One woman’s quest to bring the Phoenician alphabet to life

BEIRUT: If identity crisis is among the most common pathologies suffered by Lebanese, Nayla Romanos Iliya has found the remedy, or at least the one for her. After living abroad for more than 20 years, Romanos Iliya rekindled an appreciation of her Lebanese heritage by creating sculptures based on the Phoenician alphabet.Born and raised in Beirut, Romanos Iliya was educated in French schools during the Civil War, before choosing to study architecture and design at the American University of Beirut.

“When I lived in Lebanon, I was looking West,” she explained.

She spent almost two decades bouncing across metropolitan hubs in Europe, North America and Asia, absorbing the cultural and artistic offerings of each city.

Finally landing in Dubai, Romanos Iliya says she became interested in learning about the roots of her own culture. “I definitely didn’t want to spend the time going or the mall or having lunches,” she said. “It’s not my style.”

As a Lebanese woman, Romanos Iliya felt a sense of otherness in Dubai. In Lebanon, “We speak Arabic, and we are in the Arab world, but I realized we also kept a lot of the Phoenician spirit,” she said.

“Whether you like it or not, Lebanese people have this merchant aspect. We export ourselves all over the world.”

She started doing research on culture and identity and took interest in the Phoenician alphabet, a keystone of ancient civilization created, most likely, on Lebanese soil around 1,500 B.C.

Having long held mixed emotions about her home country, Romanos Iliya said that studying the Phoenician alphabet helped restore her Lebanese pride. “It was a healing process for me.”

“It was a way for me to get closer to my roots and to try to compensate for the negative feelings I had for some aspects of my home country. I found the alphabet very inspiring ... This was a huge gift to the world.”

The script itself contains 22 letters, which have both a phonetic sound and a symbolic meaning. In Dubai, Romanos Iliya made three-dimensional mock-ups of each Phoenician letter, playing with the meanings and symbolism of each.

Finally, using bronze, resin and aluminum, she created large-scale figures based on of the Phoenician letters. In a series she calls “mini-scrabble” she uses the Phoenician characters, which bear a resemblance to Latin or Arabic letters, to create words in English or Lebanese.

Some of her works make playful use of the Phoenician alphabet’s symbolic meanings.

In one, entitled Alphabeit, an almost anthropomorphic version of the Phoenician letter Aleph appears to be walking toward a shape resembling the letter Beit, which meant ‘home’ in the Phoenician language as it does in modern Arabic.

Other pieces, however, have a deeper and more complicated meaning. In one piece, titled TRAP, the Phoenician letters Taw and Peh, which resemble the cross and crescent respectively, are twisted together, seemingly at odds, set in a wire cage. The piece represents Lebanon’s history of religious conflict.

“I felt that I was giving life to those archaic shapes, and showing that they can still be used in a very contemporary way,” she said.

Most of her sculptures are set on reflective surfaces. “This symbolizes the sea, by which the Phoenicians spread their alphabet. They were great seafarers,” she said.

Having relocated to Lebanon last year, Romanos Iliya is still working with variations the Phoenician script. Her pieces, including Noughts and Crosses, which is currently featured as part of Beirut Art Week, combine the shapes of the letters and their symbolic meanings.

Noughts and Crosses, located in the cosmopolitan bustle of Beirut Souks, combines the Phoenician letter Taw – which looks like a cross, and means ‘sign’ in Phoenician – and the letter Ayin, which resembles a circle and signifies the eye.

Those less versed in the Phoenician alphabet could be forgiven for thinking the sculpture was depicted a Latin X and an O, which shows the links that this ancient alphabet has with modern alphabets.

The meaning of the piece, she says, is largely open to interpretation.

“The letters are just the inspiration,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 18, 2014, on page 2.




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