[ Saalouk #2: Tom Young ] A modern-day David Roberts

The paintings of David Roberts, depicting an idyllic 19th-century Levant, are ubiquitous in many households in the region. Now, another romantic British painter, Tom Young, follows in Roberts' footsteps but with a difference. In Young's 21st-century Levant, not all is idyllic, as the artist takes his sketchbook to places like bombed-out South Beirut.
Young's painting, '20 years,' depicting the destruction in South Beirut. © tomyoung.com

Editor's Note: During the 'Jahiliah,' the days of ignorance before the coming of the Prophet, the poets were the media. While some sang the praises of whoever was in power, others refused to sell out and vowed only to tell the truth. They were the 'saalik' or 'tramps.' In this new section, MENASSAT.COM profiles people who we consider to be the modern-day 'saalik.' Our 'Saalouk #2' is British painter Tom Young.

Click here to go to the interview.

BEIRUT – The scene played out something like this. Tom Young, a U.K.-based artist of Irish-Scottish lineage, was sitting and sketching a destroyed building at a café in the center of the Dahiyeh, the Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs of Beirut, when out of nowhere walked up two serious looking gentlemen with walkie-talkies. 

"As-Salam Aleykum (peace be upon you)," they said.

"Wa Aleykum As-Salam (and also on you)," Young replied.

"Sorry to ask you this, but we need your papers and could you give us your sketchbook please?" one man asked in a thick accented English.

Young didn't quite know what to do. He was with his two Shi'a friends from Baalbek who had family in Dahiyeh, and a traveling companion from the U.K. 

Young was there after visiting the same site some 14 months earlier. It was here that he had been inspired to work on a large-scale romantic idealist painting, entitled "20 years" – a painting depicting a lone figure trudging along next to buildings in a dense urban landscape which had had been all but destroyed during the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon in July/August of 2006.

But what was Young really doing in Dahiyeh? Why not sit in some pastoral setting in the Chouf or the Metn, or even on the coast? The answer is not an easy one.

To be sure, Tom Young is a painter from a by-gone era, a romantic idealist painter, an anachronism working in the art world with such heady innovators as Yun Bai, Amir Fallah, Spencer Tunick and the like.

Indeed, his paintings and sketches are more akin to the work of another U.K.-native, David Roberts, the Scottish painter whose romantic idealist paintings of The Levant (1838-1840) and Egypt are ubiquitous in many households in the Near East.

But, unlike Roberts’ orientalized perspective that defined the West’s exaggeration or, as many critics imply, the misinterpretation of the Near East; Young’s paintings, although stylistically similar, breathe with a life that is much more visceral, and much more of the political moment.

In fact, the scene which Young depicted in "20 years" was now being transformed again before his eyes by Hezbollah's construction wing, Jihad al-Binaa.

"I should think that such experiences with Hezbollah, in addition to the art workshops and general forays into the Dahiyeh, the Palestinian camps, and my work with kids in both places... Well, they sort of put me in direct contact with the subjects that define the brand of romantic depictions in my art," Young said.

As a result, Young's paintings are a departure from Robert's idyllic settings, often showing horrific scenes of destruction. That's not to say that Young doesn't delve into the classic romantic idealist depictions of Lebanon, as seen in his depictions of downtown Beirut and of the mountains near Lebanon's prime ski resort, Faraya.

"I still manage to see a sense of the beautiful in the tragedy, but this does not take away from the scene itself," Young said.

Young has been a working artist for 10 years and has shown at high-brow galleries in the U.K. and the U.S. – galleries like West Eleven Gallery, The Russell Gallery, Rainbird Fine Art, as well as an upcoming exhibition commissioned by the Indar Pasricha Fine Art gallery on Connaught Street, the nexus road between London’s Arab section and the residence of Tony Blair.

Regardless, Young said he was still surprised to be picked up by Hezbollah’s security services for sketching. (He had in fact been picked up by the Syrian secret services for similar ‘caught while sketching’ offenses during his trip to Damascus months earlier.) 

Fifteen minutes after being stopped in the café, a white SUV with blacked out windows drove up and the two Lebanese were separated from the two Brits, who were blindfolded and taken to an unknown location for interrogation by Hezbollah’s security apparatus.

Young was interrogated for four hours in an isolated room with space for one chair that looked at a one-way mirror. The questions he was asked, Young said, " were more akin to questions asked by a psychiatrist than by a security agent of Hezbollah."

"What do you think are your best traits as a person?"

"What are your worst traits?"

"Do you believe in God?"

"What do you think about Hezbollah?"

When the interrogator asked Young, "Do you have any enemies?" Young replied, "I don’t have any enemies, apart from myself sometimes."

The interrogator laughed and said, "Don't worry – you'll be alright."
This was the artist's third visit to what he romantically likes to call "The Lebanon." But few romantic painters can  lay claim to having been interrogated by Hizbullah. Fewer still would have had the gall to ask the Hezbollah interrogator if he could do a drawing while he was being questioned.

"Ana funni – I’m an artist," Young said in Arabic.

"Yes, it's alright."

After finding a used piece of shawarma wrap in the interrogation room, he proceeded to use the pen in his pocket to do a self-portrait with the shadow of his interrogator hovering over a frightened depiction of his own face.

Perhaps sensing that he was ill at ease, Young's interrogator kept assuring him that the interrogation was routine.

In the end, he was allowed to leave, and the experience only served to heighten his own awareness of the political realities at play in areas he is choosing to work in – areas that are certainly not the normal fare for a painter from the U.K. 

The only downside, Young said, "Hezbollah kept my sketchbook."

[Editor's Note:  Tom Young informs us that his sketchbook was, in fact, returned to him through a friend, a few days after he left Lebanon.]

Click here to go to the interview.

[ Saalouk #1: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad ] 'You don't get extra credit for being an Iraqi'
Posted on 01/04/2008 - 13:05
During the 'Jahiliah,' the days of ignorance, the poets were the media. While some sang the praises of whoever was in power, others refused to sell out and vowed only to tell the truth. They were the 'saalik' or 'tramps.' In this new section, MENASSAT.COM profiles Arab journalists who we consider to be the modern-day 'saalik.' Our 'Saalouk #1' is Iraqi writer/photographer Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. Bagdad, Iraq. Local Sunni militia interrogate a Qaida suspect. © Gaith Abdul-Ahad