Assad Namrud, Lebanon’s last living train driver, passed away on November 18. We were fortunate to interview him in June and record his memories of an era of Lebanon’s history that couldn’t be further from the country’s present state.
When we arrived at Namrud’s modest home in the town of Rayyak, once a hub on the rail line connecting Beirut and Damascus, we weren’t sure if the 93-year-old was fit to receive us. As he sat at his kitchen table nibbling on some food and sipping on a glass of 7 Up, Namrud looked frail, haggard, and confused. Still, we decided to go ahead with the interview as his first-hand account of his travels along the Beirut-Damascus railway as a driver was essential to the article that we were working on for AramcoWorld.
As we were setting up the camera, Namrud shuffled into the living room where the book Lebanon on Rails featuring a cover photo of a much younger Assad, was prominently displayed. The same picture hung on the wall in a frame where he had tucked various ID cards and photos. After introductions, Namrud sat upright on his sofa and started to tell us his story from the day he was born in 1928. That’s when we realized that his mind was as sharp as the whistle of his 303S engine that he drove for 23 years to Syria, Jordan, and Turkey transporting livestock, machinery, phosphates and people. Namrud had many stories about the trips he took and it was clear from his enthusiasm that he was passionate about his job and proud to be given the difficult and sensitive missions that could not be assigned to anyone else. He drove a full tonnage over steep mountainous terrain, when other drivers opted for a lighter load. He was also entrusted with transporting army troops for the 1962 Independence Day parade in Beirut, which he considered to be an honor.
Like most Lebanese, Namrud was not spared from the tragedies of the Lebanese war. Two of his sons, who had joined the army, were killed during clashes between the Lebanese Armed Forces and Palestinian groups. This loss still weighed heavily on Namrud who sobbed quietly when speaking of his boys. Although he drove his last train in 1976, shortly after the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, Namrud continued working for the minister of public works until he retired at age 64 ending his 47-year career. That’s when he went to join his daughters and his brother in Australia, but he returned to Lebanon 18 months later. “I liked it a lot but there is nothing like Lebanon, my country. This is my land where I was born. Lebanon is a paradise but some of its people are corrupt,” he told us.
Five months before his death, Namrud said that one of his greatest wishes was the rebirth of train travel in Lebanon. “The train unites the rich and the poor… a country that doesn’t have a railroad cannot become a nation.” Those were some of Namrud’s last recorded words.
Read more about the Beirut to Damascus railway.