[ Saalouk #2: Tom Young ] 'I want to tell the truth – not just the tragedy but also the beauty'

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.
Self-portrait of the artist under interrogation by Hezbollah.

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.

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

Listen to the interview: Part I, II, III, IV, V

MENASSAT.COM: As a British painter who has done work in so many idyllic settings, the south of France, Italy, the Thames River, what are you doing in Lebanon?

TOM YOUNG: "Well, I spent a lot of time when I was young in countries surrounding Lebanon. I studied architecture and art for a term at Istanbul University and had been to Israel when I was 11, in 1984. 

"So I became aware of the struggle in this part of the world from a very early age.

"As well, the whole of the British TV news was saturated with reports about the war in Lebanon at a very important time in my life, when I was 10 and 11, back in the 80's. 

"There's a tragic event that happened in my family. My mother died when I was eleven. She actually took her own life. And so, at that time, I was completely shocked and devastated by that event in my own life. 

"While I was going through that experience, I was watching TV reports about what was going on in Beirut and maybe there was some connection deep inside of me that I made, some type of connection between the two. And so [Lebanon] was always in my consciousness."

When was the first time you actually came to Lebanon?

"I came to Lebanon in 2006 in the spring.  I was deeply shocked and saddened and affected by the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and my interest in this part of the world was greatly heightened at that point because I felt what my country was doing at that time was wrong, and I wanted to somehow express my feelings. So I went on the big anti-war march in London.

"I was planning to actually go to Baghdad and do some painting of some kind, I suppose, a sort of protest but also to show empathy with the people there. 

"And, I was planning this project but then the situation there just escalated into total – well, it just got much worse. So that idea got shelved. As soon as this happened – well, I've got a friend in London who is Lebanese and actually runs the car mechanic business that fixes my car. And he's done well for himself. He immigrated to England during the civil war.

"He had always taken interest in my painting, and had always said to me that he would like to buy a painting – a landscape – because he loves my landscapes. And, then he said, 'Right Tom, I want to buy a painting from you now.'

And I said to him, ‘Why do you want a painting of England or France? Why don't you have a painting of your homeland?'

He said, 'That is my dream. I would love to have a painting of my home because I miss it so much. You've got go to Lebanon! I'll pay for your ticket – you can meet my family.' "

'My work is rather like Roberts'  – it is romantic and ideal. But it also takes into account the sadness and tragedy'

'Damaged.' © tomyoung.com

Do you fancy yourself a sort of contemporary David Roberts?

"Yes, I do. His work does interest me from the point of view of its uplifting quality and by the way he manages to cross sectarian divides and paint the land of Palestine and The Levant in a way that appeals to everyone. 

"I am interested in this idea of art being a unifying force that joins people divided by religious and political divides, conflicts. I am interested in the idea that the work of Roberts now hangs on the corrugated iron walls of the Palestinian refugee camps here in Lebanon and this part of the world because it harks back to the land they once had and it puts them in touch with something that is very close to their hearts.

"I think this is what art can do when it works well. And my work is rather like Roberts' work – it is romantic and ideal. So I am interested in making work that is uplifting and gives people warmth and some hope. But it also takes into account the sadness and tragedy.

"I think in Roberts' work, he hasn't necessarily got a sense of this. But I’d like to take the best of his work and infuse it with something contemporary and real."

It's a much smaller world now; people are much more connected. In your painting – as you say you're trying to contemporize Roberts' vision because it is not a perfect world here – are you trying to challenge the West's perceptions of the Arab world as well?

"Yeah, I would really like to challenge and reverse these rather patronizing visions of the Orient, as it were. Some elements of this idea of romantic idealism do appeal to me because I find this part of the world beautiful and inspiring. I'd like to tell the truth of the whole of this part of the world, not just the tragedy and the violence, but also the beauty."

How are you going to avoid the concept of coming to Lebanon, extracting your experience, putting it down on canvas and then taking it back to the U.K. and keeping it there? 

"Obviously I will have to do that in the beginning because I've got to earn my living. I'm an artist. I need to make paintings and I'll go back and have an exhibition. 

"But I want to invite the Middle Eastern community in London – as you say, ‘It's a much smaller world now’ – I want to draw the Middle Eastern community in the West to my exhibition. For example, to invite the ambassadors of Lebanon, Syria and Israel all to come to the exhibition so that maybe the exhibition in my part of the world becomes a platform for people to meet and talk – and to appreciate what might be lost if more effort is not taken to protect and improve the lives of people here. So that is one level on which I'd like to work.

"I'd also love to have an exhibition here in Lebanon. Don't take it back home. Keep it here where it belongs. This is something I'd love to do, and not just be a traveler tourist who comes and takes. But I want to come and contribute and add to some of the culture here if I can."

'Painting and drawing is a common language that everyone speaks, rather like music'

'Downtown Beirut.' © tomyoung.com

Do you find as painter that it is difficult to go into sensitive areas here in Lebanon – like Hezbollah areas or the Palestinian camps? Talk to me about the process that you go through. As a painter, how do you approach that?

