Culture

Abboud’s ‘La Souris’ sees light after 60 years

BEIRUT: Anyone interested in Lebanon’s art scene knows Shafik Abboud. What they may not know is that the Lebanese modernist once wrote a children’s book. “La Souris” (The Mouse), was the artist’s take on the local folktales that he claimed were the inspiration behind much of his artistic output.

Abboud, whose grandmother was the village hakawati, wrote and illustrated the book while a student in Paris in 1954. He produced just 20 copies.

Six decades on, the whereabouts of only three of the books are known, but Dar Onboz would prevent it being forgotten. The children’s publishing house have re-released the work in a bilingual French and Arabic edition.

A decade after the artist’s death at the age of 77, Abboud’s work has lost none of its relevance or appeal.

“La Souris” begins with a couple whose happiness is marred by the fact that they are unable to bear a child. The wife prays to the heavens and soon becomes pregnant, only to give birth to 1,000 mice. Enraged, the father kills them, but the next morning the couple discover that one mouse has hidden under the sofa and survived. She’s so sweet the couple instantly fall in love with her. The mother makes her dresses and bonnets and paints her tiny toenails, and each day she brings her father lunch in his shop.

“This theme is very recurrent is our folktales,” Touma says, “the theme of a married couple who cannot have children and then something very weird happens. One woman gives birth to a pot, for instance. They’re brilliantly surreal ... I think this issue of stigmatization of a couple that is married and doesn’t have children is still very overwhelming, especially in villages. So there is this sense of begging for anything, even for a pot or a mouse or an olive seed.”

Abboud was one of Lebanon’s most influential artists. Born near Bikfaya in 1926, he spent most of his life in Paris and was well-known for his interest in experimenting with a wide variety of media, producing paintings, sculptures, carpets, tapestries, lithographs, posters, terracotta totem poles and even a sundouq al-ferji, or wooden storyteller’s box, for his daughter Christine.

It was from Christine that Nadine Touma, co-founder of Dar Onboz, got permission to republish “La Souris.” Having been shown a copy of the book by artist and critic Helen Khal in 2005, she dreamt of reissuing it. In 2012, she met Abboud’s daughter at his Beirut retrospective and the two began to work together on the project.

A series of figural lithographs in rich, earthy colors illustrate the work. Each piece faces a page of handwritten French text, punctuated by doodled sketches and decorative elements and overprinted with abstract blocks of color to match those in the accompanying illustration.

“We reproduced it [exactly],” Touma explains. “He writes certain letters that of course when reproduced in silk screen or lithography you might miss something. We didn’t touch anything. Sometimes he pencils something in and we left it that way. Some artwork he signed, so we left his signature, and we even left what he wrote at the end, which was that this book was published in 20 copies in the artist’s studio in 1954 in Paris, and this is copy No. 13, which he had kept for himself.”

Dar Onboz places great emphasis on encouraging young readers to appreciate the beauty of Arabic, so Touma was adamant that any publication of the book should include an Arabic translation. The problem, she explains, was how to integrate it into the work without compromising the artist’s vision.

In the end, Touma and her team decided to include a translation of the text on the two white pages that were left between each spread in Abboud’s original – the backs of the lithographs. None of the existing Arabic typography fitted with the look of the book, she explains, so they worked with calligrapher Ali Assi, who created a new script for the project, a simple handwritten font that’s perfectly in keeping with Abboud’s aesthetic.

In addition, Touma decided to make a CD to accompany the book, featuring readings of the story in French and in colloquial Arabic by hakawati May Makarem Hamady.

Hamady’s dramatized reading, which contemporizes Abboud’s work for a young audience, is accompanied by delicate qanun music.

The musical portion of the CD consists of recordings of beloved Lebanese qanun player Imane Homsy. When she died last year at the age of 45, Homsy had been in the midst of working on a series of recordings with Dar Onboz, Touma says, and she decided to use some of the material for “La Souris.”

Savine Ariss, another Daz Onboz founder, seamlessly blended Hamady’s voice with the prerecorded music.

“It’s beautiful,” Touma says. “For us really this project is like a musical and an artistic homage to two great people, Shafik and Imane ... The CD is also a way for us to show that you can reincorporate stories. Abboud was inspired by oral tradition to write his story, and we bring it back to a realm of hakawati. We chose a woman to tell it because he was influenced by women storytellers.”

Narrative aside, the sophistication of Abboud’s illustrations ties in perfectly with Dar Onboz’s mission to publish high-quality children’s literature.

The reissuing of “La Souris” “is a very humble way of addressing the people who still perceive children’s literature as something banal and shallow and mediocre, and that still perceive Dar Onboz as not for children,” she says.

“When you see that this was published in 1954 and still fits so much our vision in 2014, it [suggests] that really it’s a whole movement that ... led to where we are now. We can’t stay where everyone imagines children’s books have to be – which is didactic, literal, always having to be moralizing and teaching a lesson.”

A selection of Abboud’s nudes is on show at Hamra’s Agial Art Gallery until Nov. 14. In “La Souris” enthusiasts may see a different, more playful side to his work.

A fun book for parents to read aloud to their offspring, or for older children to read themselves, the beauty of “La Souris” and the high quality of Dar Onboz’s reproduction makes it equally appealing to adults, a work of art in its own right.

Touma admits that she has no idea how the book will sell, but says she was determined to move ahead with the project irrespective of the high production costs and the lack of a patron willing to help sponsor the project. “For us it’s an adventure, like all our books,” she shrugs. “We do them. We don’t know commercially what will happen ... For us, Dar Onboz is our resistance. You finance people to fight. You need to finance people to spread something totally different, because this how you will win the war at the end of the day.”

Nadine Touma will perform Shafik Abboud’s “La Souris” at the Salon du Livre, BIEL, at 5 p.m. Nov. 8, at the Librairie El Bourj stand. The Dar Onboz book is available at the fair or from local bookshops.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 04, 2014, on page 16.

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