The Cultural Entrepreneur YILDIZ DIAB
Researcher & founder of Ana Aqra Association
“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