The untold love story of 1971 Miss Universe Georgina Rizk

We discover how artist Alfred Tarazi is retelling the romance of the Lebanese beauty queen and Ali Hassan Salameh, a notorious figure of the Palestine Liberation Organisation

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Bill Howard/ANL/Shutterstock (2648218a)
Miss Universe Georgina Rizk.
Miss Universe Georgina Rizk.
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They were an unlikely couple. She was an international beauty queen. He was what many saw as a revolutionary with close connections to America's Central Intelligence Agency. But in 1970s Beirut, the marriage of Georgina Rizk, a Lebanese model and winner of the Miss Universe contest in 1971, to Ali Hassan Salameh, a leading figure of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, was the talk of the town. 

"They were one of the most talked-about couples in Beirut at the time. Everyone I know in the city is connected to them in some way, or remembers seeing them in restaurants and nightclubs," says Lebanese artist Alfred Tarazi.

After their marriage in 1977, Rizk and Salameh honeymooned in Hawaii and Disneyland, Florida, on a trip that was partially facilitated and funded by the CIA. "She simply fell in love. Anyone who had met Salameh would tell you how handsome and charming he was," explains Tarazi.

A visitor at Alfred Tarazi's installation at Beirut Design Week 2019. Courtesy of the artist

Salameh's activities catapulted Rizk into a world of resistance and international politics that she had previously ignored. She became his second wife, adhering to an Islamic tolerance of having more than one spouse, which was both arcane in Beirut at the time and forbidden by Rizk's own Christian faith. But their idyll was shortlived. Salameh was assassinated by agents of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, in 1979, as Lebanon's burgeoning civil war began to escalate.

Their story forms part of Tarazi's work Two Lovers, a kinetic installation that was on display at the recent Beirut Design Week, an exhibition that takes place annually in the Lebanese capital. Tarazi drew from thousands of images from popular culture of the period, as well as oral histories, including a recent interview with Rizk herself. The project took Tarazi four years to complete.

At the installation's heart were two canvas scrolls, encased in glass and steel frames, designed by the artist specifically for the work. They revealed a montage of images taken from the lives of Rizk and Salameh: memorable media portraits, political cartoons, press cuttings and a gigantic Mickey Mouse balloon symbolising their honeymoon. 

'Two Lovers' highlights events such as Rizk and Salameh's honeymoon trip to the US. Courtesy of the artist

But the scrolls also connected the two characters to the wider popular and political culture of their time. There are references to Lebanese pop sensation Sabah, James Bond actor Roger Moore and Salameh's political contemporaries, as well as excerpts from popular songs and details of film posters.

As part of the installation, a mechanism allowed the scrolls to unfold in any direction, which recalls traditional advertising screens. Alongside the glass casing, hundreds of images from posters and press cuttings printed in black and white hung from strings from the ceiling.

Tarazi, who trained as a graphic designer before becoming an artist, believes that print culture of the 20th century is the strongest symbol of modernity in the Middle East. His studio in the dusty industrial quarter of Quarantina reveals piles of magazines, books, newspaper archives and found objects that the artist has amassed over 14 years. 

The art installation features hundreds of posters and press cuttings. Courtesy of the artist

“Whether it was [relationships], culture or politics, print publishers aimed to spread revolutionary ideas as widely and to as many people as possible,” he explains. “Their work had a huge modernising impact.” Rizk came to symbolise these currents.

Two Lovers portrays Beirut in the 1970s as a hotbed of social and political ideas. "Rizk's sexual revolution and Salameh's political one show the breadth of ideas that were coursing through Beirut at the time," Tarazi explains.

He is referring to the Miss Universe pageant in 1971, when Rizk became the first woman in the Middle East to be given the title, and who expressed her views in favour of pre-marital relations during a press conference.  

Her comments drew criticism from the more conservative Arab media upon her return to Lebanon, and she retracted them. “Though she wanted to embrace the movement of free love, she was at heart a traditional woman, caught between global changes and local values,” says Tarazi. He recalls his recent interview with Rizk in 2018. “She was very concerned about her portrayal as a model for Lebanese magazines,” says Tarazi.

Lebanese artist Alfred Tarazi at the Beirut Design Week 2019. Courtesy of the artist

This contradiction, he argues, is a microcosm for the development of Lebanese popular and political culture at the time: “It was an ongoing tension between the global and local, modernity and tradition.”

Two Lovers also aims to challenge the portrayal of Salameh as an international terrorist. "He is often vilified as a blood-thirsty murderer," says Tarazi, "but his story is much more nuanced." The work revises historical portrayals of Salameh, who served as PLO leader Yasser Arafat's chief of intelligence. "Salameh's story was often manipulated by his enemies, and shows how leaders from Arab resistance movements are repeatedly vilified," says Tarazi.

This 1975  photo shows Ali Salame, code named Abu Hassan, 36, the Palestine Liberation Organization top security officer reputed to have been the mastermind of the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre. Salemeh was killed in Beirut, Lebanon on Monday when a bomb was detonated by remote control as his car drove past. (AP Photo)

Salameh was linked to Black September, the organisation responsible for the kidnapping of 11 Israeli athletes, as they flew in to Germany for the 1972 Munich Olympics. The athletes were killed in the crossfire between the German police and the hostage-takers. The event caused international outcry, and led to the German police revising its anti-terrorism protocols.

But lesser-known is Salameh's ongoing contact with the CIA through the '70s, which ensured the protection of American diplomatic and security forces on the ground in Lebanon in those years. "If anything, the Americans owe him a debt of honour," Tarazi says provocatively. This protection ended after Salameh's assassination by Mossad in 1979. "With his death, the Americans lost all connections with the PLO in Lebanon," says Tarazi. He points to the deadly bombing of the American Embassy in Beirut four years later, which killed Salameh's main contact, CIA agent Bob Ames.

The artwork forms part of Tarazi's wider inquiry into Lebanon's civil war, too, which broke out in 1975 and ravaged the country for more than 15 years. "Understanding the civil war can help us understand Lebanon's present context," he says.

He addresses the challenge of depicting a conflict that was a history few Lebanese people will agree on. The civil war is not taught in Lebanese schools, and there is no official account of the events that took place. "History is told by the winners, but in Lebanon nobody won," says Tarazi. But he believes the absence of an official account of the war is a strength, not a weakness.

"It is part of who we are, a part of our richness as a country," he says. "There are many stories and versions of the events, all of them valid, and we should be looking at all of them." As such, his collages and kinetic installations refuse to narrate events in a straightforward, linear manner.

If portraits of Rizk recall Lebanon’s lost golden age, Salameh’s mark the country’s descent into civil war. But their bittersweet pairing continues to capture the imaginations of the Lebanese and others who encounter them. They encapsulate the era’s revolutionary ideas in a story driven by passion, violence and loss.

“I am not being nostalgic by focusing on the past,” insists Tarazi, “The traces of their story are still present in Lebanon today.”