Golden-age glitterati return on canvas to century-old Lebanon hotel

SOFAR: Inside an abandoned century-old hotel near Lebanon’s capital, paintings of the Arab world’s once powerful and famous hang around a worn-out table, testimony to its glamorous past before the civil war.
Arab diplomats, French and British officers, but also Egyptian film stars all flocked to the Sofar Grand Hotel before the 1975-1990 conflict forced it to close down.
This month, the hotel opened its doors to the public for the first time in decades to exhibit dozens of works celebrating the hotel’s past by British artist Tom Young.
“This place is just full of history,” says the 45-year-old painter, who researched the building’s past for the project.
“It was once one of the greatest hotels in the Middle East,” explains the blond artist, who has been living in Lebanon for 10 years.
“It was where kings and princesses and emirs and generals used to meet — also the most famous singers of the day.” Built in 1892 under Ottoman rule by Lebanon’s wealthy Sursock family, the forgotten hotel today lies near a disused train station in the village of Sofar some 30 kilometres east of Beirut.
Despite the war, the hotel has maintained its impressive facade. Sunlight spills into the deserted galleries and halls on its ground floor.
On its peeling walls, Young’s paintings evoke a livelier, more cosmopolitan past when high society came to party and secret political meetings took place in the garden.
In the main hall, a painting in green and turquoise blue hues celebrates the stars of Egypt’s golden era, once patrons of the hotel.
Crooner Abdel Haleem Hafez, dancer Samia Gamal in the foreground, while singer Um Kulthum appears in her trademark cat-eye sunglasses seated at a table in the back.
“We tried to get people to imagine everything that used to happen in this hotel.” But Young’s paintings also reflect the region’s political history.
In one, he portrays the leaders who attended an Arab League meeting in Sofar in 1947, including Lebanon’s first premier after independence Riad al Solh.
By re-opening the Sofar hotel to the public, the exhibition’s organisers are seeking to give new life to the historic building, turning it into a space for art and education.
The show, which runs to October 14, is also to include music and dance performances, as well as workshops for children and art students. — AFP