Art in the press

There once was a house in Nabatiyeh

Artist Abdallah Kahil lost three decades' worth of work in the final hours of a war he played no part in waging. By Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, Daily Star staff. September 13, 2006

When Abdallah Kahil decided to return to Lebanon after 25 years in New York, he thought maybe he would retire. "Not as an artist," Kahil explains, "but as someone who works and makes money." He thought maybe he would seek refuge in his native city of Nabatiyeh, move into a new house with his older brother, facing the old house where his parents used to live, where he was born and spent his formative years, and where his younger brother would now be living with his family.

He thought maybe he would have the peace and quiet to paint there, in the cool spacious rooms on the lower floor of the two-story stone structure topped with a red tile roof, located across the street from a gently sloping field of green grass. But he quickly realized that Nabatiyeh was no longer the sleepy hamlet he remembered it to be, and having not yet hit the age of 50 at the time, he also realized he was too restless for retirement.

Instead of the pastoral life, Kahil opted for more urban digs. He took an apartment in Beirut and a job teaching the history of art and architecture at the Lebanese American University. He kept his foothold in Nabatiyeh, however, using the lower floor of that stone house to store some 400 boxes of belongings he had transported from New York in three separate container shipments by sea.

Kahil is a serious bibliophile and a fiercely idiosyncratic collector of the kind of ephemeral but intensely meaningful mnemonic material that characterizes an artist's practice.

In that house, he had 128 boxes of books - most of them related to art and architecture, some of them rare and out of print. He had a nearly complete collection of a now-defunct New York-based arts magazine - the sort of thing that would take a lifetime of hunting and scouring to reconstitute - along with archival issues of Art in America and Artforum, all dating back to the historically noteworthy heyday of the New York art scene in the early 1980s.


In that house, he also had three decades' worth of his own artwork - from large oil paintings measuring 3 meters wide to a series of nine diminutive egg tempera pieces that he worked on for seven to eight months apiece.

Those paintings spanned a career that began in the late 1970s when Kahil studied fine art at the Lebanese University - having decided, when the Civil War broke out in 1975, that he had nothing to lose by ditching his electrician's training to become an artist - through his time earning an MFA at New York's Pratt Institute and a PhD from New York University's fabled Institute of Fine Arts and then teaching at NYU for another full decade.

In other words, that house was the physical manifestation of Kahil's memory, a mental and material archive in the most concrete meaning of the word. And now, it's all gone - the paintings, the magazines, the books, the house itself - all of it pulverized.

When the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon began in full force on July 13, Kahil recalls, "I was worried, because Nabatiyeh is a place that would be bombed. I have two brothers living there, each married with kids. Their kids are very dear to me, and I was worried."

Kahil was worried about his own well-being in Beirut as well, so after about a week, he moved north to Byblos. Every day during the 34-day bombardment, he was on the phone to his brothers, making sure they were okay. After a few agonizing weeks, he convinced them to get themselves to Beirut.

"Then, like everyone else, I was waiting for the war to end," he says.

At 9 p.m. on Sunday, August 13, a mere 12 hours before an already approved, UN-brokered cease-fire between Israel and Hizbullah came into effect, Kahil got word that a neighbor's house in Nabatiyeh had been struck by Israeli warplanes. His brother didn't believe it. He made a few calls and asked an acquaintance to check out the scene in their neighborhood of Ain Kubais.

At 6 a.m. the next morning, two hours before the cease-fire, Kahil learned that first bit of news was wrong. It wasn't the neighbor's house. It was his.

"There is nothing left," Kahil says, his voice still edged with shock. "It's like powder. The empty land in front of the house is strewn with papers and small bits of stone. I had 3,000 slides of ancient Egyptian and African art that I used to use for teaching - gone. They were in metal drawers, these professional cabinets that are made for preservation - there's nothing left of them, nothing.

"I had a 1934 edition of 'The Encyclopedia of Islam,' a gift from NYU, a collector's item. I was able to salvage only one volume. It's soaked in water."

Kahil estimates that he has some sort of documentation, whether digital or otherwise, of roughly half the paintings he lost. One canvas, a large-scale oil that had been stored in a roll, was thrown 700 meters from the house. Kahil was able to retrieve it, but it is badly burned and pierced by shrapnel. He managed to recover some of his books, but they are in a sorry state. One thing he did find, he says, was a spent piece of weaponry measuring 1.5 meters long. It's nearly impossible to know if that's a part of what felled the house, but if so, it must have been a huge bomb.

"It's scary to go there and see the destruction," Kahil says in reference to the site where his house once stood, "and to think of the person who did this. What were they thinking? There was no political or military reason for this house to be bombed. We have no affiliations. But I think on that last night, they just went crazy."

Of course, Kahil is circumspect about his loss.

"On the one hand I feel guilty to talk about this in the context of destruction and loss of life, in front of these kids who have been handicapped or burned. I feel bad to talk about this loss compared to others," he explains. "But at the same time I feel everything needs to be documented.

"It's hate," he says, nearly baffled by the word. "I didn't lose all of this for any other reason but hate."

During the war and since the cease-fire, Kahil has only been able to manage a few small drawings. He hasn't returned to painting and doesn't know when or if he will. He says he is considering doing an installation with the twisted remains of his books.

The particular tragedy of Kahil losing everything is that he originally started collecting books with the idea of eventually donating them to a university library in Lebanon, his own small contribution to the development of the country's much-maligned arts education system.

More generally, Kahil is positioned between two notoriously distinct generations of Lebanese artists - the elder painters and the upstart video makers. To lose his output is to break one more link between them, and to omit one more point in the linear history of Lebanese art. No wonder there's no modern art museum in this country.

More personally, Kahil's loss is a stunning blow for a returnee who, like so many others, thought Lebanon had become a safe and prosperous place to live. When asked what he plans to do now, he sighs heavily. "I'm tired of this country, aren't you?