BEIRUT: L’Artisan du Liban et L’Orient opened its doors in Ain al-Mreisseh in December 1967, when Lebanon and much of the Middle East was still shocked and traumatized by Israel’s six-day military victory the past summer.
A high-end boutique selling traditional handicrafts made by local artisans was an innovative concept nearly five decades ago and has since spawned a host of imitators throughout the city that are perhaps the most incongruous legacies of the war.
Founded by May el-Khoury, the late wife of one of Lebanon’s most prolific contemporary architects Pierre el-Khoury, L’Artisan du Liban et L’Orient was a novel blend of commerce and activism nearly back then that seems particularly prescient today, now that slogans like “buy local,” “fair trade,” and “ethical consumerism” have morphed from radical left-wing rallying calls into limousine-liberal clichés.
L’Artisan du Liban et L’Orient “was her answer to the humiliation she felt after the Six Day War,” May’s son, artist Fouad el-Khoury, told The Daily Star. “She was Palestinian so she, and many people in the Arab world, felt that [the outcome of the war] was terrible, so she decided on her own form of combat, which was to revive Arabic culture.”
In an interview with the now defunct French-language newspaper As-Safa in August 1973, May said she felt compelled to reclaim her identity as an Arab after the “myth of Israel was forged” in July 1967, and also wanted to embark on an independent project separate from the role of wife and mother.
May spent the summer of 1967 touring rural villages across Lebanon and Syria and meeting with local artisans – many of whom had been forced to abandon their livelihoods and were encouraging their children to seek out more stable employment in cities, rather than pursue the fledgling family trade.
She interviewed glassblowers, potters, weavers and jewelers, studied their production methods, and discovered that much of Lebanon’s traditional craftsmanship was in decline. Silk had not been woven by hand for 80 years and there was only one glassblower left in the country -- who worked just two days a week.
After May got to know the artisans she began supplying them with new materials and patterns, creating modern designs and shapes for traditional fabrics, and pushing them to adopt new production methods without succumbing to the pressure toward “standardization.”
The artisans were resistant to her suggestions at first and skeptical about whether they could actually earn steady incomes by making traditional crafts that were no longer in demand, but once May decided to start L’Artisan and orders began coming in they were convinced.
May was not particularly concerned with turning a profit, but her primary objective was not to “help” people either, Fouad said.
“She would not use this word,” Fouad said. “It was a way of saying, ‘We will show you.’ In this case, you is not defined, and we is her and the Arab world in general.”
Whether May intended to “help” or not, L’Artisan certainly revived a traditional industry that was on the verge of fading into obscurity into a viable profession again. May told As-Safa in 1973 that there were four glassblowing factories in the country that supplied the shop, four master craftsmen, and “as for my potter, he rolls coach.”
Fouad was 15 years old when the store opened in an old building that has since been demolished near the current location across from the Palm Beach Hotel. The original two-room space was a little smaller than the existing location and didn’t have a terrace, but it also overlooked the Mediterranean, had a small path leading to the sea, and was equally charming, Fouad recalled.
His only criticism was that prices were too high for people his age so his mother agreed to give students at 15 percent discount.
May went to the shop every day, which was surely a draw for customers. By all accounts, she was a captivating presence, what Fouad describes as the kind of woman you’d notice if she walked into a party.
“It’s difficult to define women in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s because it was the beginning of a sort of gender emancipation and women of her milieu could compete with what was going on in the West,” he said. “She went out alone at night in a scarf like the ones worn by Jackie Kennedy or Brigitte Bardot. She was tall, rather beautiful, and probably had lovers. She was also very authoritarian – certainly stronger than my father.”
“It was in her personality to be a little bit rebellious even if she was conventional,” May’s daughter, Ilham, said. “I think when [L’Artisan] started it was quite innovative as a concept and there were many other artisans that opened afterward.”
May never got to see the full extent of the trend she pioneered. In 1975, she died tragically in a car crash. By then the artisans were devoted to her, Fouad said, and dozens of them traveled from villages across Lebanon to Beirut to pay their respects after she died.
Pierre asked his children to let his second wife, Nadia, take over L’Artisan that year and Fouad agreed.
“When my mother died, my father was already dating Nadia,” he said. “I remember one night he was crying over her death and the three of us were next to him. He asked if we minded if Nadia took over and I didn’t ... I wanted my mother’s spirit and vision to go on.”
Today L’Artisan is a reflection of her mother’s original vision, refracted through Nadia’s personality, Ilham said. “It was started by my mother and completed by Nadia.”
Nadia comes from a family of artists who she characterizes as “white Syrians” because they were forced to flee to Lebanon after the Assads took power in the 1960s. “I’m a revolutionary,” she said on a recent afternoon at the home she shared with her late husband, Pierre.
“With my background, coming from a Muslim family, being a working woman was a disgrace. Not only did I buy and sell things, but I also married a Christian.”
After not working during her first marriage, Pierre encouraged her to start a career as a middle-aged woman. Though their tastes often clashed, Nadia said Pierre was a supportive husband and a good listener. Before devoting herself to L’Artisan full-time in the 1990s, Nadia dabbled in painting and interior design, working for clients such as the Husseini family and former President Elias Sarkis.
Nadia describes L’Artisan as “my creation, my creativity, my respect for tradition, and my integrity.”
She sources raw material in Turkey and Syria and personally designs new interpretations of traditional crafts or revives patterns that are no longer used, which are then implemented by one of the 20 Lebanese craftsmen L’Artisan works with. Nadia handpicks the merchandise that isn’t made in Lebanon herself and keeps the things that don’t sell in her home.
The result is a hodgepodge of well-crafted, modern adaptation of standard Oriental fare. Colorful, faux-Ottoman era scrolls painted by a local Lebanese calligrapher are displayed alongside Turkish carpets and racks of elegantly embroidered caftans. Brass trays with calligraphy engraved by a local ironsmith are stacked next to a brightly colored ceramic Moroccan lamp on a dining room table surrounded by antique, mother-of-pearl-inlaid chairs. Baskets overflow with handmade dolls wearing individually designed, traditional Arabic dress and soaps made in Tripoli and Aleppo spill from shelves.
It’s a cluttered, colorful, vibrant and elegant site that Nadia says is only “the remains of what used to be.”
Nadia’s daughter from her first marriage, Soraya Khalidy, remembers the shop as more of a home than a store when she used to visit in the 1990s.
“It was opulent. There was a view of the sea. You would go sit outside. Mom used to be there all the time so people would come have coffee and sit. It was like her salon rather than a store. ... It started a trend,” Khalidy said. “You only have to look at all the other stores to see that.”
Nadia admits that she was never good at selling to people who didn’t share her tastes:
“I used to get horrified because they would buy things that I made with love and put them I don’t know where. [The manager] used to make me go into the other room when they came in.”
Nonetheless the store had never lost money until last year, Nadia said, when the drop in Gulf tourists began to take its toll. Nadia has slashed prices across the shop and is searching for a buyer who will purchase L’Artisan du Liban et L’Orient as “an institution.”
She’s negotiated with a few interested parties, but so far none have been willing to continue the vision pioneered by May. “Some people want to open a restaurant. Some people don’t want to buy stock.”
In the meantime, Lebanon’s original luxury artisan shop remains open.