The Interviewees

Interview with Tom Young, November 2017

1- What made you first go to Beirut to paint?

In Spring 2006, I was commissioned by my Lebanese car mechanic in Notting Hill Gate, whose garage was under my bedroom and next door to Lucien Freud’s garage. Having seen my paintings of France and Italy, my mechanic wanted paintings of his home village of Ain Enoub, south of Beirut. I had been fascinated by the Levant since a visit to Palestine/Israel with my aunt in 1985, and many trips to Turkey- including a term studying architecture at Istanbul School of Design. My interest in the Middle East was also informed by a reaction to the 9/11 attacks and the anger I felt about the war in Iraq in 2003. I loved Lebanon immediately, but was shocked and outraged by the Israeli war on Lebanon which happened just after I returned to London in summer 2006. I returned to Beirut as soon as I could to support new friends and do art workshops with children affected by the bombing.

2- How soon afterwards did you start on architectural activism and do you work with any local heritage groups?

After I came to live in Beirut in 2009, I quickly became aware about the rapid loss of architectural heritage. I made paintings about it and talked about it in the media. It was in 2013 when I took direct action myself- helping to renovate and transform Villa Paradiso in Gemmayze into a venue for art exhibitions and social events.

I work alongside ‘Save Beirut Heritage’, ‘Apsad’ and ‘Beirut Madinati’- organisations which are run by friends. We help each other and exchange ideas, but so far my interventions are self initiated and financed. For now, I prefer to keep my team small so that the result is focused and effective. I also try to maintain a certain amount of private space in order to be able to paint- which is a delicate and meditative process.

3- How much has been lost in Beirut over the decades of war and instability?

War and Instability have clearly done a lot of damage to Beirut. But ironically war often helps to protect heritage buildings. More architectural heritage has been lost in the past ten years of relative peace. Since the civil war ended in 1990, there has been a period of relative peace in Lebanon- except for one month in 2006 and a few days in 2008. During the 1990s, the Ministry of Culture put together a list of historical landmarks in the country. The Directiorate Générale des Antiquités (DGA) included approximately 1,600 buildings in Beirut, most of them from the Ottoman period or the French mandate. By 2013, 80 percent of the buildings on the list had been demolished. In 2017, possibly only 10% remain.

The instability of Lebanon does present a paradox- because there is no government control worth speaking of, projects like the Rose House can happen- where I organized an art exhibition with musical and theatrical performances, lectures, art workshops for orphanages, schools, Universities over a period of three months- without any licenses for such events, in a building which would be deemed unsafe in another country. Even the Prime Minister’s wife and government ministers were at the opening! Thousands of people came to the exhibition. No problem in Beirut. If you have an idea and play your cards right, you can achieve a lot. Its immensely liberating. You are trusted to look after yourself. This would be unthinkable in ‘developed’ cities like London or Paris.

4- How do you select which buildings to work on or is it case of ‘what little is left’?

It is sometimes an instinct, sometimes a contact with an owner. I first noticed Villa Paradiso because the sweet scent of jasmine from the house which I noticed whilst stumbling home from a New Years Eve party. I contacted the owners, the Feghali family, and they responded positively to my ideas.

I knocked on the door of the Rose House, not just because it is one of the most magical and famous of all Beirut’s houses, but because I noticed washing on the line on the sea front balcony, and my wife encouraged me to investigate. I was lucky enough to be welcomed by the resident of the house, Fayza El Khazen- a very cultured lady who loves art and invited me to paint in the house over the summer. The timing was uncanny: she was preparing to leave the house after her family had lived there for fifty years. It was an end of an era, which I felt moved to capture in my paintings. Her late brother Sami El Khazen’s paintings and designs in the house certainly inspired me.

I began working in Beit Boustani after a Lebanese PR agent invited me to do an exhibition, and I suggested the house as a place I wanted to work in. By chance he knew the previous owner. I have recently begun work again there now because the new owner recently bought a painting from me (from an exhibition at Villa Paradiso!).

I began working in Al Zaher (Spears House) because a Beiruti scholar Dr Khaled Shbaro who was familiar with my work suggested the idea to the present management of the building and they liked my proposal to do an exhibition there. I knew about Spears originally from the book ‘Levant’ by Philip Mansel.

5- What is the biggest threat to these buildings of note, neglect or re-development?

Both are intertwined. But of the two, redevelopment- or put another way, greed.

