The Cul­tural En­tre­pre­neur YILDIZ DIAB

Re­searcher & founder of Ana Aqra As­so­ci­a­tion

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

“Im in the mid­dle of a re­search pro­ject, one which ex­plores a layer of Mid­dle East­ern his­tory that’s been over­looked,” says Yidiz Diab, as she en­ters her im­pres­sive li­brary, its walls lined from floor to ceil­ing with wooden shelves hold­ing some 3,100 books metic­u­lously in­dexed by sub­jects such as fash­ion, Is­lamic his­tory, art and phi­los­o­phy. At her desk are stacks of pa­pers, as well as notes and fam­ily pho­tographs pinned to a wall. Find­ing the set of keys she was look­ing for, she makes her way to a spare bed­room in her house that’s been con­verted into a tem­po­rary archive space hold­ing an un­usual selec­tion of items.

She pulls out a mauve en­sem­ble from Elsa Schi­a­par­elli’s 1938 Zo­diac col­lec­tion, its sur­face dusted in gilt caviar beads in the shape of stars em­broi­dered by Lesage. Lift­ing the lid off a box, she re­veals a faded ball gown, its bodice sten­cilled with an iron­work mo­tif of grey beads and se­quins. Although miss­ing its la­bel, it turns out to be a Ba­len­ci­aga orig­i­nal, a pink ver­sion of which was worn by the model Dovima when Richard Ave­don cap­tured her for the De­cem­ber 1950 is­sue of Harper’s Bazaar. Yildiz is in­ti­mately fa­mil­iar with these pieces as well as oth­ers by the likes of Car­ven and Bal­main, be­cause her mother wore them dur­ing a pe­riod when Egyp­tian, Le­banese, Syr­ian and Pales­tinian women rep­re­sented Paris cou­ture’s ear­li­est Mid­dle East­ern clients. For Yildiz, who was born in Cairo the same year as the Egyp­tian rev­o­lu­tion that top­pled its monar­chy, and sub­se­quently grew up in Nasser’s so­cial­ist Egypt, these gar­ments rep­re­sent a world that has faded away.

The daugh­ter of an of­fi­cer in the Egyp­tian Royal Cavalry, her fa­ther later be­came a cham­pion eques­trian who par­tic­i­pated in four Olympic Games. Each sum­mer, her par­ents trav­elled to Europe, where her fa­ther would com­pete as one of the top 10 rid­ers in the world. They would re­turn to Cairo three months later, dur­ing which her mother would have placed or­ders at the Paris cou­ture houses. Pulling out a folder, Yildiz re­veals re­ceipts from Jean Pa­tou and Jac­ques Fath, as well as pho­tographs of her mother ele­gantly dressed in 1940s and ’50s Cairo. Over the past year she’s also been slowly col­lect­ing in­for­ma­tion and arte­facts from other fam­i­lies in Le­banon and Egypt with sim­i­lar his­to­ries and sto­ries.

“Dig a lit­tle deeper and one will find that these aren’t just clothes, re­ceipts and pho­tographs. To­gether with the oral his­to­ries of those who are still alive to re­mem­ber that pe­riod, they paint a so­cial his­tory of the re­gion that’s linked to anti-colo­nial move­ments, fem­i­nism, glob­al­ism and mo­bil­ity,” says the re­searcher, not­ing that all too of­ten the Mid­dle East is left out of mod­ern his­tory books, un­less pre­sented in the con­text of oil or war. “Though they be­long to a rar­i­fied cir­cle, these arte­facts point to in­di­vid­u­als who were also very much en­gaged in the re­gion’s strug­gles for in­de­pen­dence and na­tion build­ing.”

To make her point she heads to Paper­cup, her favourite book­store in Mar Mikhael, to pick up a book on the his­tory of Lan­vin that she or­dered. Leaf­ing through it, she goes past dozens of pic­tures of Euro­pean so­cialites and roy­alty un­til she stops at a sin­gle image of Nawali Kas­sar taken in 1937, wear­ing a Lan­vin evening en­sem­ble. Born to a wealthy Pales­tinian fam­ily from Jaffa, she mar­ried the busi­ness­man and politi­cian Henri Pharaon, who played a cru­cial role in se­cur­ing Le­banon’s in­de­pen­dence from France and served as its For­eign Min­is­ter. Cham­pi­oning a peace­ful co­ex­is­tence be­tween Chris­tians and Mus­lims, he was also re­spon­si­ble for de­sign­ing the Le­banese flag. “If you look be­yond the glam­orous im­ages, you see that many of these peo­ple had a front-row seat at his­tory-mak­ing events, so these clothes and the so­cial mil­lieu in which they were worn of­fer more nu­anced his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives,” says Yildiz, who hopes her re­search will lead to a book, ex­hi­bi­tion and even­tu­ally a foun­da­tion in Beirut to pre­serve these his­to­ries.

