A little piece of history rescued

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It was four years ago, when a Lebanese man with little English arrived at a hostel for the homeless in Camden Town, north London, looking for a place to stay.

It was there that Diab Alkarssifi met Ania Dabrowska for the first time. Dabrowska, a Polish photographer was shooting residents for a portrait project at the hostel.

As she sat down with Alkarssifi, it was obvious, even with his halting English, that here was a man familiar with a camera.

Even more astonishing, as his story unfolded, it became clear that Alkarssifi was looking for a home not just for himself, but thousands of photographs he had painstaking preserved from his native land.

The result is an extraordinary collaboration that will now see the collection preserved for the world to see for the first time, and a validation of Alkarssifi's passion and talent.

At the time he sought refuge at the hostel, Alkarssifi had fallen on hard times, if not yet on the streets. The promise of a job had fallen through and his marriage was on the rocks.

Yet at all times, he kept safe his collection, wrapped in old newspapers, and carried with him at all times in two carrier bags.

The Lebanese, Dabrowska, discovered, was a professional photographer from Baalbek in the Beqaa Valley. A photographer with a Communist newspaper. he gone into exile in London in 1993, bringing the first part of his collection with him, and shipping as much of the rest as possible over time.

“Some of the photographs were taken by Diab as a photographer, others show daily life with family and friends,” says Dabrowska.

Other images were donated. “His reputation as a man obsessed with photographs meant that people gave him their family collections,” Dabrowska explains.

Some of the earliest images are studio portraits from the 19th century. Alkarssifi’s own work starts in the 1970s and chronicles one of the most desperate period’s of Lebanese history.

It includes weddings, trips to the mountains, family parties and even a 1976 visit to Baalbek by a former Miss Universe and Beirut model called Georgina Rizk.

Last year Alkarssifi and Dabrowska, now 63, visited Lebanon together, and a deal was struck to digitalise the entire collection of 27,000 images for the Arab Image Foundation, based in Beirut.

A book is planned, funded by Kickstarter, and now looks likely to be published next Spring after its target was reached late last week.

The larger part of the collection, which remained in Lebanon in his parents‘ house, is now missing, possibly stolen, and may never be recovered..

For his part, says Dabrowskah, Alkarssifi, is “very pleased and delighted” at the interest in his work. Now living in sheltered accommodation, he is, she says: “just hoping for recognition.”

* James Langton