Feature: Mohamed Chelali; an Arab hero

By CLAUDE SALHANI  |  Oct. 15, 2002 at 10:25 AM
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BEIRUT, Lebanon, Oct. 15 (UPI) -- Mohamed Chelali is a hero; an Arab hero. His name might not be a household word in many parts of the world, but he is famous enough to warrant a private session with several heads of states this week, as the Francophone summit convenes in the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

Chelali, a modest 45 year-old Algerian, who also holds French and Canadian citizenship, saved the life of French President Jacques Chirac last summer -- no minor feat.

Yet Chelali, an engineer by trade, who now teaches at an international school in Beirut, does not consider himself a hero. But his three children -- and the French president, as well as the Canadian prime minister, certainly do.

Tarek, his 15 year-old son, signs his e-mail messages, "Tarek, son of Moh, the Great." And the teenager's Instant Messenger name identifies him as "My Dad is a Hero."

Last July 14 -- or Bastille Day, as Americans insist on calling the French national holiday -- Chelali and his family were vacationing in Paris before moving to Beirut, where he had just landed a job teaching.

He took his two children, aged 15 and 13 to see the traditional military parade on the Champs Elysées, when a gunman tried to assassinate the French president. As the gunman -- a Frenchman, and a member of an extreme right-wing group -- pulled a rifle out of a guitar case and took aim, Chelali, who was standing only feet away, instantly jumped him. He struggled with the gunman, trying to grab the rifle away. Unable to loosen the man's grip on the rifle, Chelali instead removed the magazine from the weapon, forcing the would-be killer to miss his mark.

Alerted by the scuffle, another man grabbed the front of the gun's barrel, raising it above the crowds. Together, they forced the gunman to the ground. Meanwhile, both men were shouting "police, police," hoping that among the hundreds of additional security agents deployed that day, someone would react and help stop the gunman.

"I have to say that I did not think, I just reacted," Chelali told United Press International, recalling that fateful day in July. It was only days later that he realized the dangers associated in saving Chirac's life.

Indeed, given the post-Sept. 11 atmosphere prevailing in the West, an Arab, and especially a Muslim, with a gun in his hands could have easily been mistaken for the perpetrator, rather than the savior.

"It was only later that I said to myself, 'Imagine if you had succeeded in grabbing the rifle away from the man, and the police snipers positioned on rooftops saw an Arab with a gun. Imagine what would have happened. They could have shot me, and then people would have easily believed that an Arab tried to assassinate the French president.'"

Heroic as his actions might be, Chelali does not consider himself a hero. But Chirac, just as Chelali's children do, does indeed consider him one. Besides calling to thank him, Chirac will meet with him on Thursday in Beirut, when the French leader arrives to participate in a meeting that will bring together leaders of 55 French-speaking nations. And later this year, at a special ceremony in Paris, Chirac will name him a "Knight in the Order of Merit."

The day after the attack, Chirac personally called him on his cellular telephone to express his gratitude.

"My cell phone rang, and someone said, 'Is this Mohamed Chelali? This is Jacques Chirac,'" relates Chelali, with a grin. Thinking it was a joke, he replied, "Come on," before recognizing the French president's voice.

"Permit me to express my profound gratitude for what you have done," said Chirac.

"I replied that I was only doing my duty," said Chelali.

"No, no, no," said the French president. "Not everybody would do this."

Asked what he will tell Chirac when he comes face to face with him for the first time on Thursday, Chelali replies without hesitation, "I will tell him that he is the real hero. He is a hero for having won the elections and defeated the extreme right. By doing so, he maintains France's position as the land of human rights."

Chelali hopes that his actions will help project a more positive image of Arabs around the world. Asked if he had a message for President George W. Bush, what would it be?

"I would tell Mr. Bush that Arabs are not terrorists. We have good people and we have bad people, like everyone else."

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