6- You are planning to transform Sofar Grand Hotel and Casino into a cultural venue next year, in collaboration with the Cochrane/Sursock family. For this was the idea yours or from these families?

Originally it was their idea, although I had visited the old hotel before and painted it in 2012. Roderick Cochrane (second son of the Sursock heiress Lady Yvonne Cochrane) saw my work at Villa Paradiso and The Rose House. I was already good friends with Roderick and his wife Mary. I used to teach their daughter Ariana how to paint in the Sursock Palace garden, and do paintings for Mary’s interior design clients. They first proposed the idea to me in 2013. It has taken four years for Roderick to arrange for a new roof to be built to protect the hotel, and for the right time to come along for us to plan reopening the building initially for an artistic event.

7- Do you receive any help from national or international cultural heritage bodies? Would you have a message for them?

No, I don’t receive any help or funding, but I would like to! I have been in touch with World Monuments Fund, but they were busy with other much needed projects in Beirut- protecting the once magnificent ‘Palais Heneine’ and threatened ‘Dalieh’ natural coastline. I would say, keep up the good work, and please don’t forget precious Lebanon.

8- You discovered that many of the Baloumian family had resettled in New York and Baltimore and you held an exhibition at ‘Alwan for the Arts’ in New York City in 2016, where you met the family, returning family belongings, and portraits you had painted of them from discarded passports found in the house. How emotional was this for them and you?

Very emotional. They had been so generous and supportive throughout the project- offering stories, memories and more photographs. I had found musical scores in the house. One of the granddaughters is a concert pianist in New York and had sent me her recordings of Chopin for a film I made about the project called ‘Carousel’.

To meet them at last was moving for us all. I first met a branch of the family in Nicosia, and then in New York. Tears were shed. They welcomed my wife Noor and I at their family home in Queens- we were treated as members of the family, and enjoyed some fine Armenian food.

9- Through your architectural activism you have also become a social and family historian. Was this a by-product of your endeavour or do you see it as a central pillar in restoring the memory of a building in its correct context? Is there a tug-of-war within you as to which side history or arts should take precedence on your energies?

For me, the memory of a building is inextricably linked to the memory of the people who have lived there. Researching their lives and stories informs the art I make, the way I curate the installations and maintain the textures and integrity of the building. In the case of Villa Paradiso, I preserved and in some cases restored some of the best walls and trompe l’oeuil wall designs. The architect/owner Remi Feghali completely restored the walls which were too damaged to restore, and repainted certain door and window frames using the same colours as were used in the past. So in the end there is a hybrid interior- a respectful mixture of old and new. In the Rose House, I invited the great granddaughter of Mohammad Ardati- the man who built the house in 1882- to come back to the house and paint a beautiful arabic poem she had written about her ancestral home on the partially damaged wall which my wife had revealed by peeling back several layers of rotten wall paper in a bedroom.

In my mind there is no tug of war between history and art. They inform each other.

10- Are you optimistic for the future of Beirut? Do architectural protection orders and laws have any teeth there?

I have a feeling that Beirut will survive no matter what challenges it faces. There are similarities with other cities in the area, but there is no place quite like it.

However, architectural protection orders don’t have much teeth because as we have seen recently, the government isn’t strong, and corruption is rife. The only basic law in Lebanon which seems to have any teeth is the desire for financial profit. So a way has to be found for property owners to maintain their properties. This seemed to have been achieved recently as the new Minister of Culture Dr Ghattas Khoury announced a new heritage law; Landowners wishing to construct developments on plots with heritage sites often lack the resources to preserve the historic structures as they build new ones; often, it is easier to knock everything down and build from scratch. Under the draft law, a mechanism allows landowners to sell development rights to larger companies who have the resources to build developments while preserving sites of cultural significance. The landowner would still maintain rights to the land. But it is only a ‘draft’ law. We have all seen this before. Just days after the new law was drafted, the Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation in mysterious circumstances from Saudi Arabia. So cultural heritage laws are put back on the back shelf as the basic stability of the government takes precedent. It becomes a matter of survival. And whilst this is going on, beautiful mansions like the Rose House continue to crumble as their owners are reluctant to invest in projects which will cost a lot of money, and bring no tangible financial profit.

