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Wednesday, August 11, 2004

i want to be a taxidermist...

yesterday i visited this gorgeous late 19th century house in beirut with my father. we were with a real estate advisor that was showing us a bunch of properties and we ended up at this beautiful french-islamic colonial villa on a promontory overlooking the Raouche. while admiring its rundown beauty my father noticed the humming of the air conditioners. just as he mentioned it we saw this lady staring out the window at us and realized the house was inhabited when we had no idea - we'd assumed it was an abandoned relic! she comes out and with a friendly smile greets us as we apologize for inadvertently trespassers on their property. just then a car pulls in and out comes a elegant yet modestly dressed lady that looks like she's in her fifties... she greets us warmly and, after the usual pleasantries, insists that we come inside to take a look at the place.

it turns out that they've been tenants for 40-odd years and have immaculately preserved the place. I really can't describe the inside - it was like touring an ancient palace and reminded me of the Domabache Palace in Istanbul. utterly breathtaking! and since it was lived in what i enjoyed were her old family pictures and portraits as well as the family's coat of arms - apparently our dear host was from a very distinguished/aristocratic lebanese family. she was also from a very artistic family - her brother was a famous architect and others were painters and sculptors and their work was all over the place. the ceilings seemed 6 meters high or so and were finely painted with gorgeous pastel hues with obvious signs of age. she then took us onto the terrace and it was probably one of the most memorable vistas i had ever seen! all the way down there was rich foliage with ancient trees and patches of rubble and out ahead you could see way out to see with the waves hitting the rocks all around the Raouche.

to my delight our gracious host turned out to be a book publisher focused on heritage books about lebanon. she collected images and artifacts to feature in books that were published the three main languages of lebanon - arabic, french and english. she was also reprinting ancient out-of-print editions by the early orientalist explorers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. her aim was to develop more appreciation of the country's varied history and make the material accessible to the average reader (some of those old originals were on the market for $20,000 a pop!). i could have spent the whole day there - i think i'll be ordering a bunch of her works after seeing what care and passion she had for her work!

even more of a surprise was when she talked about the tenant on the second floor. "he's a kuwaiti and his name is..." where she couldn't recall his last name wherein my father smiles and fills in the blank! it turns out his uncle lived in the place for twenty years or so including when my father went to school there in the late 60s/early 70s. he'd even once visited his uncle in that same house and it was slowly coming back to him that this was actually the same place... "i thought it looked familiar.." it's like he'd stepped back in time 35 years - it was still the same old place and apparently his uncle was still paying the rent for the second floor although he hadn't been there in years! (i need to ask him for the keys - such a waste not to live there)

our hosts' generosity didn't end there. she had just married of her daughter and gave us a gorgeous custom-made cup and saucer from the wedding as well as an old copy of the herald tribune where they'd featured the house and here publishing and preservation work. i still can't believe her hospitality towards a bunch of strangers - truly made my trip to beirut worthwhile!

it was very encouraging to see her passion and caring for her work - i so wish we could do the same in kuwait!


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