulations....Nizar From Islamabad Pakistan

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Great acompleshments!My husband Sadru Pirani, my two children Nimet and Karim and myself visited Beruit in 1968. We were Abdul Hamid's guests. We even went to Jamatkhana in Beruit. Abdul Hamid visited Kampala few times and would always call upon us. We had many pleasant times with him. I wonder whether he remembers!
Gulshan Pirani

Shariff said...

Great going Shamir. You are not exposing history, you are certainly making history.

Anonymous said...

Amazing story with unforgetable memories.

Ahmed Jami sakhi said...

Congrates for successful premier of the ilm. I read the blogs in full, which gives the details about the background and presence of Ismaili community in Beirut, Lebanon. It is surprising to read that Abdul Hameed was so closely linked to MHI and the Noorani family.
He & his family members should be proud about this linkage and physical attachment.
Very interesting story for all Ismailis.