Remembering Gebran Tarazi: the pained artist who took pride in his roots

Mona Tarazi, wife of the late Gebran Tarazi, shares memories of the Lebanese artist with Myrna Ayad. This account, part of our Remembering the Artist series, is based on their interview

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I was at a mountain wedding in Lebanon in the summer of 1974 when I met Gaby. He was handsome, well-spoken, cultured, elegant. “Let’s leave the wedding, let’s go have dinner, I’ll take you home to change your dress,” he insisted. I decided right then and there that he was the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. We drove to Brummana, a town east of Beirut known for its pine trees and views of the Mediterranean, and had steak and chocolate ice cream at the popular French eatery, La Gargote.

Gebran Tarazi with his wife Mona in Ehden, Lebanon (2008). Photo: Gebran Tarazi family

That summer, we attended every show at the Baalbeck International Festival. Those were some of the best days of my life, the golden years of Lebanon. Gaby was an amateur photographer, loved literature, read voraciously, and was obsessed with becoming a writer. He never hid his dislike of working in the family business – a 200-year-old tradition of craftsmen, antiquaries and decorators that originated in Syria, spread to Morocco, and eventually settled in Lebanon. In 1862, the family established Maison Tarazi, an antiquities and interior design house that specialised in Oriental design in Beirut, and furnished palaces and mansions across the region as well as in Europe. In 1959, the Tarazis opened the waterfront Alcazar Hotel (now the HSBC building), decorated in the maison's style and which stood as the epitome of Beirut luxury. Gaby was eccentric, averse to floral motifs, preferring geometric patterns instead, and could shock people with his honesty. Even customers, too.

And yet, for all his joie de vivre, intellect, wit and love for stories and storytelling, I got the sense that something gnawed at Gaby. Beyond his professional displeasure was an underlying torment, a deep ache that continued to swell and throb throughout his life. Once, amidst chatter, laughter, and the haze of cigarette smoke over dinner with friends, he joked: “I was born in Damascus, raised in Morocco and Lebanon, and though I was taught Catholic studies, my mother would say we are Roman Orthodox, and my father worked in Islamic art. I say I am damned!” Our friends and Gaby roared with laughter, but the words wailed like a siren in my ears. I understood then and there that that was Gaby’s pain: his identity.

We married in December 1974 and honeymooned in London and Paris. No sooner had we settled into Gaby’s apartment in Wardieh in Hamra, the heart of Beirut’s commercial core, and conflict erupted in Lebanon. Our country as we knew it was ripped apart. Refugees flooded Beirut, the city was divided, snipers and checkpoints marked neighbourhoods, bombs blew, kidnappings and murders started to happen, and a family feud broke out among the Tarazis as the business took hit after hit, eventually shutting down. We didn’t have the means to leave Lebanon, with family money frozen in land, but moved to Ballouneh, a quaint mountain town to the north-east of Beirut. In 1978, Gaby and I joked that we both gave birth together – I delivered our daughter Yumna and Gaby wrote a novel, Le Pressoir a Olives. Two years later, we had Marc. Gaby was such a hands-on father; he was warm and tolerant, spoke to them endlessly, read them stories, taught them about music and really nourished them.

Becoming a father was among the best things that happened to Gaby and provoked him to think and work. I’d say it took him to another level mentally in his attempt to find himself. One day, he showed up with some wood and decided to make a chest. Something clicked and it seemed as though everything he ever wanted to express in literature, he did in art. Our friend, master calligrapher Samir Sayegh, visited Gaby and told him this isn’t furniture, this is art.

Gebran Tarazi pictured at work in Beirut.

Perhaps I started losing Gaby to himself then. He revisited an old motif, Qayem-Nayem, a traditional pattern of four rectangles in a square, and dove deep, so deep, in its exploration. He took it to serve as a visual metaphor for identity and through this classical motif of "oriental abstraction", relentlessly explored what it means to be from the Orient. In his examinations, he poured regional history and his own experiences and chronicles scattered between Syria, Lebanon and Morocco.

Gaby rented an apartment in the same building where we lived and in there, he tested mathematical equations, first intuitively and then practically against a plethora of colour combinations on wood, carton, canvas and paper. When he mixed colours, he vibrated in a trance-like mode, and I saw his eyes flicker as he put together about seven colours per artwork. “When you can’t replace the colours any more, it’s complete,” he would say. “Just like literature: when you can’t replace the word, it’s all said and done.” He ate late, smoked more, developed back pain, and had no structure for time. Our circle of friends shrunk as I watched Gaby plunge into this excavation and investigation of identity. Though his pain and frustration erupted like a volcano spewing lava, there was also relief and realisation. He made a conscious decision that he is Oriental and Mediterranean and did not want to be Muslim or Christian or Lebanese or Moroccan or anything else. And he said it all in his work. I guess I always knew it was a matter of time before Gaby figured out how to express himself.

A 2000 photo of Gebran Tarazi in his studio in Balloune, Lebanon. Gebran Tarazi family

The political situation escalated and in 1985, Gaby was kidnapped for a few hours. The experience was traumatic for him, and for us, as he started to get panic attacks. “I’m not afraid of bombs,” he would say. “I’m afraid of humans.” Relentless, he continued to explore and though his works are plentiful, varied and so synergetic in their colours, I think he and I both felt that all of it was one work. It had to have been. Is it Sufist? Perhaps the repetition was a prayer, a desire to find oneness. And that is definitely what he sought.

I loved him, respected him and his work and really believed in what he was doing, sometimes even thinking it was more important than me. I missed him when he was working and loved the rich ambience he infused in our home. Gaby never asked me to protect his work, but he dreamt of it being housed in an institution. If he had lived longer, he would have ventured into architecture. Now that I’ve catalogued it all, I feel like I understand him more. He was a man who wanted to find out who he was, took pride in being from the Orient and wanted to infuse his countrymen with the same sentiment.

Remembering the Artist is our series that features artists from the region

Updated: December 31, 2021, 7:41 AM