Jamal al-Batal: Building Old Beirut on Canvas

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Jamal al-Batal during the interview with Al-Akhbar. (Photo: Marwan Bu Haidar)

By: Ali Sakka

Published Sunday, March 11, 2012

Rarely a day passes without Jamal al-Batal spending some time at a small antiques shop in Ain el Mreisseh. The shop is not his, but he “shares” it with another man who displays his paintings for sale there. His partner also answers Batal's cellphone and arranges his appointments.

"I am Jamal's manager" jokes the man. But the truth is that Batal cannot use cellphones, as the electronic signals stop his hearing aid from working. An artillery shell took his hearing away, though a sand embankment prevented it from claiming his his life.

The civil war meanwhile took Beirut away, as did the so-called "reconstruction" that followed. Al-Batal seeks to rebuild the Beirut that no longer exists, even if that can only be done in painting.

"I draw old Beirut because I love it,” says al-Batal, lamenting a legacy of which little remains. He left the Bashoura district, where he was born, at the outbreak of the civil war, as it was on the then-frontline. But he returned as soon as the fighting ceased to take a look at the neighborhood from which he was forcefully uprooted at the age of 12.

"I returned to find out that the Beirut which belonged to everyone had been destroyed. How some people had been killed and others had emigrated. I found drawing the only way to remind the Lebanese that we had a beautiful past that we killed with our own hands and that we are capable of living in peace if we want to," al-Batal says.

He did not draw Beirut from memory. He began by making sketches from old black-and-white photographs of the city which he found in various albums, including of landmarks such as Burj (Martyrs’) Square and the Grand Serail. The bright coloring he had to leave to his imagination.

Al-Batal, who is father to one son, does not earn a living from selling paintings. "It is impossible to live off my work as an artist," he says. For the past 11 years he has had a job at the National Library, helping in the restoration of old books.

Al-Batal has never been famous. Few are aware that he is a professional painter, including his work colleagues. They were surprised when he gave former Minister of Culture Ghassan Salame a portrait that he had painted of him, as was the gift’s recipient. The same happened with former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who initially thought a portrait of him by al-Batal was a print.

While al-Batal is skilled at portraiture, it is his depictions of old Beirut that are in demand. They have been shown at various exhibitions, including at the tourism ministry and the Russian Cultural Center.

He became better known after being given a commission from the Makassed Philanthropic Islamic Association to paint a mural of old Beirut at its Khadija al-Kubra High School. This was not his first such work. He had previously painted a large mural of Saint Hardini, at the request of the former Maronite patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir.

Al-Batal did not bear arms in the civil war, and thanks God he had nothing to do with militiamen. For over 20 years he volunteered for the Lebanese Red Cross, as both a paramedic and a calligrapher.

He spent his youth nurturing his drawing talent. At eight, he drew copies of all the pictures in his history book at elementary school. He still has the pencil drawings.

His first portrait was painted at the request of his cousin. He was unfamiliar with the techniques and it took him a long time to finish the piece, but he produced a picture that was a perfect mimic of the photograph he was working from. After he learned the necessary techniques, he painted a portrait of the late Kamal Jumblatt.

He tried opening a small shop to sell his work, but soon closed it, and also worked as a designer at an advertising agency before taking on his simple job at the National Library. But al-Batal has never given up on drawing – convinced though he may be that artists "cannot make a living" in Lebanon and are only appreciated after they die.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Yeah...The main problem that affected him was his hearing itself. The main cause of it was that an artillery shell took his hearing away. Anyways I hope he has been able to recover from this loss. Anyways thanks for the news.

MIght be relevant and of interest
This blog has discussed preservation in the city of Beirut in relation to a building, THE GRAND THEATER in Beirut http://spatiallyjustenvironmentsbeirut.blogspot.com/2011/08/image-by-car... and public space, Martyr square http://spatiallyjustenvironmentsbeirut.blogspot.com/2011/08/martyr-squar... . Yet on the scale of the city how and what do we preserve? As a city grows, mutates and becomes more contemporary the question of what to PRESERVE becomes more intrinsic. Do we stand still in time? Do we want to reserve everything ‘old’?

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