"I think painting and drawing really has a got a special quality that appeals to everyone. It is a common language that everyone speaks, rather like music.

"When I was in Lebanon for the first time in the spring of 2006, whilst I was doing a commission for a wealthy Christian family, I also wanted to go into the Palestinian refugee camps. I went to Chatila and I spent a couple of days there doing portraits of children. Really as a way of connecting and just trying to have some fun. 

"It was a wonderful experience and the kids loved it so much that they were queuing up to be drawn. There were kids sharpening my pencils for me, picking up my paper if I dropped it. It was just a lovely communal experience that went beyond the fact that I was British and they were Palestinian. 

"I think that is something that painting has got that perhaps photography and film-making haven't got. And that became particularly apparent when I was in Chatila, because as I was drawing these portraits, a photographer appeared and he began taking photos of people. As soon as the kids saw the camera, they all ran away and I was left alone with my sketchbook. 

"They all hid behind bits of wall near their shacks. As soon as the photographer disappeared, they ran back out to have their portraits drawn again. And that told me something about drawing and painting and what it can do particularly in the technological age because it is a language that crosses all boundaries and that kids find fun. And the mothers joined in as well.

"I also met some older people there at Chatila who spoke quite good English, and they questioned me about the whole history of British involvement in what has happened in this region. And this is something I've always been aware of too.

"I'm an Englishman and I love my country. But I'm deeply shocked and saddened by some of the things that my country has done. And in some senses, I don't know if I feel guilt, but it's certainly a deep concern for what my forefathers have done. 

"It does inspire me to perhaps try and do something to counter the terrible effect that the Balfour Declaration and before that the Sykes-Picot Agreement that led to it – has had on people here. People's lives have been ripped apart here. And it is just not right!

"I'm not a politician. I'm not a doctor and I'm not a soldier. There's perhaps not much I can do in practical terms. But as an artist I'd like to think I can do something to help or to aid in understanding. Even it's just a drop in the ocean, I feel compelled to make this drop."

'There's no big clever concept here, I just want to express my feelings about what I see. Be it beauty or be it destruction'

Your painting, "20 Years," which is clearly in the Dahiyeh, which was devastated during the Israeli war – that was one of those pieces that came from your trip to Lebanon in September of 2006?

"Yes, it did. It came directly from that. A very good friend of mine – a Shi'a Lebanese – took me to places in Dahiyeh where some of his family had been living and where their homes had been destroyed. It was a very moving experience – the devastation, the desolation. 

"Actually, we met one woman who refused to leave her house throughout the entire Israeli bombing campaign. She had an amazing dignity and strength. My friend introduced me to her – and she let me draw her and photograph her. 

"I did some drawings of her that really personified for me, you know, the strength and the defiance of the people here which I find moving and inspiring, and I wanted to express that in my work.

"Also to express a sense of her individuality - she's not a statistic. She's not just a number on a news report – these are people here, and I wanted to try to get that across in my drawing. 

"Also when I was in Dahiyeh, I decided to try and find a group of children there that I could work with because of course, it's the children that really suffer and have these terrible experiences so early in their lives.

"Through an NGO social worker in Beirut, we went into the heart of Dahiyeh where it had been most bombed and we worked with a group of kids in this playground surrounded by bomb craters.

"From London, I had brought two very big primed canvases with me, and my idea was to do some workshops with kids. We created these two big collaborative paintings and drawings which all of the kids joined in on. It was a great experience for me because I learned a lot about their tenacity and their enthusiasm. And they got to do these great drawings and paintings, which I still have.

"I made a short film of the making of these projects and now I still have these big paintings and the short film, which form a sort of video installation, which I hope to exhibit and sell and then hopefully that money will eventually go back to the very children who made the work. 

"So, I'm working on this idea. But I didn't want to take, as you say, everything that they’d done back to England. All of the individual drawings and paintings that they did in the run up to the collective pieces they kept and took back to their homes.

Can you address the irony of the romantic idealist painter dealing with scenes of destruction. How do you reconcile the concept of romantic idealism with this concept of tragedy in a landscape – is it some sort of sick sense of humor? How do you characterize it?

"I guess I'm interested in challenging myself and taking my work into a completely different environment, and seeing how it will work. 

"But, I'm mainly just interested in the world around me, and I just paint it. There's no big clever concept here, I just want to express my feelings about what I see. Be it beauty or be it destruction."

Do you worry about that falling into an orientalist perspective and that being abstracted from the suffering?

"The only way to prevent being abstracted from the suffering is to get involved with people who are suffering. I am aware that I might disappear into this ivory tower of this orientalist romance and just the ivory tower of art itself. And I know I may be guilty of that sometimes, but I want to challenge that.

"The only way I can see to challenge that is to get involved with people and to not just think about my voice but to try and give other people a platform to express themselves. 

"So that it's not just about me coming here to do what I want to do here, but by doing these projects with kids in Dahiyeh, that it's about giving them a chance to express themselves in a way that they want to. And I just want to perhaps be a medium for that. I don't want to control anything."