Youssef Ghazawi, a prominent Lebanese abstract artist, was preparing
to hold an exhibit showcasing 25 years of his life's works when the war
between Israel and Lebanon suddenly erupted on July 12.
Three weeks later, Israeli missiles landed on his home and studio,
destroying almost all of his paintings, mosaics, sketches and thousands
of books. His wife, Suzanne Chakaroun, also an artist, lost many of her
works as well.
A dozen of the most prominent Lebanese artists, and possibly more, reportedly lost their works in the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon this summer. Their numbers might be small, but the loss of such artworks can have lasting effects on Lebanese society and culture. As in Iraq and other war zones, the nation's identity falls victim to violence, sometimes to be replaced with a new, wounded culture that carries the resentments of past conflicts. "This war was very hard on us," Ghazawi said in a telephone interview from Beirut. He has had artworks destroyed in conflicts three times during his lifetime. "I couldn't save them this time."
Rising Lebanese artist Nour Ballouk also lost her home (left) in Nabatiya and eight of her paintings inside during the war. Her workshop was severely damaged. Ballouk believes this war was partly aimed at erasing Lebanon's Arab and Lebanese identity by igniting divisions in the country along sectarian, religious and political lines. Such divisions have recently become more pronounced with the assassination of Lebanese Minister of Industry Pierre Gemayel, violent sectarian clashes, and current political demonstrations in Beirut aimed at toppling the government.
"But it won't work because we, the Lebanese people, are strong. We will resist," she said in a phone interview. To protest the war, Ballouk recently held an exhibition of all of her paintings, including the damaged ones.
Art, as a testimony of history, offers a perception of truth for current and future generations to learn from and admire. With the destruction of these testaments, windows into a particular society and people as well as connections to the past are irreversibly erased.
"I will not stop painting," Ballouk said. "Rather than paint about peace, I will be painting about war, showing what happened in Lebanon."
Ballouk's resolve to portray Lebanese history through the arts reminded me of first lady Dolley Madison's determination to keep American art history alive during the British-American war of 1812. In 1814, before British troops set fire to the White House, she saved the famed Gilbert Stuart portrait of President George Washington from destruction by ordering it removed from the frame and brought to safety.
Museums of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Halls of Congress and the White House walls are all lined with similar paintings depicting U.S. history. First lady Madison must have understood the priceless value of the arts to a nation's heritage.
Worth more than money
Paintings by famed artists can be worth millions of dollars, such as Vincent Van Gogh's The Starry Night or one of Wassily Kandinsky's Compositions. An estimated $100 million worth of artworks were lost in the Sept. 11 attacks. But no dollar amount can be assigned to the loss of a nation's qualitative cultural and social identity.
How does one quantify the loss to Iraqi civilization after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, when art galleries and museums housing ancient artifacts and paintings were looted or destroyed?
How does one enumerate the damage to the collective conscience of the Palestinian people after Israeli forces raided the Palestinian Ministry of Culture and the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center in 2002, destroying and defacing art pieces and artifacts?
Human spirit endures
Conflicts can destroy relics of history, but they cannot destroy the human spirit to create a better future on the foundations of an often troubled past.
Saeed, a Palestinian farmer in the Gaza Strip, collects and paints the shrapnel from the hundreds of Israeli missiles that have landed in his fields, turning tools of war into instruments of peace. "We should not be depressed by living among the weapons of death around us," he told Egypt's Nile TV. "Instead, we decided to use them as toys for children and artwork. ... So we started painting the missiles."
Perhaps to begin the process of national healing in Iraq, one prominent Iraqi artist, Qasim Sabti, opened his gallery in Baghdad for artists to exhibit their renditions of the Abu Ghraib scandal through sculptures and paintings.
In September, in a southern suburb of Beirut, under tents and atop the rubble of bombed-out buildings, artists showcased their creative works that were inspired by the Israeli-Lebanese war.
Several Lebanese music artists, such as Julia Boutros, composed songs about the war. Boutros released a single and music video, entitled My Loved Ones. The song's lyrics were adapted from a speech made by Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah to Lebanese resistance fighters during the war.
Peace the only compensation
I asked Ghazawi how Lebanese artists should be compensated for their lost works. "My works can never be recovered for future generations to see," Ghazawi said. "My only compensation will be that there is real peace here."
But achieving peace might take years, even decades. For now, an international donors' conference is scheduled for January in Paris, where representatives from countries throughout the world will meet to pledge funds to assist Lebanon's development and reconstruction. Consideration must be given to artists such as Ghazawi and Ballouk to help them recover some of what they've lost.
Such compensation will never bring back any of the destroyed works, but perhaps it could bring some consolation to the art community in Lebanon and the heritage of the Lebanese people.
Souheila Al-Jadda is associate producer of a Peabody award-winning show, Mosaic: World News from the Middle East, on Link TV. She's also a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.