Another issue is the old rent law- again there is a paradox. Because many old families live in old buildings in Beirut paying old rent- which is nothing in today’s money- the landlords have no money to pay for repairs, or incentive to carry on renting the buildings in the future. So the buildings fall apart around their inhabitants. However, this does mean that poorer families can still live in central Beirut- which enriches the social fabric. A new rent law has been passed- whereby tenants paying old rent must leave their homes to make way for new tenants who can pay the correct amount in today’s market value. This will be disastrous for some families and neighbourhoods and may lead to a new wave of destruction. However, it may also lead to more incentives for old building to be renovated because landlords know they can make decent money from rent.

At the moment, saving heritage depends entirely on private enterprise- such as property owners like the Feghali family (‘Villa Paradiso’ in Beirut and Batroun), Nabil Debs (‘Beit Boustani’ and ‘Beirut Arts Club’) and the Cochrane family to invest money in restoring their properties. Also certain institutions like ‘Dar Al Aytam Al Islamiyah’, who own Spears’s former residence in Zarif do a huge amount to restore heritage buildings around Lebanon.

11- These Eastern Mediterranean cities were multi-cultural way before the cities of the West even got used to the term, yet they have subsequently evolved in ways that pauses us for thought. Do you think there are lessons of history that are relevant to us all and we need to heed the signs early on?

Beirut still is multi cultural and a genuine Levantine city- possibly the only one of its kind left. Because of its relatively liberal culture, strongly influenced by a western-leaning Christian community, it is unique in the region. The art and music scenes are blossoming as creative people from all over the world pour in, and cultural festivals proliferate. In the eight years I have lived here, the sheer number of art galleries, music events, museums, boutique hotels and vineyards which have sprung up is staggering. But of course you won’t hear about this in the western media. This is amazing considering the war next door in Syria, the refugee crisis and the corrupt government. Ironically, the art scene in Beirut has benefitted from the war in Syria, because of all the Syrian artists, gallerists and wealthy art buyers who have settled in Beirut- where they are much more free to express themselves than they were in Syria.

At its best, Beirut can show how a mixture of Liberal, Conservative, Christian and Muslim communities can live alongside each other in peace. This can be an inspiration to the rest of the world. But the Lebanon needs support if it is to succeed, and the Lebanese need to support each other too.

There is a wave of fear spreading across the Western cities now because of terrorist incidents and the influx of refugees- leading to populist and narrow minded nationalism. The amount of refugees coming to the West pales to insignificance compared to the one and half million refugees who have come to Lebanon in the past six years- to a country of only four million people. Imagine the equivalent ratio of 20 million traumatised French people suddenly arriving in Britain! Lebanon was already host to two massive waves of immigration from refugees escaping conflict from their homelands- Armenians in 1915 and Palestinians in 1948 and 1967.

12- Alexandria in Egypt is clearly also a city with a wonderful architectural legacy and what little that remains again at great threat today. Would you consider ‘exporting’ your skills there in the future?

Yes I would love to go there. I’ve read about the legendary ‘golden age’ of the city before Nasser’s revolution. It must have been a magical place. But I think we must beware of being too nostalgic about these ‘golden ages’ when the seeds of inequality and social discontent were being sown. If these great buildings are to be saved and revitalised, I think they should- in some cases- perform a more inclusive function for all people. That’s what I tried to do during my three months at the Rose House, and am about to do at Beit Boustani.

13- You have also made a number of short films about some of the houses, notably Villa Paradiso and the Rose House. There was also a short film about the art project you did with orphans of Dar Al Aytam Al Islamiyah at the Spears House and you are currently making a longer film about Spears and his role in Lebanese Independence. Can you tell us more on these projects please?

Its important to document the process of these projects as they happen. Sometimes the filming process inspires certain paintings, and visa versa. Painting and film have a symbiotic relationship. The projects become a loose collaboration between artist, architect, filmmaker and family interviewees. We inspire each other.

The BBC are coming to film my work at Beit Boustani as part of the ‘Art Lover's Guide’ to Beirut, to be broadcast on BBC 4 soon.

Links to videos:

The Villa Paradiso trilogy- from Beirut to New York:
Part 1: ‘Carousel
Part 2: ‘The Beat Goes On
Part 3: ‘Full Circle

The Rose House:
Process to exhibition
Exhibition collaboration
Al Zaher:

Interview conducted by Craig Encer

For the Spears project, I’m looking for funding to make the film. I did this interview recently with Lebanese newspaper An Nahar:

1- Why are you making a film about General Spears?

