New children’s book charts the rise of Lebanese fashion designer Elie Saab

Illustrated by Cath Donaldson, the work tells a tale of tragedy, kindness and success

'The Life of Elie Saab' by Suhair Sultan, with illustrations by Cath Donaldson. Photo: Motivate Media Group
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Suhair Sultan recently published her first book, a children's story about Lebanese fashion designer Elie Saab.

The Life of Elie Saab may seem like an unlikely tale for youngsters, but for Sultan, the designer's story is perfect, as it encapsulates themes of hope and kindness, two traits she feels are keenly needed in today's world.

"The whole thing started in 2018," she tells The National. "I walked into Kinokuniya bookstore in The Dubai Mall and saw a series of books about famous characters, but they were all people from the western world."

Donaldson's illustration showing Elie Saab and his family fleeing the 1976 Damour massacre in Lebanon for 'The Life of Elie Saab' by Sultan. Photo: Motivate Media Group

Growing up in Manchester in the UK, Sultan was, she says, a child who used to read a lot of books and had always loved the theme of hope contained within the pages. "I loved it, all those books that talked about if you work hard you can achieve many things. But I didn't see that here.

"So I said to myself: imagine if I can write books for the children in the region about characters they can relate to, who went through hardships, but went on to become successful and famous. Let me write about characters who exist in the Middle East right now."

She was unsure where to start, but inspiration came from a documentary about a designer. "I saw Elie Saab held the wedding of his son in Lebanon. He could have had it anywhere, but he said he needed the people in Lebanon to make money."

Sultan was inspired to write the book after watching a documentary about Saab. Photo: Motivate Media Group

Struck by his willingness to help lift others up, Sultan began researching him and discovered that not only was Saab now a world-famous couturier but, as a child, he had survived the Damour massacre in Lebanon in 1976. She knew she had her subject. "I want to tell children this is where he started and this is where he has got to."

To illustrate her story, Sultan reached out to artist Cath Donaldson, who lives in Abu Dhabi, and the pair had a series of meetings over a number of months in a coffee shop in Dubai's Ibn Battuta Mall because, says Donaldson, it was "halfway between where we both live".

Donaldson was impressed with Sultan's determination to bring the story to a wider audience. "Her whole idea is really interesting," Donaldson says. "There are tons of books about high-achieving people, but it tends to be western people, so her idea is to look at people in the Middle East. She has this massive vision."

It took Donaldson six months to complete the illustrations, most of which was spent on research. "As this is a true story, it was really important I got the feeling of Beirut in the 1970s, down to the clothes that people wore, the buildings, the street signs and what the cars were like. I watched so many old films."

Since the book deals with Saab's escape from Damour, and his subsequent rise to fashion fame, the pair deliberated on how best to translate so children could understand without it being frightening. "I had to find a way to illustrate a really tragic event — the massacre — where suddenly they all had to leave in their car," Donaldson explains. "Sultan's language is really good, and quite open-ended, so parents can decide to elaborate or leave it at that. The drawing is them just driving away, while giving the parents an opportunity to talk about it."

Donaldson's work is key to the book, especially in documenting two powerful moments in Saab's life: his family's escape from Damour and Halle Berry collecting her 2002 Oscar wearing one of his gowns, a move that propelled the designer on to the world stage.

Halle Berry wearing Elie Saab to collect her Oscar in 2002, by Donaldson, for 'The Life of Elie Saab' by Sultan. Photo: Motivate Media Group

While Donaldson created the drawings, Sultan encountered a new problem. "Publishers told me, this is never going to happen, you need Elie Saab's permission. So I called his company and said: 'Can I write your life story?' He was travelling so I had to wait two weeks, but then his PR woman called me and said he loves it. Go ahead."

Motivate Media Group picked up the book, publishing it first in English to gauge the public's reaction, with plans for an Arabic version later. Having taken four years, Sultan admits it was an emotional moment when she finally held a copy in her hands.

"Can I tell you the truth? I cried," she says. "I cannot tell you the journey, the ups and downs. I was going to give up, but finding Cath was a miracle. I am sending her a signed book with the message: 'Thank you for replying to my email. You changed my life that day.'"

Although the journey has been extensive, there is an echo of Sultan's own experience in Saab's tale. "Always be kind to people, because you don't know what they are going through. When we see people like Saab we think, oh, they must have had such an easy, wonderful life, but no, he has gone through a war, and that’s why he is kind. That is the message of the book. Just be kind to people and see what happens."

Updated: June 06, 2022, 10:32 AM