Half an hour later she’s seated at Ka­mal Mouza­wak’s res­tau­rant, Tawlet, a culi­nary space that en­cour­ages peo­ple of dif­fer­ent back­grounds to con­nect through food. “Ev­ery week they bring in new chefs, many of them women from ru­ral ar­eas and vil­lages in dif­fer­ent parts of Le­banon, to cook their re­gional cuisines,” she ob­serves, while re­mem­ber­ing the day Ka­mal took her to the fifth floor of the same build­ing his res­tau­rant oc­cu­pies to show her his lat­est ven­ture, Beit el Tawlet, a charm­ing bed and break­fast decked out in colour­ful art, pot­ted plants and ’70s retro fur­ni­ture culled from thrift stores in the heart of Mar Mikhael. “What I love about Beirut is that it’s filled with cre­ative peo­ple like Ka­mal who en­cour­age an en­trepreneurial spirit,” says Yildiz, who grad­u­ated with a de­gree in Is­lamic art and ar­chi­tec­ture from the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Cairo in 1979, be­fore mov­ing to Beirut in 1988 with her Le­banese hus­band.

“Although I had vis­ited Beirut with my fam­ily as a child in the 1960s, by the time I re­turned the civil war was in its fi­nal years. I wasn’t ner­vous about mov­ing here and I’m glad I ex­pe­ri­enced that pe­riod,” says Yildiz, not­ing that she mar­velled at how both rich and poor would carry on with life, de­spite the con­flict around them. “I re­mem­ber when I first moved here I was sur­prised to see bou­tiques fea­tur­ing the lat­est Euro­pean fashions, as well as women in­sist­ing on go­ing to the hair­dresser, de­spite reg­u­lar wa­ter short­ages and elec­tric­ity out­ages. It was only years later that I re­alised it was their way of cop­ing with the war and an act of de­fi­ance,” adds the en­tre­pre­neur, who from 2005 to 2016 launched and over­saw y.knot, a space in Saifi Vil­lage that of­fered knit­ting classes and a chic line of cloth­ing and home ac­ces­sories pro­duced by un­der­priv­i­leged women in Le­banon. She also es­tab­lished the Ana Aqra As­so­ci­a­tion in 1994, an NGO that pro­vides teacher train­ing as well as free books and tu­tor­ing to un­der­priv­i­leged chil­dren in Le­banon’s pub­lic school sys­tem.

To­wards the end of the day Yildiz has one more stop on her itin­er­ary, a stately 19th cen­tury palazzo in Beirut’s Sur­sock area. To­day, it serves as the home of Serge Brunst, a Le­banese in­te­rior de­signer who was born in Aleppo in 1939 to a Rus­sian fa­ther and Ital­ian mother. “There’s some­thing in­cred­i­bly worldly and gra­cious about him that I’ve al­ways ap­pre­ci­ated,” says Yildiz of Serge, who de­signed the in­te­ri­ors for the Pres­i­den­tial Palace of Baabda and the Le­banese Par­lia­ment. “It’s like en­ter­ing a very re­fined world when you come here,” she con­tin­ues as she scoops up Serge’s Per­sian cat Tar­boosh, while ad­mir­ing rooms fea­tur­ing por­traits of ma­hara­jas, a 17th cen­tury oil paint­ing by Elena Recco from Naples, Louis XV up­hol­stered chairs and an 18th cen­tury screen from a French theatre. “That an Egyp­tian such as my­self and a Syr­ian-born Rus­sian-Ital­ian like Serge can call Beirut home is part of what makes this city so mag­i­cal and a place where ev­ery­one can be­long.”

“That an Egyp­tian such as my­self can call Beirut home is part of what makes this city so mag­i­cal and a place where ev­ery­one can


Yildiz Diab

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