Khalil Habib Sayegh (1919-2009)

White RibbonKhalil Habib Sayegh, the founder of the Librairie du Liban and a pivotal figure in the world of books and education in the Arab world, died in January in Lebanon at the age of 89. His passing bookmarks a 65-year chapter in the publishing history of Arabic-speaking countries including Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Born in Damascus, Syria, Mr. Sayegh recognized that there was a hunger in the Arab world for English-language materials for educational purposes. In 1944 he founded the Librairie du Liban in Beirut, one of the Arab world's largest educational publishers and a long-time joint-venture partner with Longman, part of Pearson Education. But the 1940s were just the foreword to his career as a publisher, an educator and a mentor.

In 1958, Mr. Sayegh set up the Sphinx Bookshop in Cairo to introduce British books to Egyptian schools. Later milestones include his establishment in 1961 of the Longman Penguin Arab World Centre in Beirut, a dedicated marketing organisation for the Arab countries, and in 1981, of the Egyptian International Publishing Company-Longman, also a joint venture with Pearson, to serve the Egyptian market.

Mr. Sayegh's pan-Arab organization, now directed by his son Habib and cousin Pierre Sayegh, currently has 650 employees and produces tens of millions of books a year.

"My father always had a tremendous vision for the future," says Habib Sayegh, age 44, who has three sisters. "Right until his last days he was talking about new projects that may take 10 or 15 or 20 years to develop."

Mr. Sayegh's career in bookselling and publishing began in the early 1940s, when he taught commercial law and accounting at International College, then part of the American University of Beirut, and also ran the college bookstore. Colleagues say he remained a patient teacher all his life, sharing his business and publishing know-how with future generations.

The Librairie du Liban began in a basement location, selling English-language teaching books to Lebanese students. It expanded over the years, but it burned down in 1976 during the civil war in Lebanon, destroying all the stock overnight.

"Khalil was in Cairo the night of the fire," says Colin Hayes, former Arab world director for Longman, recalling conversations he had with Mr. Sayegh. "His younger brother Georges got him on the phone and said 'everything is finished.' Khalil asked him 'is anybody hurt?' and Georges told him no. So Khalil said, 'Then we will build it again.' This really reflected his personality - he was not thrown off course by anything." The bookstore was rebuilt again in 1990, after the Lebanese conflict ended, to its current size of 3,000 square meters.

Over the past six-and-a-half decades, Librairie du Liban has published hundreds of dictionaries, academic works, the Sciences of the Holy Koran, Islamic encyclopedias, atlases, children's books and textbooks for schools. The company's headquarters are now in a modern building outside Beirut.

Mr. Sayegh's expansion into the Syrian market began in 1948 when a sales manager from Longman asked him to meet up in Damascus. The sales manager then sent a telegram to Longman headquarters in Britain saying that a deal had been struck for Mr. Sayegh to be Longman's sole distributor for Lebanon and Syria, but the sales manager died in a plane crash on the way home. The telegram was honoured by Longman, and served as the basis for Mr. Sayegh's distribution arrangement with Longman until 1979, when more formal documents were signed.

"The long-standing relationship between Khalil Sayegh's family and Pearson has been instrumental in providing innovative educational material throughout the Arab world," says Christine Ozden, president of Pearson Education for the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean. "He was truly visionary, and enriched the lives of millions through that vision. He really was a teacher and a father figure to everyone he came into contact with."

Over the years, piracy arose as a problem for Mr. Sayegh and other publishers, which gave rise to another extraordinary episode in his life.

In the late 1960s, Mr. Sayegh and a top Longman executive paid a visit to King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, to express concern about some pirated books being used by his country's Education Ministry. After Mr. Sayegh presented a petition to the king, the monarch wrote on it, in Arabic, "May justice be done" - and tens of thousands of books were destroyed in a huge bonfire in the desert.

In recent years, Mr. Sayegh worked with the Edinburgh Business School, the graduate school of business of Heriot-Watt University, to provide graduate programs in business in the Arab world. In 2006, Heriot-Watt University honoured Mr. Sayegh with an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters.

In addition to his achievement in publishing, Mr. Sayegh will best be remembered for his compassion for people in need, says his son. "My father's view is not that we have 650 employees but 650 families that we look after," says Habib Sayegh.

One such family entered Mr. Sayegh's life more than a half-century ago when he taught a young boy in Beirut to write his name. The boy later began cleaning floors at the Librairie du Liban, rising over the decades to become general manager - and his children now run a factory in Beirut that laminates all the books Mr. Sayegh's business produces in Lebanon for export.

The legacy inspired by Mr. Sayegh means that his vision of educational enrichment lives on throughout the Arab world, so his passing merely turns the page - but doesn't close the book - on a remarkable slice of publishing history.

Mr Khalil SayeghA memorial service for Mr Khalil Sayegh will take place on Wednesday 8th April at St. Bride's Church, Fleet Street, London, EC4Y 8AU.

Please contact Lyn Kitteridge for further details, lyn.kitteridge@pearson.com