You can’t erase imperialism from Lebanon’s history – no matter how hard some people try

The ‘Al Zaher’ house has an important place in Lebanon’s history, but its current proprietors have tried to stop portraits of some of its prolific political visitors being hung there

Robert Fisk
Wednesday 10 May 2017 10:32 BST
The image of a flower was painted over General Spears’ portrait by artist Tom Young, so that it could be included in the exhibition
The image of a flower was painted over General Spears’ portrait by artist Tom Young, so that it could be included in the exhibition

When British artist Tom Young was invited to exhibit his paintings of Beirut at the former home of past British ambassadors in the city, he had the bright idea of including not just views of the venerable red-painted 97-year old building but a collection of portraits of those who used to visit. So General de Gaulle came from Young’s brush, along with British Major General Sir Edward Spears, Bishara Khoury, Lebanon’s first independence president, Camille Chamoun, another ex-president, prime minister Riad el-Solh, General Georges Catroux – de Gaulle’s man in Lebanon during the Second World War – and other luminaries of the 1940s. Spears had lived in the red “Al Zaher” house and his office there is mentioned in his own memoirs.

But Young had not reckoned with the sensitivities of the large Muslim NGO Dar al-Aytam al-Islamiya, which now owns the building and had invited the young artist to stage the exhibition. For no sooner did Young begin to hang his portraits – all painted from photographs – than they were taken from the walls. Only his pictures of the building and Beirut scenes were to be exhibited, the charity’s general manager, Khaled Kabbani decided. No politics.

Now Dar al-Aytam is a worthy institution. No one in Lebanon doubts its values. It runs vocational schools, cares for orphans, school dropouts and children with special needs. But Tom Young was flabbergasted. The very history of the old building was intimately associated with Lebanon’s first independent statehood – when Charles de Gaulle and the Free French decided to reassert their colonial mandate despite promises of independence.

Spears, the subject of a magnificent biography by Max Egremont two decades ago, insisted that the French give Lebanon the freedom they had promised – and which de Gaulle objected to. In fact, the French went so far as to lock up almost the entire Lebanese cabinet, including the president and prime minister, in a hill town in the far east of Lebanon. Spears, Winston Churchill’s top diplomat in Lebanon, turned on the French with anger and effectively forced them to withdraw to the barracks. He was a fluent French speaker. But in the interests of the Anglo-French alliance, Churchill gave Spears his marching orders. He was to leave Beirut by December 1944 – albeit under the false story that he was only returning to care for his British parliamentary constituency.

So the “Al Zaher” house has an important place in Lebanon’s history. But the charity was adamant. No portraits. No politics. Young’s “political” pictures were placed in Kabbani’s office.

“Mr Kabbani said he objected to my portraits on several levels,” Young says. “The main one was that these were political figures. To some extent I respect this. But this is where we came into conflict. Because what happened in this building was historically important. What I wanted to do was express what happened here and display the portraits of these people – this is history, it transcends politics.”

Young says he wanted to display a mosaic of how Lebanese independence came about and what it means, but also to represent all the characters who played a role in the history of the “Red House” ambassador’s residence. So he included the embassy driver and the boy who looked after the garden as well as the more historic figures. “I treated everyone on the same size canvas,” Young says. “We all live and die. Kabbani objected very strongly to this because, I think, it threatened the hierarchy of power – putting the garden boy on the same size canvas as the Lebanese president. He said I didn’t understand it at all. I told him that his own history was one thing – but cancelling out my country’s history was insulting.”

Dr Kabbani’s media officer at Dar al-Aytam, Rania Zantout, responds with respect but quite firmly to Young’s remarks. “The purpose of our project and the paintings was to present the architectural and cultural heritage of Beirut,” she says. “This was the main subject. Tom was very resistant about this and wanted it related to history. We agreed on keeping the exhibition on culture and architecture – and that some paintings were not related to the exhibition. We had further discussions and Tom pleaded with us. But as a social institution, we are not involved in politics. This is the reason – it’s as simple as this. We had a great experience with Tom. We did our best to please him as an artist. He wanted the exhibition of his work in the Red Building. We’re not hiding from any history. Dr Kabbani gave Tom his office to work in.”

In fact, Young took steps to ensure that two of his portraits – of General Spears and of Lady Wakefield, the wife of a later ambassador – did actually hang in the exhibition. He painted over them thoroughly and covered the canvases with beautiful flowers. But he videotaped the whole re-repainting so that future art lovers – or historians – can see how he originally envisaged the exhibition. On the tape, Spears’ rather noble face is slowly covered with paint and ends up as a bright yellow flower.

Art exhibition in Lebanon shut down by people trying to erase imperialism from their history

Which he might have objected to. For he was, in many ways, the key to Lebanon’s independence, standing up to de Gaulle and insisting that the French leave the country as they had promised. Duff Cooper, Britain’s ambassador to de Gaulle’s French National Liberation Committee, was Spears’ nemesis. After meeting the general’s wife, he wrote to Churchill that “she and her husband believe that the main object of their mission is to maintain the rights of the native populations of the Levant against the dominant [French] power, and even to encourage the natives [sic] to assert these rights. That is not my view, nor I believe, the view of His Majesty’s Government.” Britain, Cooper concluded, should help the French rebuild their country and empire.

Churchill, who had been close friends with Spears in the First World War and afterwards, wrote coldly to him before he was fired. “You did not take my advice to try to keep your Francophobia within reasonable bounds … I will however arrange that … you will be given the opportunity of asking to be relieved instead of being abruptly superseded. That is the best I can do.”

Poor Spears. He could be an aggressive man who made enemies easily. Cooper had written of him years before that “if he had the word ‘SHIT’ written on his forehead with letters of fire it wouldn’t be more apparent than it is now…” Fired by Churchill, he returned to Britain only to lose his parliamentary seat at the next election. And now Tom Young has turned him into a flower to get him a place on the wall of an exhibition.

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