The wonderful world of antiques

A view from Fawwaz Harb's window

Culture This article is part of the series Neighbours

Neighbours: A series of seven stories

Wherever we are in the world – home or away, in the place we were born or somewhere else – there will always be someone next door. A neighbour, a person living by our side. We may differ in manners and ideas of how things should be done, but we will remain closely connected – because borders and walls, bushes and fences from metal or wood, connect us more than keep us apart.

Lebanon, bordered on one side by the Mediterranean and on the others by olive, orange and wheat fields, may have complicated, if not outright thorny, official relations with its neighbours today. But the relationships nurtured by people are different. By their very essence they traverse borders, and connect what is on one side with the other. 

There is also a distinct neighbourly culture within Lebanon, which connects people living in the same street or building: a culture of chatting, sharing and helping one another. Some might argue that this is fading away with time; that close neighbourly relations are something of the past. Either way, there seems to be an inherent nostalgia associated with the concept of neighbours, and we are interested in finding out its current relevance. 

The seven stories in this series on Neighbours, all written or produced by former participants to our workshops on journalism and writing, set out to do that.

First out is the tender memory of Sarah Khazem of early morning rituals with a temporary next-door neighbour; following that is Abby Sewell’s conversations with Syrian activists on the revolutionary events in Lebanon. Layla Yammine’s meeting with an antiques dealer in Beirut’s Basta neighbourhood comes third; fourth is Andrea Olea’s notes of kitchen conversations with two Palestinian friends.

Hamoud Mjeidel then takes us to the families residing in Umm Ali’s building in Shatila, and Ghadir Hamadi invites us to hear her family history spanning Lebanon and the Gulf. Rayan Sukkar and Samih Mahmoud, finally, brings us voices from those who may be considered neighbours of the ongoing Lebanese uprising.

When I moved to Beirut, the first place people told me to visit was the neighbourhood of Basta. “There are shops in Basta that have everything you could ever be fond of,” I was told. But it was to take five years before I made it to the streets of Basta.

When I did, it was nothing like I had expected. Inside its narrow lanes and display windows I discovered an entirely new world: a world of antiques and journeys in time, unique and like nothing I had seen before.

The main street in Basta, or Basta al-Tahta to be more precise, is crammed with antique shops. At first glance they look like small yards with nothing to offer but scrap, but that is before you enter through the small door leading into the open market. There, you find a myriad of antiques and items from different historical eras, all strewn around the vast indoor space.

I could not help but to wonder how these pieces had found their way into this place, a bunch of small shops next to each other in a cramped space in the middle of the city.

Then I met Fawwaz Harb, a Syrian man in his forties and perhaps the youngest antiques dealer in Basta. And, it turns out, a man who can tell you endless tales about his pieces and the overseas trips he has made since his youth.

“It is the only business I have ever known,” Harb says as I enter through the small door into his shop.

He welcomes me and invites me to sit down somewhere among the ocean of items in various shapes and colours, all bearing Arabic inscriptions and decor.

There are old objects and paintings lined up on both sides of the narrow walkway, leading into what can be described as a large showroom. A huge mirror on the wall, decked out with coloured seashells, welcomes visitors into the space. One part of the room is dedicated to taking care of whoever comes to buy things from Harb: it has a table and two small sofas placed next to another decorated mirror. The other has piece after piece neatly put up on view.

“When a crisis hits, this is the first business to come to a halt.”

Harb starts telling his story. He was born in Damascus to a family of antiques sellers; his grandfather was a famous painter and owned a furniture shop in the city’s old souk. Harb himself began to help his brother, who was in the carpet business, at the age of 17. Soon, he started selling carpets as well.

“My brother visited Italy periodically to have carpets repaired, and one day he asked me to join on a trip,” Harb says.

That trip took place in 1999, and required them to stay for one month in Rome while the carpet was being repaired. During that time, Harb earned more money than he had ever done in Syria.

“It was an entirely different story there. And me, I had big dreams.”

The experience prompted Harb to gradually look beyond Syria and start exploring other markets for carpets, beginning in that very place: Italy.

“It was no walk in the park, but nothing is impossible for someone who dreams big,” he says.

