BEIRUT: Fouad Debbas (1930-2001) may be Lebanon’s best-known collector. It’s said his obsession with accumulation was sparked one day in 1975, when the businessman was walking through Paris and stumbled upon an album of 50 old postcards depicting 19th-century Lebanese landscapes. By the time he passed away, Debbas had amassed a collection of 45,000 images – some 22,000 postcards, 20,000 original prints (both individual pictures and whole albums of photos), 2,000 slides and negatives and 1,000 stereoscopic (3D-like) images – of Lebanon and “Geographical Syria.” The latter term describes the 19th-century Ottoman provinces that were later divided into “Syria,” “Lebanon,” “Jordan” and “occupied Palestine.”
The Debbas Collection is thought to be the largest private collection of its kind in the world.
During Debbas’ lifetime, images from his collection were bound into two volumes – “Beyrouth, notre mémoire” (1986) and “Des photographes à Beyrouth 1840-1918” (2001). It has also been used for several exhibitions, most notably at Paris’ Institut du Monde Arabe.
Traces of Debbas’ obsession are nowadays featured in “Un Siecle d’Illustrations a l’Epreuve du Rire” (A Century of Illustrations for Laughter), an exhibition of works from the Debbas Collection now up at the French Cultural Center’s Espace Montaigne.
The show portrays a Lebanon that no longer exists ... or does it?
Among the images on display is a series of amusing photos of Beirut shoe shiners. It’s not that the scene in itself is comic so much as the angle from which it was captured. Observers can clearly see the class strata here and the less-than-subtle distinctions separating the boys from the men having their shoes polished.
Shoe shine boys remain a common sight on those Beirut streets where they are still allowed to practice their trade – as are the distinctions between those availing themselves of the service and those providing it.
The show also includes several digitalized pages from the satirical publication “Journal Amusant,” founded in the late-19th century by Charles Philippon. These pages lampoon France’s 1860-61 expedition to Syria.
Yasmine Chemali, the manager of the Fouad Debbas Collection, told The Daily Star the purpose of this exhibition is to give people the opportunity to look deeply at the works and analyze them in detail.
“Un Siecle d’Illustrations” is only one of a bouquet of events being staged this month to celebrate francophone culture in Lebanon. The French Cultural Center has organized exhibitions, performances and workshops designed with children and adults in mind.
In this regard, youth workshops have been scheduled until the end of the week, with the aim of having children create their own newspaper, based on the models suggested by “Journal Amusant.”
“We want to make people smile through these images,” Chemali said of the exhibition. “But especially to make them think.”
Elsewhere in the show, onlookers will find postcards depicting, for example, the “Vie Comique en Syrie et Palestine” (Comic Life in Syria and Palestine) and “Vie Comique en Syrie” (Comic Life in Syria).
“These are caricatures of [that period’s] social standards,” Chemali continued, “which are not that far from what we see nowadays.”
What do we see? There is a caricature of a man who bears an uncanny resemblance to his donkey. Another sketch portrays a man and wife who don’t speak to one another. A cartoon of a boy selling beverages from his mobile kiosk looks not unlike the kaak vendors that can be seen plying their trade on Beirut’s streets in the morning.
Many other postcards are displayed here, showing variations on the theme of “Orient,” to which Europeans had grown accustomed during the age of empire.
“The graphic compositions are simple,” Chemali noted. “The decor is minimalist but has a meaning.”
A third wall is devoted to 19th-century entertainments.
One photograph features actors dressed as Bedouins. During AUB’s Field Day, the university hosted track and field athletes from different schools around the city. The Université Saint Joseph celebrated Jeanne D’Arc Day with a theatre play.
Bear baiting appears to have been popular and several postcards and photographs show a bear and a goat with their trainers on the streets of Damascus and Beirut. These street acrobats and “wandering entertainers” (as Debbas called them) are quite rare in Beirut today.
Performances of this sort were forbidden in 1878, Debbas wrote in “Beirut, Our Memory,” because “Beirut wished to become a law-abiding, well-policed town with ‘proper’ shops and established shopkeepers.”
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as a francophone might say. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
“Un Siecle d’Illustrations a l’Epreuve du Rire” is on show at the Espace Montaigne, French Institute, until March 22. For more information, please visit www.institutfrancais-liban.com.