BEIRUT: The tarboosh, or fez, has had a long and exciting history, for a hat. This style of circular cap spread from continent to continent over the centuries so that the fez has been worn in one form or another by people all around the Mediterranean, within North Africa, throughout the Middle East, across the Balkans and as far afield as Sri Lanka and Malaysia. Even the ancient Phoenicians are said to have worn a conical hat that was not unlike the modern tarboosh.
In post-World War I Turkey, the first president of the republic, Kemal Ataturk – who believed that Westernization was the key to modernizing – considered the fez such a strong symbol of things Oriental that, under the famous Hat Law of 1925, he banned his citizens from wearing it altogether.
At another extreme, various Western men’s organizations – like the Shriners and the Freemasons – seem to have included the red felt hat among the Oriental icons they’ve adopted.
For Wael Hamadeh, a Lebanese artist who works with a range of media, the tarboosh is not a political symbol but an emblem of all that he loves about the country’s rich cultural heritage. “It’s a kind of belonging,” he explains.
“You belong to history, you belong to a culture. If we compare ourselves to history we are so small, and we don’t know much about our past.
“Under the tarboosh there is lots of things. The harvest of olives ... the picking of apples – all these things come to be as if the tarboosh is a symbol of the real Lebanon,” Hamadeh says.
The tarboosh features prominently in many of his paintings, a selection of which are currently on show at Gallery Zamaan in Hamra. The exhibition, entitled “Gold & Orient II,” features 18 acrylic paintings from his tarboosh series, as well as a number of his sketches done with black ink and Arabic coffee – none of which are dated.
Hamadeh’s paintings are joyful, dreamlike scenes full of rich colors and Arab cultural symbols. These coalesce in a series of surrealist works that look as though Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte collaborated to create a bizarre view of the Middle East using only the “1001 Nights” as their source material.
Were Hamadeh not from an Arab background, cries of orientalism would surely be bouncing off the walls of the gallery. As it is, Hamadeh’s paintings are a humorous, slightly self-conscious celebration of the traditional Lebanese values and cultural symbols that the artist feels are dying out.
His work is not intended to be political, he explains. “I took it as a bit of fun and a bit of bringing back the things that we missed from a long time ago,” he says.
“Now the West is invading us and China is invading us with all the products ... You don’t see anything made by the Lebanese except a few things.”
The rich, jewel-like colors in Hamadeh’s work are cheerful and appealing, transforming the gallery into a patchwork of warm autumnal tones. “When they see my paintings, people always ask me ‘Are you from Syria?’ or ‘Are you from Lebanon?’” Hamadeh says. “They directly link my pattern and my colors to this area.”
“Smoke of the Vine” depicts a curvaceous woman in a headscarf who appears to be belly dancing. Her upper body is made up of two hills covered in tiny trees and houses, and she holds an apple, a bunch of grapes and a vine-leaf, symbolizing Lebanon’s agricultural bounty.
The lower half of her body is made of a narghileh with four pipes descending to a long thin sofa, populated by six tiny men. The men, wearing tarbooshes, sit smoking their giant nargileh-woman on puffy purple cushions.
“Lebanese Blondy” is equally tongue-in-cheek, a take on two famous pictorial kisses – Auguste Rodin’s embracing stone lovers and Gustav Klimt’s gilded couple, draped in flowers and wrapped in each others’ arms.
Hamadeh’s painting is less tragic than Rodin’s illicit kiss and less romantic than Klimt’s, depicting a dark-haired, mustached man in the ubiquitous red tarboosh, arms clasped around a topless woman with long blonde curls and a deep purple turban. Their lower bodies rise from a muddy landscape, and in the foreground a row of tiny, brightly colored houses renders them giants.
Hamadeh clearly intends to draw parallels with the two iconic works, though whether his painting is intended as an hommage or a parody is difficult to ascertain. Rodin’s sculpture is mimicked in the couple’s stance – the bare back and arm raised at right angles – while Klimt is recalled more subtly in the gold of the lady’s hair and the patch of flowers rising like a curl of smoke.
Full of impossibly long-legged men in tarbooshes, towers of precariously teetering houses and women with cities on their chests, Hamadeh’s paintings might not capture Lebanon as the average person sees it. Yet they are entertaining and often endearing.
Looking at Hamadeh’s work, it’s easy to wish that the innocent, fruitful, politically sounds and corruption-free Lebanon he sees were as self-evident to everyone.
Wael Hamadeh’s “Gold & Orient II” is on show at Hamra’s Gallery Zamaan until Aug. 31. For more information call 01-745-571.