Treasure trove of vintage Arab film posters hidden in Beirut

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Deep under Beirut's busiest shopping district lies a treasure trove of the Arab world's film history where movie buff Abbudi Abu Jawdeh has amassed vintage film posters spanning some 80 years.

What started as a childhood passion today offers a rare and little known pictorial record of Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian and Lebanese films, including many that no longer exist, lost over time because of wars, fires or simple neglect.

"I have loved cinema since I was a child and every Sunday, rather than go to church I would head to the movie theatre," said the 52-year-old Abu Jawdeh, who runs a publishing house in Beirut's Hamra district where his collection is stored.

"Then as I got older I would set off on foot from my house in Burj Hammud (on the outskirts of Beirut) every Sunday and stop at each of the 40 movie theatres on the way to the capital to admire the posters and pictures on display," he added. "This is where I developed my passion."

His private collection consists of 20,000 posters of 5,000 films and includes what is likely the largest collection of Lebanese film posters going back to the 1950s and featuring legends of the silver screen such as Lebanese singing divas Fayruz and Sabah as well as actors such as Samira Tufic, Shams El Barudi and Abdel Halim Hafez.

The vibrantly coloured posters drawn by well-known artists of the time have become collector's items and offer a walk down memory lane, reflecting the changing cultures and styles of the past century.

"The oldest poster I have is of a 1933 Egyptian movie called 'Al Warda al Baydaa' (The White Rose) and the oldest Lebanese poster is of a 1958 movie entitled 'Al Shams La Tagheeb' (The Sun Never Sets)," said Abu Jawdeh.

Many posters, which were printed using the process of stone lithography, include movies with daring titles such as "Laheeb Al Jasad" (Body Heat), "Mariam Al Khatiaa" (Mariam the Sinner), "Nisaa Muharrama" (Forbidden Women) or "Imraa Likul Al Rijal" (A Woman for All Men) and portray actresses in provocative poses and skimpy outfits that would never make it past censors in today's increasingly conservative Arab world.

"No one would dare print such posters today," Abu Jawdeh said. "These images represent a lost art and the golden age of poster production when many of the artists who drew them were Armenian or Greek and copied the genre of their Western counterparts."

Frank Mermier, an anthropologist and former head of the French Near East Institute (IFPO) in Beirut who is familiar with Abu Jawdeh's collection, said the collection bears witness to the history of the Arab, and more particularly the Lebanese film industry.

"These posters are a mine of information and are very important as far as the history of film in Lebanon and the Middle East," Mermier, now based in Paris, told AFP. "And the artistic aspect is very interesting ... as there are various themes addressed including militant cinema and how women were portrayed at the time."

Abu Jawdeh, who has travelled the Middle East to build up his collection since the 1970s, said his dream is to set up an institute where his posters would be well preserved and where aficionados like himself can admire them.

And he may get his wish as the French embassy in Beirut is considering allocating funds toward that end, a French diplomat told AFP.

In the meantime, Abu Jawdeh can continue enjoying spending at least two hours a day pampering his posters.

"When I need to relax, I look at them as they take me back to my childhood and to an age where I had no responsibilities," he said wistfully.

"They carry so much detail and many are more beautiful to look at than the film itself."