I think people deserve to know their history- particularly in a country where history-human, cultural, architectural and environmental has, and is being erased at an alarming rate. Because of sectarian divides, history is not agreed upon in Lebanon. This obstructs the development of a strong identity. As long as it is well researched and balanced, I think a film about the formation of the modern republic of the country as we know it today could help Lebanon become stronger. It can also bring the history alive for children and students- so in this way, the film is not just about the past, it is also about the future.

I am also inspired to do this because my wife Noor Haydar, who is a Lebanese artist/curator, wants to know about her country’s history.

2- Tell me more about your perspective as an artist towards what was happening back then?

My role as an artist is to bring history and memory alive through paintings and events in atmospheric places. Artists can do something historians and politicians can rarely do- that is to bring life and meaning to our understanding of the world by appealing to our emotions. Art is a filter through which the unseen can be illuminated. Cultural events give people the chance to express themselves peacefully.

3- What was Spears’s role in the independence of Lebanon?

That’s a long story. To begin with, he was not in Lebanon because he wanted to help Lebanon in particular. His initial approach was deeply colonial and military. He wanted to stop Germany from winning the war. The Nazis had begun using Lebanon and Syria as a base to land their planes in to refuel and attack the British in Iraq. The French Government had recently surrendered to the Nazis. If the Nazi sympathizing Vichy French remained in control of Lebanon and Syria, then the Nazis would be able to go on attacking the British in Iraq, get control of the oil there, and also attack the Allies in North Africa. As a result, they would have almost certainly won the war in the Mediterranean, Africa and Middle East. So, as ever, Lebanon was the location for other people’s wars.

So Spears helped to form the Free French movement and support De Gaulle, and together they led an invasion of Lebanon and Syria in 1941 to defeat the Vichy French- which they succeeded in doing after a vicious and absurd short war.

After Spears came to live in Lebanon, he developed a great affection and empathy for the rights of the Lebanese (whom he thought were being treated badly by the French) and acted to assist them gain Independence from France. In fact he was fired by Churchill for doing so- because Churchill was really only concerned about keeping the French as allies in the war against Germany. It is a complex narrative, not least because Spears grew up in France, loved French culture and spoke perfect French. The events are mixed up in the nasty Imperial rivalry between the French and the British at the time. There are those who think he was a hero. And those who think he was an arrogant man representing a terribly damaging colonial regime.

4- What would you like to highlight to the Lebanese mostly?

How the country gained its ‘Independence’- although, it is not always a pretty, and as we are seeing at the moment, the dream of ‘Independence’ hasn’t been achieved yet. Despite the foreign intervention of the British in enforcing Independence, Spears’s vision was that Lebanon should be free from foreign meddling in the future. I think it is worth revisiting this ideal- however unrealistic it may be.

Also, we should remember the important part played by women in the Independence movement- such as the huge march of Muslim and Christian women, led by Zalfa Chamoun, which Spears wrote about in his memoirs.

5- You have already painted in Spears’s house?

Yes, I painted in the house in Zarif (where Spears lived and had most of his important meetings about Lebanese Independence) for six months from 2016-17, as a guest of Dar Al Aytam Al Islamiyah- who own the building now and use it as an administrative centre. I taught children there, and we held an exhibition on the importance of architectural heritage in March-April 2017.

6- Who is your target audience for the film mainly?

The Lebanese and British public. And anyone else who wants to learn more about Lebanon and the Middle East.

7- You previously painted in the house. Tell us more about that experience. What are the changes that you saw in the house compared to how you know it from history books?

It was very inspiring to paint in the house where such important history happened. I read Spears’s memoirs of his time in Lebanon called ‘Fulfilment of a Mission’, and an excellent biorgraphy of him by Max Egremont called ‘Under Two Flags’, whilst I was in the house. I like ‘on site’ reading.

The staff of Dar Al Aytam who work in the house were very welcoming and friendly throughout my time there. They came into my studio to give me help and discuss my work.

It was also great to work with the children of Dar Al Aytam in the house and garden. They are such talented kids, and deserve to experience such beautiful places.

We are lucky that the house was well maintained by the British until the early 1980’s, and then obtained for Dar Al Aytam by Mohammad Barakat in the 80’s. He protected it from militias during the civil war and used it first as a home for deaf and blind orphans after the Israelis had bombed Dar Al Aytam’s main centre in Aramoun in 1982. Since those days the house has been renovated and well looked after by the management of Dar Al Aytam. Apart from a new entrance façade and interior elevator which were installed in 2002, it hasn’t changed much since Spears’s day.

