Obituary: Henri Pharaon

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The Independent Online
MAY I add a note to Robert Fisk's chronicle (7 August) of the passing of Henri Pharaon? writes Professor John Carswell. (Incidentally, it is not Pharoun, as printed: he came from an old Triestine family, the Faroni, who emigrated to Egypt in the 19th century; he was also a Roman Catholic, which played an important part in his role as eminence grise in so many crises in Lebanese politics.)

Henri Pharaon's contribution to modern Lebanon was far more than as the designer of its flag; his house was the constant rendezvous for every Lebanese politician, of whatever persuasion. He was exceedingly and traditionally rich; he virtually owned the port of Beirut and a leading bank. He was childishly amused that his postal address in Beirut was BP 1, appropriate for both these business enterprises. He was also exceedingly ugly, lame, short of stature, and with an appalling birthmark to set off his otherwise unremarkable countenance. He was a man of incredible charm.

I first got to know him in the 1960s, when he began to collect Islamic art. As he told me, he inherited a Gothic folly in central Beirut from his father, who had furnished the entire house from Mappin and Webb. But during the Twenties, when he first went to Syria to buy Arab horses, he became aware of the beauty of many of the traditional Arab houses in which he was entertained. He resolved to strip the interior of his father's house, and implant a series of decorative Syrian rooms instead. In this he was fortunate to have the assistance of a French mandate architect, Lucien Cavro. The result was spectacular.

Having created the environment, the next step was to furnish it. This led to his continuous acquisition of the finest classical, Byzantine and early Christian antiquities available on the local market; and then to the formation of important collections of Islamic art and, surprisingly, Chinese porcelain from Syria. He was, without doubt, the greatest collector in the Arab world, and far ahead of his time. It is a tragedy that before his death his collection should have already begun to be dispersed; but the house and its magical interiors remain, in spite of being in the civil war front line. It should become a museum, in memory of a man who truly tried to unite all the different strands that make up modern Lebanon.

In my memory, several vignettes stand out. The first was during the early days of the civil war, when he told me there wouldn't be any war if everyone stayed in their homes and refused to flee. He did exactly that, showing quite remarkable courage. When I got to visit him, he told me the sad tale of two Moslems who were being chased down the street by Christian militiamen and who had taken sanctuary in his house. He rang up ex-President Chamoun and got his assurance that the men would be safe; and then the militia broke down his front door, and shot them dead in front of him. As he said, 'at that moment, they were drinking my coffee', which was for him the ultimate insult.

But he bounced back. Would I like to see his new collection? In the entrance hall, he had an astonishing array of shrapnel, all of which had hit his house. 'This one', he said, 'is American, and that one Russian, and those Israeli . . .'.

Most of all, I remember his generosity; he was the kindest of men. When I was cataloguing his collection in the 1970s, one day he said, don't bother to ring up first, just come. So I often found myself in the house early in the morning, on my way to teach in the American University of Beirut. I thought I was alone, but there was often the strangest sound, a tap-tapping noise. One day I investigated, to find it was Henri Pharaon in the next room with his tric-trac trainer, who came every morning regularly at seven.

Whatever his Achilles' heel may have been, it is odd that his ghastly death should have proved to be curiously significant. Multiply stabbed by an unknown assailant, he makes a scary metaphor for all of Lebanon.

(Photograph omitted)