The Patron AIDA KAWAS
Co-founder of Orient 499
“It’s been an emotional month, but a joyful one as well,” says Aida Kawas in the courtyard tucked away at the back of Orient 499, the atmospheric design emporium she founded with Frank Luca, which has become a byword for modern Oriental chic. Surrounded by potted palms and the calming sound of a gurgling fountain, she pours fragrant cups of mint tea before settling into an divan covered in pillows made from salvaged Ottoman textiles. “I was in Italy for my son’s wedding and rushed back to Beirut because my daughter gave birth to her first baby,” says Aida of a happy series of events, while taking in the cosy courtyard, one of many artfully conceived mise-en-scène at Orient 499, opposite the shell of the Holiday Inn hotel in Minet El Hosn.
“I love looking out onto the old Holiday Inn. It breaks my heart when I hear they may tear it down, because we need reminders of our turbulent past in a part of town that’s been rebuilt,” says Aida, who was born and raised in Beirut, the only daughter among five brothers. “I credit my mother with instilling in me a love of handicrafts and beautiful objects. She collected Persian carpets and used to take me with her to Beirut’s old souk, which no longer exists today, but at the time was an intoxicating collision of sights, smells and sounds,” says Aida, who purchased her first carpet at 18 with pocket money she saved. “The Beirut of my childhood was a gentler and graceful city,” she says, noting that when not attending the Mission laïque Française, she would spend her childhood summers in the mountains playing among the vineyards and fields of olive trees with her brothers and cousins.
Her parents would also instill in her a love for her heritage and the wider region. “They were Arabists who admired Egypt’s [president, 1956-70] Gamal Abdel Nasser. Even though I spoke French at school, at home it was strictly Arabic, while Umm Kulthum and Mohammed Abd Wahhab always played on the radio,” says Aida, noting that her mother was a strong presence as she raised six children, while Aida’s father, an airline pilot, was away for long periods. Her life would take an unexpected turn the same year she graduated from high school, when the civil war erupted in 1975. “It had a huge impact on everyone’s lives and the heartbreaking decision had to be made to leave the country we loved,” she laments. She then spent the war years with her family shuttling between Beirut, London and Paris.
By 1982, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon forced the family to make the difficult decision to settle down in Germany, and later Paris. Longing for her country and her memories of Beirut’s old souk, Aida teamed up with two friends in 1985 to open Laimoun, a Parisian gallery specialising in Lebanese handicrafts. “Throughout that time I never gave up my dream of returning to Beirut, and I was able to go back in 1994 after the war had ended,” she says, noting that she went to work with Nadia el Khoury, who co-founded L’Artisan du Liban et L’Orient in 1967, a pioneering high-end boutique selling traditional handicrafts made by local artisans.
“She was a friend and mentor who taught me how to reinterpret our heritage in a fresh way,” says Aida, as she walks past rooms decorated with monumental Damascene mirrors, brass wall ornaments in the form of stencilled Arabic calligraphy, and a modern wood table inlaid with delicate mother-of-pearl. She makes her way to one of her favourite hidden spaces in the store. Inside, a large crystal chandelier hovers over a work table and floor-to-ceiling shelves stacked with handmade textiles culled from her trips to Paris, Italy, India, Egypt and Turkey. Most of the fabrics find their way into Orient 499’s best-selling line of chic contemporary kaftans and abayas, which Aida personally designs.
“I used to regularly visit Damascus and Aleppo before the war in Syria, to source the most beautiful fabrics. It pains me to see how much its people have suffered. It’s also a real loss, in terms of our shared cultural heritage,” says the designer, who would meet her future business partner, Frank Luca, in 2005 during a chance encounter in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. “We clicked immediately, because we shared the same vision of what the future of traditional craftsmanship looked like, one which also reflects the world we live in today,” she says of the Belgium-born Frank, who settled in Beirut in the late 1990s and was already familiar with Aida’s work, having frequented Artisans du Liban et d’Orient in Beirut.
Within a week of meeting Luca, Aida was sitting down with him to discuss setting up their gallery. “By the following week we’d already rented a space and hired the noted architect Youssef Haidar,” says Aida. But despite their careful preparations and attention to every detail, they would face an unexpected glitch in their plans. On July 12, 2006, Aida and Frank were filling out some 2,000 invitations to the opening of their new gallery in six days’ time. The following day, they received a frantic call from a friend urging them to tape up their windows. Israeli fighter planes had launched an aerial assault on Lebanon that would last for 34 days.
They cancelled their party, opting instead for a discreet opening on August 26, when it seemed hopeful that the ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah would hold. “Our decision to move ahead with the opening was our way of not giving up on our city,” says Aida. Over the years Orient 499 would not only enchant with its unique offerings, but would also change the conversation around what artisanal means in a 21st century Middle East, by setting up a workshop of talented young craftsmen and women.
“In Lebanon there isn’t any government support for craft-based industries, so substantive change must happen at a grassroots level,” she says, noting that the only way to preserve this heritage is by modernising it. “When young people start seeing their parents making a fulfilling living as artisans working with their hands, they can begin to envision careers beyond an office, because it’s an honourable profession where one is being creative and problem-solving at the same time,” says Aida, who has helped over 200 artisans forge viable careers. They include some of the country’s most highly skilled artisans, from Sarafand glassblowers in Southern Lebanon to soap makers in Tripoli. “Orient 499 is ultimately a love letter to Lebanon and Beirut. We’re not only bringing attention to our rich heritage but also contributing to more nuanced narratives about our city and its people to a global audience.”
Through Orient 499, Aida has helped over 200 artisans forge viable careers