The Pa­tron AIDA KAWAS

Co-founder of Ori­ent 499

Harper's Bazaar (Arabia) - - The Talking Point -

“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

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