Street Life: Beirut - Martyr to a unique school of heroic art

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"IT'S A copy," Hassan shouted as we drove on the streets outside Tyre. A bleak portrait of Lebanon's parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, hung over the road, unreal eyes staring listlessly towards the sea, cheeks pale, his tie unnaturally enlarged. "Now there - that's an original Shrara." Sayed Abbas Moussawi loomed ahead, a painting in oils that showed the assassinated Hizbollah lead-er's eyes alive like coals behind his massive glasses, a small paradise of rivers and fields behind his back.

That's what it is like in the world of "martyr's" posters. You have the third-rate, the "school of" and the "original". And Yussef Shrara - apologies here to the Old Master - is the Rembrandt of Lebanese street portraiture, the one man whose services you simply must obtain if your son dies in battle against the Israelis or your favourite candidate for president takes on the burdens of statehood. From the humblest "martyr" blown to pieces by an Israeli shell, to the mightiest in the land, their faces have all passed through Mr Shrara's workshop in the Beirut suburb of Ouzai.

Bearded, smiling brightly in his concrete shack by the sea, producing guava juice for his visitors, Mr Shrara is, oddly enough, a bit of a Renaissance man; retired guerrilla fighter, owner of a hi-fi shop, a juice hall and a supermarket, flag-maker, sign-painter and, of course, portrait artist with his very own "school" of workers to paint bodies and faces.

"I participate with colour co-ordination and sometimes I help with the eyes," he says. "Any picture you give us - a snapshot even - and we'll be able to paint an exact copy, life-like. We will reproduce the most minute details of the photograph. Ah, there goes my top man now. He's a Kurd."

A lanky man in jeans beams up from the muddy street, waves and heads for the workshop. He is clearly "school of Shrara" although today, alas, he is consigned to mixing the colours for posters advertising a new fax company. Mr Shrara looks down at him proprietorially. "He's a good man. All my painters are good. I rarely have to get involved."

But there are some figures over which he must keep a protective eye. Mr Shrara's most recent work - a double portrait of President Assad of Syria and newly elected President Lahoud of Lebanon - is clearly something special. The Lion of Damascus appears as a man of power and austerity, eyes shining with integrity; the Lebanese ex-general's face more humble but the cheeks bright with life, the eyes looking down upon his people. "When you do portraits like this," Mr Shrara says, "you have to take a lot of care."

You can say that again. But like every Dutch master, Mr Shrara usually has a patron. The twin paintings of the presidents - currently hanging at central Beirut junctions - were commissioned by a transport consortium which runs buses between Beirut and Damascus. Its telephone number, along with the name of the painter, is printed at the bottom of each portrait. The bus company, like 16th century attendant lords, is paying court to the rulers of the principality.

Mr Shrara is a Shia Muslim from the south of Lebanon - his village of Zibqin lies on the edge of Israel's occupation zone - and fought his first battle (with accompanying bullet and shrapnel wounds) on the beaches of Khalde during the Israeli invasion of 1982. "I couldn't believe it when we captured one of their armoured personnel carriers. I thought I was going to die - and I found that I welcomed the idea of death." The battle was the first victory for what became known as the "Islamic Resistance" - the Israeli armoured vehicle was indeed captured and driven into the capital by the Hizbollah - and Mr Shrara's men have been painting the movement's fallen ever since.

"Sometimes the family comes to us with a photograph, we paint the martyr's picture and it goes up over the roads of his native village," he says. "Often, we do it on our own initiative, without money, to show what we can do." Hizbollah's dead often wear spectacles and their untidy hair is copied all too painfully on to the metal and canvas frames, their dowdy camouflage fatigues set off by the bright images of heaven which supposedly await. Roses are a favourite - big pink blooms that float above the heads of the dead like plump angels in European religious paintings.

But some portraits contain a more imaginative image of the after-life - trees and suns and tulip fields and rivers of honey (those metaphorical virgins promised in the Koran are mercifully absent). So of course I ask Mr Shrara how he decides what heaven looks like, how his "school" knows the furniture of life-after-death. "It's a question of impressions and ideas," he says. "If we put a river or a tree there, it doesn't mean this is what paradise actually looks like. But the Koran speaks of paradise - and that is something grander than we humans can possibly imagine."

Mr Shrara's portraits are hung around the village of Qana where Israeli shellfire massacred 106 Lebanese refugees sheltering at a United Nations base in 1996; a massive picture of Ayatollah Khomeini is backed by a bespectacled Hizbollah "martyr" at the entrance to the village, while on the main street one of Mr Shrara's banners speaks of blood and death. He is 41 and his father fought at Haifa and Acre in 1948 when Israel won its war of independence and the Palestinian catastrophe began. "I was brought up in this atmosphere," Mr Shrara says. "And ever since I was little, I have craved martyrdom."

I find this hard to take. Mr Shrara prays regularly at the mosque beside his home but he is a businessman now - a martyr's picture can set you back anything between pounds 200 and pounds 700 - and is just completing a food emporium on the other side of the mosque. But, he insists: "Even now, when I talk to my children, I tell each one of them that one day they must be prepared to become a martyr in the name of Allah. Up to now, I still have expectations and a desire to be a martyr. If I believe in God, I have to believe in heaven."

And I wonder, at once, who will paint Mr Shrara's portrait if he realises his ultimate ambition. His "school", no doubt, will be standing by.