“I would carry one or two carpets around and offer them to different merchants. Some liked them and bought a carpet; others showed no interest. But I always left my name and number, thinking that someone, some day, would ask about my carpets. That’s how I began to make a name among the Italian merchants.”

From then on, Harb began to aspire higher. He went as far as to establish a carpet factory and sell his goods in different countries. Before long, he took to manufacturing and reproducing antique pieces similar to original items. This was the beginning of his global journey.

But things have changed, Harb says, with the Syrian conflict.

“When a crisis hits, this is the first business to come to a halt. And it is the last to pick up again when stability returns. Antiques are a pleasant and enjoyable luxury, but only when there is peace of mind.”

Most pieces around him in the shop are reproduced Islamic artworks dating back to the Ottoman era. Harb remains mesmerised by the artistic creativity of that time, not to mention the importance it played in the region’s shared Arab and Islamic history.

“For me, the Ottomans were exceptionally creative. When people from the Levant went on Seferberlik trips [the mass deportation and forced conscription of Arabs into the Ottoman army during the First World War], the greatest craftspeople were ordered to head to Istanbul. The Ottomans selected the most elite craftspeople, which is the reason why most exquisite artworks and handicrafts came from Istanbul,” Harb says.

“What distinguishes them is not their quality or even the quality of the materials used – such as seashells – but the great deal of delicate craftsmanship and skillful art that was put into every item.”

The artefacts for sale in Harb’s shop were mostly made recently. With care, he selects what he deems ‘special’ pieces from a certain era, then puts them on view. Among his most remarkable displays are miniatures of the door of the holy Kaaba and the kiswah, the Kaaba’s golden clothing.

“I always keep an eye on international catalogs and auctions, to pick pieces I would like to work on. When I finally decide on a piece, I reproduce it to have an exact replica of the original,” he says.

“While an original item may be sold for a hundred thousand dollars, I sell a replica for $400. I use the same materials, then market it globally. This opens the door to a wider market – original antiques are expensive.”

There is a unique story behind almost every piece, from the moment of its inception to when it reaches the hands of merchants and sellers.

Trading in antiques is really akin to embarking on a journey in time, filled with surprises and mystery.

“In many cases, people inherit homes from their parents or grandparents and seek to change the décor into something more modern. They rush to dispose of old relics, but usually are unaware of the value and sell them for a pittance to dealers, who naturally keep silent on the deal,” he says.

One such incident was the encounter with two men in the Arwam Souk in Syria.

“They came with a carpet of about twenty meters, which had been cut in half. The full carpet would have been worth more than $15,000. When I asked why it had been cut in two, they explained that they inherited it together. But what they did not know is that the worth dropped to $1,000 maximum,” Harb says.

Dealing in antiques is an enjoyable trade, he says, including in the largest markets in the Arab world: those in Lebanon, Egypt and Baghdad.

“I look at Beirut and marvel at how such a small city can accommodate this huge amount of antiques. Lebanese have a keen sense of taste and an interest in antiques, which makes Beirut an important market.”

This is something he particularly notices when it comes to carpets.

“When I first took to reproducing old carpets, mainly Russian and Iranian, I distributed them internationally. But Beirut became key for my business, Lebanese are ready to pay a great deal of money for antiques. Even those who are not well-off would go out of their way to purchase an antique item,” he says.

“In Egypt, the market is restricted to the wealthy. Aleppo and Damascus are the biggest markets for antiques in Syria, but this luxury stopped in 2011.”

Trading in antiques is really akin to embarking on a journey in time, filled with surprises and mystery – and where the traveler does not know what they are looking for or what they may find. The journey may last for a few days or stretch over several months, time spent digging for hidden treasures from different times, cultures and civilizations.

For the antiques dealer, he or she may go for months without selling a single piece – or, if in luck, trading every piece they get their hands on. As much as it is enjoyable, it can be draining and difficult.

“You cannot be into antiques if you don’t fall in love with the trade,” Harb says.

“It is a business that requires the wealth of Korah, the patience of Ayyub and the beauty of Youssof.”

Neighbours was produced as part of the 2019-2020 Switch Perspective project, supported by GIZ. All illustrations by Ismaël Abdallah.

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