Sunday, January 2, 2011

Hani Jean Samaha

How a new publishing house in Beirut is opening doors to a hidden worldOnce dubbed the Pearl of the Orient, Beirut, for all its new construction, is also a place of old world opulence and faded grandeur. Seventeen years of civil war can alter a country, both physically and psychologically. But in the case of Lebanon, and Beirut in particular, the war also had the unlikely effect of cloaking parts of the city in a kind of time capsule, waiting for the right moment to be rediscovered.

In its renovated downtown one still encounters remnants of the war; a half collapsed building waiting for bulldozers to clear it away, or a statue that once stood proudly in the middle of Martyrs’ Square, now riddled with bullet holes and missing an arm. Seen in such a context they appear less menacing today, and are just as much a part of the new Beirut as they are a reminder of its turbulent past. No building encapsulates this brazen confrontation between the city’s past and future better than architect Bernard Khoury’s Central nightclub. Cleverly inserted into the carcass of a disfigured building, it has come to represent much of what Beirut is today; a city whose best treasures are often hidden behind the unlikeliest of walls.

Shiny new buildings may be mushrooming along the city’s famous seaside corniche, but a walk through Beirut’s older neighborhoods can yield Belle Époque, Art Deco and Oriental-inspired buildings, dating from the period of Ottoman rule and the French mandate. The facades, often stained and cracked by the patina of time, reveal nothing of their intriguing interiors or their owners. For as much as Beirutis love the good life, they are also a private people.

Unless an individual is lucky enough to snag an invitation to a private dinner at one of the city’s grand homes, most visitors have one of two options when in Beirut. There is the Sursock Museum, a 19th century Venetian/Gothic confection that now houses an art museum. Located on a street once lined with similar mansions, it is owned by a family once known as “the Rothschild’s of the East.” The other alternative is the Robert Mouawad Museum. An oriental palace built in 1911, it was home to Henri Pharaon, the enigmatic politician and art collector who helped design the Lebanese flag. Miraculously, his mansion escaped damage during the war, and after his death was bought by the famous jeweler Robert Mouawad, who converted it into a private museum housing his rare collection of jewelry, manuscripts and ceramics. But apart from these rare examples, there are few venues that offer a glimpse into this city’s opulent past.

Enter Hani Jean Samaha, who has managed to unlock the doors to some of Beirut’s most sumptuous and historic interiors through a series of must-have coffee table books. Born in Beirut into a family of antique dealers, Samaha published his first book, Inside Beirut: Private Views, while still a student majoring in business at Depaul University in Chicago. After setting up his publishing house, Samaha Books, he went on to produce other influential design tomes on the city’s hidden interiors, including his most recent offering, “Palaces of Lebanon: The Lost Heritage.

For the later, Samaha spent a good two years searching Beirut’s concrete jungle and the quiet villages of Lebanon, for the last remaining architectural gems of the country’s forgotten palaces. Hidden from view for decades behind tall walls and elegantly landscaped gardens, the book reveals never before seen palaces belonging to a succession of Beirut’s most storied families (the Jumblats, Sursocks and Karames), who have shaped the architectural, social and political fabric of Lebanon over the course of centuries. Still in private hands today, their well-appointed rooms once welcomed the likes of Kaiser Wilhelm II, General Charles de Gaulle, King Hussein of Jordan and the Shah of Iran.

The public has always exhibited a voyeuristic fascination when it comes to the homes of the rich and cultivated, but examples from the Middle East have always been hard to come by. In the past, books such as Lisa Lovatt-Smith’s “Moroccan Interiors”, or Frederic Couderc’s “Inside Africa North & East”, provided readers with a tantalizing glimpse into such worlds and the people who inhabited them. Franka and Carla Sozzani’s fairy-tale palace in Marrakech, shoe designer Christian Louboutin’s elegant home in Cairo, and Sheikha Fatima Al-Sabah’s luxurious casbah in Tangiers, are just a few of the rare examples featured in such publications.

Samaha’s books not only tap into this niche market, but also provide another perspective on living in a country that is trying to shake off the vestiges of war. His books are ultimately a study in how beauty, art and culture can flourish in the most adverse conditions. All the more intriguing in the case of Beirut, since many of the interior’s featured in Samaha’s books reflect this city’s cosmopolitan history; one shaped by a succession of Roman, Ottoman, French, and Arab influences.

In today’s heightened political climate, it’s a wonder Samaha’s books ever materialized, when one considers the amount of behind the scenes preparation that went into getting such a project off the ground. It’s akin to going down embassy row in Washington DC and asking permission to take pictures inside each building.

Yet a few connections can go a long way in a tightly knit city such as Beirut, and like a well seasoned diplomat, Samaha went about knocking on doors belonging to the capital’s oldest families, as well as Beirut’s political and cultural elite. The result is a stunning series of books conceived by Samaha with the well known photographer Albert Saïkaly, which capture this city’s joie de vivre and reinforce its place as a tastemaker within the region.

Samah’s most recent offering is a collaboration with his friend, event planner Raymond Chouity. Titled “Raymond Chouity: Royal Weddings & Events,” the book offers a rare glimpse into some of Saudi Arabia’s most sumptuous weddings and private parties. For over 25 years Chouity has been working quietly behind the scenes at Riyadh’s royal palaces; creating everything from a dramatic set design for a private opera performance, to an intimate breakfast for a royal party of two.

Trained as an interior designer and painter, Chouity was originally discovered by the author Anais Nin in 1971, which led to a series of exhibitions in New York, Adelaide and Bombay. Not long after, he found himself in Riyadh where he became one of its most sought after event planners. His uncanny ability to capture a client’s personality with thousands of orchids and priceless antique crystal, has earned him a loyal fan base amongst the Kingdom’s most influential hostesses. Over the years Chouity has also orchestrated some of Riyadh’s most memorable weddings, a fact that has endeared him to generations of Saudi royals. So much so that HRH Princess Haifa Bint Mohammad Bin Turki Bin Abdelaziz Al Saud, the renowned Saudi couture connoisseur and collector, provided the forward to the book.

Although Hani Samaha’s work covers examples of both modern and historical interiors, his books also shed light on Beirut’s glamorous past. A time when its social and cultural scene was dominated by the city’s prominent families. Clockwise Center: The late Henri Pharaon pictured in his sumptuous Beirut mansion in 1983; Yvette Pharaon in 1930; Three of the grand doyens of Beirut society, Maria, Yvonne, and Linda Sursock in 1949; The cover of Samaha’s “Beirut Interiors: The Art of Living;” The glamorous Linda Sursock in 1940; Alfred Sursock was a well known collector of Italian renaissance paintings, much of which can still be seen today in his daughter Lady Yvonne Cochrane’s mansion; The Sursock’s were the best known of Beirut’s aristocratic families and built a number of mansions that dominated the city’s Ashrafieh quarter, as can be seen in this vintage postcard.
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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Best wishes to you Hani, you seem to be asking what you can do for your country.