Golden-age glitterati return on canvas to old Lebanon hotel

1 / 4
Arab diplomats, French and British officers, but also Egyptian film stars all flocked to the Sofar Grand Hotel before the 1975-1990 conflict forced it to close down. (AFP)
2 / 4
A visitor views a painting by 45-year-old British artist Tom Young during an exhibition at the Sofar Grand Hotel in the Lebanese village of Sofar. (AFP)
3 / 4
A visitor views a painting of late Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, painted by 45-year-old British artist Tom Young, during an exhibition at the Sofar Grand Hotel in Sofar, Lebanon. (AFP)
4 / 4
Built in 1892 under Ottoman rule by Lebanon’s wealthy Sursock family, the forgotten hotel today lies near a disused train station in the village of Sofar some 30 kilometers east of Beirut. (AFP)
Updated 27 September 2018
0

Golden-age glitterati return on canvas to old Lebanon hotel

  • Arab diplomats, French and British officers, but also Egyptian film stars all flocked to the Sofar Grand Hotel before the 1975-1990 conflict forced it to close down
  • ‘Memories and cultural roots give you a sense of identity’
SOFAR, Lebanon: Inside an abandoned century-old hotel near Lebanon’s capital, paintings of the Arab world’s once powerful and famous hang around a worn poker table, testimony to its glamorous past before the civil war.
Arab diplomats, French and British officers, but also Egyptian film stars all flocked to the Sofar Grand Hotel before the 1975-1990 conflict forced it to close down.
This month, the hotel opened its doors to the public for the first time in decades to exhibit dozens of works celebrating the hotel’s past by British artist Tom Young.
“This place is just full of history,” says the 45-year-old painter, who researched the building’s past for the project.
“It was once one of the greatest hotels in the Middle East,” explains the blond artist, who has been living in Lebanon for 10 years.
“It was where kings and princesses and emirs and generals used to meet — also the most famous singers of the day.”
Built in 1892 under Ottoman rule by Lebanon’s wealthy Sursock family, the forgotten hotel today lies near a disused train station in the village of Sofar some 30 kilometers (20 miles) east of Beirut.
Despite the war, the Middle East’s first casino has maintained its impressive facade. Sunlight spills into the deserted galleries and halls on its ground floor.
On its peeling walls, Young’s paintings evoke a livelier, more cosmopolitan past when high society came to party and secret political meetings took place in the garden.
In the main hall, a painting in green and turquoise blue hues celebrates the stars of Egypt’s golden era, once patrons of the hotel.
Crooner Abdel Haleem Hafez serenades belly dancer Samia Gamal in the foreground, while singer Um Kulthum appears in her trademark cat-eye sunglasses seated at a table in the back.
In another painting, at the bottom of the hotel’s sweeping staircase, smartly dressed men lead their female partners in billowing long dresses around the ballroom floor.
The scene is inspired by the writings of Lebanese-American author Ameen Rihani, who described attending a party there during his travels to Lebanon from 1907.
“My friend and I stood in the big lobby and watched the male dancers, mostly in formal attire, and the female dancers dressed in the latest Parisian fashion. All dresses were low-neck ‘Decollete’,” he writes.
In another painting, late Egyptian actor Omar Sharif — who starred in “Doctor Zhivago” — appears to be absorbed in a card game.
His portrait hangs near an octagonal poker table, dimly lit by an overhead beige lampshade. Turned over playing cards and colorful poker chips lie on its faded green felt surface.
“We tried to curate the exhibition so that visitors enter and feel that nothing has changed,” says curator Noor Haydar.
“In the poker room, there are still cards on the table, the light is on in the kitchen and there are still cups inside,” she says.
“We tried to get people to imagine everything that used to happen in this hotel.”
But Young’s paintings also reflect the region’s political history.
In one, he portrays the leaders who attended an Arab League meeting in Sofar in 1947, including Lebanon’s first premier after independence Riad Al-Solh.
Inspired by an early AFP photograph, Young paints them in a hall, silhouetted against the outside light as they convene to discuss the Palestinian issue, the year before the founding of Israel.
Even the nearby Sofar train station, now defunct, features in Young’s work, in a scene of passengers crowded on a platform.
Lebanon’s first railway track was completed in the late 19th century to ferry people and goods between Beirut and Damascus.
The exhibition also includes an old train schedule, old posters and vintage postcards.
By re-opening the Sofar hotel to the public, the exhibition’s organizers are seeking to give new life to the historic building, turning it into a space for art and education.
The show, which runs to October 14, is also to include music and dance performances, as well as workshops for children and art students.
During his time in Lebanon, Young has worked on other similar projects.
In 2014, he exhibited work at the Rose House, an Ottoman-era mansion now surrounded by new apartment blocks, perched above the Beirut seafront.
In a tiny multi-confessional country where accounts of the 15-year war are still deeply divisive, Young’s work seeks to preserve collective memory.
“The people of Lebanon are cut off from their history,” he says, partly due to “rampant modern development and the unwillingness to perhaps face the past.”
Yet conserving the past is crucial, says Young, who was invited to become an artist-in-residence by one of the hotel’s owners, Roderick Sursock Cochrane.
“Memories and cultural roots give you a sense of identity,” he adds.


