Golden-age glitterati return on canvas to old Lebanon hotel

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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)
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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)
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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)
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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
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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.


King Abdul Aziz Public Library showcases Arab, Islamic heritage

Updated 20 April 2019
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King Abdul Aziz Public Library showcases Arab, Islamic heritage

  • The library has 8,571 books and more than 5,000 manuscripts, documents, coins and rare maps
  • The library has an archive of photographs, one of the rarest collections in the world

RIYADH: King Abdulaziz Public Library provides a key index of Saudi culture, presenting the world with a rich legacy of cultural, historical and literary diversity.

On World Heritage Day, April 18, the library highlighted its efforts in preserving cultural heritage, which makes it one of the most important libraries in the Arab and Islamic world. It possesses a variety of heritage treasures in manuscripts, documents, rare books, coins and photographs. The library has 8,571 books and more than 5,000 manuscripts, documents, coins and rare maps.

The library has established a knowledge-based space to produce large collections of specialized books on the history of the Kingdom and in the Arab and Islamic worlds while continuing to use its knowledge system in line with Vision 2030 and the cultural strategy of the Ministry of Culture.

The library’s special holdings consist of manuscripts, rare books, rare documents, rare maps, rare photographs and coins. These form an integrated picture and are characterized by rare historical scenes that stimulate research.

The library established the Manuscripts Department in 1988 to contribute to the preservation of Arab and Islamic heritage and make it available to researchers and investigators. The department has more than (4,400) original manuscripts in addition to more than (700) photocopies and microfilms, including the charts of the Institute of History of Arabic and Islamic Sciences at the University of Frankfurt. More than 3,500 manuscripts have been indexed and filed in the computer system.

The library in Riyadh, the pioneer in publishing heritage, has digitized all of its manuscripts — more than two million of them — and stored them on CDs.

The library contains a collection of rare books of ancient and rare European editions, consisting of 78 books on the biography of the Prophet Muhammad. The collection also includes 113 translated books in ancient European languages of the Holy Qur’an, as well as 55 books on Qur’anic studies and 54 books on Islamic sources. This collection represents the beginnings of European interest in the Holy Qur’an and its studies. The library acquired a collection of Arabic editions printed in Europe in 1592-1593. These editions are part of the library’s interest in the original Arab and Islamic heritage. They include rare books such as The Canon of Medicine by Avicenna, Rhetoric Mysteries by Abd Al-Qahir Al-Jurjani, a commentary on the “Isagoge” by Abu l-Faraj at-Tayyib, The Perfect Guide to the Sciences of the Qur’an by Jalal Al-Din Al Suyuti, as well as 8,271 rare Arabic indexed books.

The library hosts a number of private collections, including that of the American orientalist George Rantz. This collection has many books, manuscripts, maps and rare documents, containing books in Arabic and 3,265 books in foreign languages. It also has the collection of Hamza Boubakeur, dean of the Islamic Institute and former imam of Paris Mosque. It is an integrated collection with 17,170 titles of 19,821 volumes of periodicals, newspapers, manuscripts, documents, newspaper clippings, rare books and books in Arabic, French, English, German and Russian. It includes books on scientific and religious sciences, and tourist literature that describes countries, their heritage, customs and traditions, and is linked to Saudi Arabia, the Arabian Gulf and the Islamic world.

The library has an archive of photographs, one of the rarest collections in the world, with a total of 5,564 single original photographs or collections in albums, taken by the most famous photographers of the East and the Arab world since the beginning of photography in 1740, as well as photographs taken by travelers, sea captains, military personnel, envoys, consuls and politicians who visited the region from the middle of the last century until the beginning of this century. This archive of photographs is one of the most unique in the world.

The library has 365 photographs of the two Holy Mosques with previously unpublished negatives. These photographs were taken by the Egyptian international photographer Ahmad Pasha Helmi, who was commissioned by King Farouk to photograph the two Holy Mosques during the visit of King Abdul Aziz to Makkah and Medina, in addition to a collection of albums depicting the Hijaz railway and other parts of the Kingdom.

Official and non-official documents are important scientific materials in the writing of history. Nations rely on collecting their documents, archiving them and making them available for study. The library in Riyadh has been keen to acquire rare documents and books, especially on the history of King Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the history of Saudi Arabia, and to allocate a special section for them. These documents include:

George Rantz records: in English, French and Arabic, covering the period from 1930 to 1960.
Documents of the Egyptian and Arab press on the visit of King Abdul Aziz to Egypt.
Documents of the American press about King Saud’s visit to the US.
Documents on oil agreements between the Kingdom and some American companies.
Documents of the British press regarding the war between the British forces and the forces of the Sultan of Muscat and Oman against the forces of the imam of Oman, and the effects of this war on the region and the position of the Saudi state and King Saud of this war.
Abdul Rahman Azzam’s collection of documents (in Arabic and English) covering the period from 1925 to 1960.
Correspondence reflecting the assistance provided by Saudi Arabia to the Mosque of Paris and Makkah pilgrims.
The British collection of documents on King Abdul Aziz Al Saud (English), covering the period from 1800 to 1953. These are photocopies of the original documents and constitute one of the most important sources of the history of the Arabian Peninsula.
Khair Al-Din Al-Zarkali’s collection of documents: (in Arabic) covering the period from 1920 to 1975.
The library also has 700 rare maps, especially of the Arabian Peninsula, dating from 1482. The library has acquired more than 7,600 rare gold, silver and bronze coins, dating back to different Islamic times.

World Heritage Day was proposed by the International Council of Monuments and Sites on April 18, 1982 and approved by UNESCO in 1983 with the aim of promoting awareness of the importance of cultural heritage and protecting it.