8- What is May Arida's role in the film? Knowing that she was Spears' secretary?

It is vital to get Lebanese opinion on the story, to get women’s perspectives and get the opinion of someone who was actually there- who worked with Spears and witnessed the Independence events unfold. May Arida is a great lady, and such a personality! Its extraordinary that she was Spears’s secretary! She is one of the main interviewees- along with other eye witnesses, historians and family descendants.

9- What information is there about the story of Lebanon's independence that we don't really know about as Lebanese? Please mention any new angles.

I don’t think most people know that women played such a big role in the Independence movement. Or that Spears acted in such a strong way to aid the Lebanese. It was a letter which Sir Richard Casey (British Minister for the Middle East) wrote with Spears’s assistance to General Catroux of France that if the French did not release the Lebanese Government from imprisonment in Rachaya Castle and proclaim Lebanese Independence by 10am on 22nd November 1943 then ‘they (the Lebanese) would be set free by British troops’. This letter marks the date we now celebrate as Lebanese Independence Day.

Most people don’t know that Spears was fired by Churchill for doing this. Or that Spears was anti-Zionist, and this may have contributed to him losing his job as ‘British Minister to the Levant.’

I don’t think most people know that the house in which many of the important meetings happened is in Zarif. Or that the wife and children of President Bechara El Khoury went to stay in the house under the protection of Spears after the President had been imprisoned in Rachaya Castle on 11th November. Or that the house is perfectly preserved, thanks to Dar Aytam.

Most people on Rue Spears don’t know why it has this name, or that the man who it is named after lived in a big house just up the hill from the street.

10- Why are you interested in Spears’s story?

He is a fascinating man, and full of contradictions. It is an epic and complex story, which is full of individual and national courage, scandal, vanity, romance and difficult issues surrounding colonialism, imperialism and foreign interventionism.

As a British artist living in Lebanon, I’m interested in a story which seems to connect my homeland and my chosen home. I love both places, but often feel they are far apart. So in some ways, this is a personal quest to unite seemingly disconnected parts of myself.

My architectural projects have often led me to research Lebanese, Armenian, and Palestinian history. But until now, never my own country’s history. As we know, Britain’s history in this region is not good at all. By chance, thanks to an original idea from Beiruti scholar Dr Khaled Shbaro, my journey in Beirut led me to paint and exhibit in Spears’s house. The story found me. Seeing as my architectural work is about memory and heritage, I felt compelled to investigate the amazing story of what happened in the house.

11- Foreign intervention has always been present in Lebanon. Through the lens of an artist, how does it look like?

From what I understand of world history and economic forces, small countries- particularly those in parts of the world where continents and cultures meet- are always arenas for bigger countries’ conflicts and pressures. Lebanon must be the supreme case of this. This makes it a precious and fascinating place, but also a vulnerable one. I feel a sense of urgency here- to contribute something positive and worthwhile- to capture things before they go, and also to reflect something important about Lebanon- the rich cultural life and heritage.

The irony of Spears is that he embodied foreign interventionism. But his vision was always for Lebanon to be self sufficient and, to quote from him, ‘free from the helots of an alien race.’

12- Where is Spears’s memory now? Is he remembered as being part of Lebanese independence?

In Britain, Spears is mostly forgotten. His gravestone is cracked and falling over- no sign that here lies a man who did a lot to win both World Wars, gave vital support to the Lebanese to gain independence, and also initial support for the man who eventually created modern France- Charles De Gaulle.

In Lebanon, Spears is remembered only by the name of the street near Sanayeh which bears his name. As far as I’m aware, people don’t know that in fact it was Spears who made sure that Lebanon was granted Independence at a time when the French seemed intent on not carrying out their promise to grant Independence. Whether they would have done eventually, or whether the process should have happened more gradually is debatable.

13- Is there anything more you would like to add that I did not ask you about? Please mention it.

The film is co-directed and filmed mostly by Tony El Khoury- who made the award winning documentary ‘Lebanon Wins the World Cup’. We have collaborated several times before- most notably for the ‘Carousel’/Villa Paradiso trilogy. Its important that the film maker is Lebanese. We aim to release the film next year.

We are looking for more witnesses to the events of 1943. I am particularly interested in finding people who are critical of what Spears did- as I want to make a balanced film which presents different perspectives- so that people can watch it and make up their own minds. Its important to have an objective view of a man, a country and a nation that fought for its freedom.

Further information on these houses and gallery: