The Palestinian businessman Naim Attallah has just published Fulfillment & Betrayal 1975-1995, the third installment of his autobiography. His first two offerings The Boy in England and In Touch with his Roots tells of his arrival in London as an immigrant and penniless student (he once worked as a hospital porter and laborer) and his impressive rise as a financier.
He began his career in banking as a foreign exchange dealer with Crédit Foncier d’Algérie et Tunisie in the City of London. He went on to become the protégé of the brilliant but ultimately flawed Palestinian banker, Yusuf Beidas who, in early ‘60s, made Lebanon’s Intrabank the biggest financial institution in the Middle East. Intra’s collapse in 1966 has been called by many a national witchhunt and a conspiracy as well as a key milestone in the subsequent unraveling of Lebanon. It certainly destroyed Beidas, who died a broken man in Switzerland two years later.
Amid the legal debris of the collapse, Attallah was named as Beidas’s executor, a role that, despite his success in other areas, would haunt him for years. In 1995, a summons was issued by a Lebanese court on behalf of the Beidas family, accusing Attallah of breach of trust in his handling of the aftermath of the collapse. He fought and won the case. Of Beidas, he said: “I felt he became the underdog, the victim of political vindictiveness and maneuvering and if you balance his debits and his credits are far in excess of his debits.”
That would be career enough for most people, but Attallah went on to become a flamboyant film and television producer, publisher, author and journalist impresario, and friend to the stars.
He also gave me my first job.
He was a close friend of my parents (in In Touch with his Roots he chronicles a rather glamorous and spectacular car crash in London in the ‘60s involving my parents and Attallah and his wife, pining the blame on my father’s carefree driving habits) and when the time came to find something for young Michael to do before going up to university, I was dispatched to Quartet, his publishing house where Attallah bestowed upon me the title of office boy. My brief foray into Attallah’s world coincided with an era — written about in exacting detail in Fulfillment & Betrayal — that made him famous (and infamous) and which warmed the heart of a young man happy to see a fellow Arab have London society at his feet.
It was 1983 and the London gossip columns could not get enough of what they dubbed “Naim’s Hareem.” For an 18-year old with his hormones raging, working at Quartet was like collecting the mail for Hugh Hefner, except that these women had degrees from Oxford and had parents who either owned castles — Liza Campbell — or who ran the country — Nigella Lawson. Some of the nastier elements of London society bristled at how an arriviste Arab — Johnny Wog — with a comb-over hair style had snagged such blue chip totty, but Attallah had rhino hide for skin.
I would take packages from the Quartet offices in Goodge Street to Attallah’s penthouse office on Poland Street just off Soho to find London’s most desirable women draped over his office. “Naaaaayeem,” they would drawl. “Won’t you take us to lunch?” Attallah, first and foremost a businessman, would bat away their requests: “Not now darling. Later.”
Although not what it was, Quartet will be remembered as a genuine force in publishing and Attallah’s record as a publisher is considered, even by his many enemies, as that of more than just an exotic dilettante. Sure he had his lemons but he did publish The Joy of Sex! Furthermore, he never forgot he was an Arab. Quartet published two books that at the time were considered controversial: Jonathan Dimbleby and Don McCullin’s The Palestinians, one of the first in English to tell the Arab-Israeli story and God Cried, a searing account of the 1982 Israeli Invasion of Beirut, written by Tony Clifton and photographed by the late Catherine Leroy
Attallah went on to produce movies, found magazines and become the CEO of the Asprey. Now 77, Attallah is regrouping. When I interviewed him in London in February of last year, I put it to him that he must surely be slowing down, taking it easy. Sitting in his Mayfair office, and resplendent in a bright red shirt and natty black and red pinstripe suit, he said he had a few debts to pay off but then would “recapitalize and start again.”
Fulfillment & Betrayal 1975-1995 by Naim Attallah (Quartet), £25