Iraq says goodbye to its beloved archaeologist Al-Gailani

Updated 21 January 2019
0

Iraq says goodbye to its beloved archaeologist Al-Gailani

  • Al-Gailani was one of Iraq’s first women to excavate the country’s archaeological heritage
  • After the US-led invasion, Al-Gailani continued to travel to Iraq, determined to rescue its heritage even as the country convulsed with war

BAGHDAD: Iraq on Monday mourned the loss of Lamia Al-Gailani, a beloved archaeologist who helped rebuild the Baghdad museum after it was looted following the 2003 US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.
Al-Gailani, who died in Amman, Jordan, on Friday at the age of 80, was one of Iraq’s first women to excavate the country’s archaeological heritage.
Relatives, colleagues, and cultural officials on Monday gathered at Baghdad’s National Museum, the country’s leading museum, to pay their respects before moving her remains to the Qadiriyyah mosque for prayers and later interment.
A devotee of her country’s heritage, Al-Gailani lent her expertise to restore relics stolen from the museum for its reopening in 2015. She also championed a new antiquities museum for the city of Basra, which opened in 2016.
“She was very keen to communicate on the popular level and make archaeology accessible to ordinary people,” said her daughter, Noorah Al-Gailani, who curates the Islamic civilizations collection at the Glasgow Museum in Scotland.
“It is a big loss, the passing of Dr. Lamia Al-Gailaini, who played a great role in the field of archaeology, even before 2003,” said the deputy minister of culture, Qais Hussein Rashid.
The restored collection at the National Museum included hundreds of cylinder seals, the subject of Al-Gailani’s 1977 dissertation at the University of London. These were engraved surfaces used to print cuneiform impressions and pictographic lore onto documents and surfaces in ancient Mesopotamia, now present-day Iraq.
Still, thousands of artefacts remain missing from the museum’s collection, and Al-Gailani bore the grief of watching her country’s rich heritage suffer unfathomable levels of looting and destruction in the years after Saddam’s ouster.
“I wish it was a nightmare and I could wake up,” she told the BBC in 2015, when Daesh militants bulldozed relics at the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud near present-day Mosul.
Born in Baghdad in 1938, Al-Gailani studied at the University of Cambridge in Britain before finding work as a curator at the National Museum in 1960. It was her first job in archaeology, her daughter said.
She returned to Britain in 1970 to pursue advanced studies, and she made her home there. Still, she kept returning to her native country, connecting foreign academics with an Iraqi archaeological community that was struggling under the isolation of Saddam Hussein’s autocratic rule and the UN sanctions against him.
In 1999, she published “The First Arabs,” in Arabic, with the Iraqi archaeologist Salim Al-Alusi, on the earliest traces of Arab culture in Mesopotamia, in the 6th through 9th centuries.
She would bring copies of the book with her to Baghdad and sell them through a vendor on Mutanabbi Street, the literary heart of the capital, according to her daughter.
After the US-led invasion, Al-Gailani continued to travel to Iraq, determined to rescue its heritage even as the country convulsed with war.
At the time of her death, she was working with the Basra Museum to curate a new exhibit set to open in March, said Qahtan Al-Abeed, the museum director.
“She hand-picked the cylinder seals to display at the museum,” said Al-Abeed.