'We cannot fall': New chief of Beirut’s Arab Image Foundation remains defiant

Heba Hage-Felder is in crisis-management mode to save a valuable cultural institution

Arab Image Foundation new director Heba Hage-Felder. Photo: AIF/Charbel AlKhoury
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When Heba Hage-Felder became director of Beirut's Arab Image Foundation little did she know that she would have to deal with one of the worst crises in the city's history.

She accepted the job at the non-profit organisation with a simple mission: to carry on its good work. But that was before the Lebanese capital was rocked by the explosion at the city's port last month, which killed at least 190 people and injured thousands more.

"It's been a roller coaster," Hage-Felder tells The National. Her office, which is in the Gemmayzeh district, only 800 metres from the centre of the blast, was damaged by the explosion.

Archival material drawers covered with dust and glass shrapnel in the preservation department. Courtesy Arab Image Foundation, Beirut

Hage-Felder, 48, a mother of two, says dealing with the emotional fallout from a devastating incident was not part of her job description, but she is determined more than ever to make her sector, and her organisation in particular, a shining light amid the chaos.

“A lot of people working in arts and culture in Lebanon feel this sense of helplessness and anger towards everything that is happening in the country politically and economically,” she says. “And yet there is this sense of ‘We’re here,’ and this foundation, which was started in the 1990s by incredible individuals and collectives, cannot fall.”

Hage-Felder is the third woman to take charge of the Arab Image Foundation, which holds an archive of half a million photographs dating back to the 1860s, from much of the Middle East and its diaspora. But none of its past directors assumed the post with her breadth of career experience.

Born in Kumasi, Ghana, in 1972, she describes herself as “a second generation-born Ghanaian of Lebanese descent”. Her grandfather fled Deek El Mehdi in Mount Lebanon for West Africa after the devastating famine of 1915-1918 in Greater Syria – then an Ottoman Empire province encompassing today’s Levantine region. Her mother was born in Ghana, known as the British colony of the Gold Coast until 1957.

"My upbringing is of someone who was raised in West Africa," Hage-Felder says. "I was born in Ghana but then spent five years in Lebanon smack in the middle of the civil war, before fleeing to Togo."

She spent her teenage years living with her mother in Togo while her father worked in neighbouring Benin. At the age of 18, she returned to Lebanon just as the civil war was ending in 1990.

“I thought, if I don’t go back now I will never discover this part of my heritage,” she says.

Having grown up speaking Arabic with her family, Hage-Felder was well placed for her new life in the Middle East. There she studied international affairs at the Lebanese American University in Byblos, before securing a master's degree in international conflict and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame in the US.

The disaster obliges us to think, 'Where can we be so that we are better protected as a space and a team?'

Her career took her around the world, and she held posts with Save the Children and the Arab Resource Collective in Lebanon, as well as with the UN Office for Project Services in Geneva, supporting a peace-building initiative in war-torn Rwanda. A decade-long stint with the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs followed. Prior to her taking up the role with the Arab Image Foundation, she worked with the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture in the Lebanese capital.

Officially unveiled as the foundation’s new director on September 1, Hage-Felder is very clear about her short to medium-term objectives. She had flown out to Switzerland the day before the explosion at the port, and pays tribute to her dedicated team and board members who immediately set to work repairing and assessing the damage – desktop computers left in pieces, the ceiling of the foundation’s cool storage room – designed to preserve the collections in a stable, climate-controlled and fire-resistant environment – having collapsed.

Members of the board, acting as interim directors in the absence of a permanent director since the beginning of the year, had been relentless in their commitment to keep the foundation afloat, especially during the national and global stasis caused by the coronavirus outbreak. But the recent disaster has brought out the best in the Arab Image Foundation, she says, as staff looked to contain the damage and also press on with their day-to-day responsibilities.

Another view of the severely damaged preservation department on the day after the Beirut port explosion. Courtesy Arab Image Foundation, Beirut

When she returned to Beirut, she quickly turned her attention to securing private donations in order "to stabilise the foundation's work space … and to protect the collection to make sure that things returned to some kind of normality". Relocating the foundation has also become an overriding concern for her and the loyal staff.

"The disaster obliges us to think, 'Where can we be so that we are better protected as a space and a team?'" says Hage-Felder who, having followed the work of the foundation since its beginnings in 1997, gave the institution some of her family's treasured photo collections to preserve nine years ago.

The idea to move the foundation to another, more accessible part of Beirut also feeds into its long-term desire to become more visible to the public. Hage-Felder wants to entice people into the foundation's workspace and to become part of its continuing development as it expands its public initiatives.

There are some real challenges ahead for Hage-Felder, in a country reeling from civil war, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and last month's explosion. But the new custodian of one of Lebanon's most important cultural institutions remains defiant.

"I'm a very hopeful person, but I'm also realistic," she says. "I expect little from the [political] context at large, but I'm someone who needs to be fully engaged and believe in what I'm working on. I believe in people, processes and dynamics and this gives me strength because I know I can't do things on my own."