Saleh Lamei: Expression of the self
Marginalised in his own country, he has travelled the Arab world developing his passion for the past
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Top and Middle: The Great Omari Mosque in Sidon. Above: The Farag Ibn Barquq Mosque, Cairo
In Sidon, the coastal capital of South Lebanon, on an outcrop slightly elevated above the sea where an unyielding Roman Crusader fortress once stood, there survives a mosque. Known as "the Great Mosque", this late 13th- century "Omari Mosque" of the Bahri Mameluke period is the oldest still standing in the area. Built on the remains of the fortress, the south wall of the mosque is braced by five sturdy Crusader buttresses, in collective stylistic and chronological juxtaposition to the minaret added by the Ottomans in the second half of the 19th century.
The setting is spectacular -- all the more so, given the miracle that the mosque has actually endured through all this time. Historic conquests aside, it has also had to survive modern-day war. The monument was severely damaged by shellfire during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Once that conflict was over, another conflict emerged over the fate of the mosque: while some suggested pulling down its fragile remains and replacing it with a brand-new structure, others would not hear of it.
Saleh Lamei was the man behind the monument's revival. He found the funds, and gathered a team of architects and students from Beirut to help with the documentation. The walls, piers, arches, vaults and domes that had been completely or partially destroyed were rebuilt, and an iron anchorage was established in the minaret. The work took years, but the result -- for those who value heritage -- was stunning.
For his efforts, Lamei received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1989. The jury wrote of his work: "The effort reflects a combination of human steadfastness in the face of tragedy, of restoration talent and inventiveness in particularly difficult circumstances, and of dedicated patronage and sacrifice that makes the reconstruction of the mosque a beacon in a tortured land and a sign of hope for the rebuilding of war torn nations."
It was not the first award he had won, and it was not to be the last. But it is perhaps the one that best epitomises his commitment to the field. Lamei is one of the leading figures in Islamic architectural preservation and conservation in the Arab world. He is also one of the oldest.
"You're looking at a lifetime," he smiles, with a sparkle that conceals the age he is about to share. "I'm 70 years old, you know. If you look at my track record, you may say I have accomplished a lot, but in 50-odd years, considering I have devoted my life to the Islamic heritage, I think I certainly should have."
We sit in his downtown office -- home of the Centre for Conservation and Preservation of Islamic Architectural Heritage (CIAH). A modest locale with little indication of its international stature, the only signs of global prowess are the certificates by his desk and a low table of medals crammed at the back of the room beside an armchair-sized model dome and a bookcase.
He asks that we talk off-the-record at first -- on issues that had circulated in the local press about his being sidelined in recent years from national conservation efforts.
"It's important one understands the background," he says as I switch the tape recorder off. "You need to know why during the past ten years or so I have done little work in Egypt."
The "background", it turns out, is that which afflicts almost every accomplished personality who finds themselves in the public spotlight, and the cast is familiar too -- enemies and opportunists who spend their time digging for any negative information which can be turned into headline news.
There are always, of course, at least two sides to any story. But judging from accounts in the international press, it appears that there was little substance to the disparagement, beyond a tendency to criticise his own nation that did not go down too well with official entities. The consequence was his near-total absence from projects based in Egypt. But his work continued to be commended around the globe -- by UNESCO; by the Organisation of Islamic Capitals and Cities; the Organisation of Arab Towns, Harvard University, the Getty Research Institute, and the International Symposium of the Islamic Architectural Heritage, to mention but a few.
"It is only in the past few months that I have started working on local projects again," he tells me.
It is ironic, then, that his return to the field of local conservation should have come under the aegis of the Aga Khan Foundation, through their recently-opened Azhar Park project -- and that this collaboration too should have ended prematurely. When the project was first set up, Lamei was asked to join the Aga Khan Cultural Service (AKCS) team that would transform a 74-acre garbage dump in Islamic Cairo into a pleasure ground, as well as restoring and revitalising the neighbouring Darb Al-Ahmar district. He even did the necessary groundwork, and came up with the required drawings for the monuments marked for restoration.
"It didn't materialise," is all he will say now of the role he was supposed to play in the project. "But they [the Aga Khan Foundation] did pay me for my work."
Rumour was that, just as he had been sidelined for years from smaller-scale local projects, the same thing was now happening again, but on a larger scale. The reproach seems harsh, especially if it was true.
"Regardless," he says, batting the controversy away, "they still implemented some of my designs."
What he thinks of the park and its surroundings he will not say, except that the work on one minaret in particular was inexcusably sloppy.
"Every minaret in the world has a sort of ledge, like a balcony," he explains. "I suppose they decided it was easier to just do without it, so they closed it off during the restoration work."
Those who worked on the minaret refute Lamei's charge.
"We followed his drawings," says one architectural historian and restorer, who preferred to remain unnamed. "And when he came to us and said we did a poor job, we told him that we had executed his drawings precisely. His answer was, 'Well, my drawings were wrong'!"
Lamei does not want to waste time lamenting the past. He is intent on moving on, and instead, he insists on talking about the general and the abstract.
"The problem with this field is that it's not going to make you rich," he says. "And so professionalism is low. There isn't a deep understanding of the materials, of the techniques, of the way monuments and structures were built in the past. To understand how to conserve a work which is essentially a work of art, you have to understand not only that type of art, but every single type of art, every artist, in every period of history. We don't have that here."
He proposes that there is no such thing as "bad work", but perhaps just certain "lacks".
"There are problems with regards to the people. It's not a matter of education, but rather of culture. For decades historic monuments, buildings of invaluable heritage, were pulled down, neglected, misused. For decades the 'nation' [government] was sending a message to the people that these monuments are of little value to them; that our Islamic heritage, our Egyptian architectural heritage, is something to neglect. If the government doesn't respect the heritage, then you can't really expect the people to respect the heritage."
He shifts in his chair and straightens his back.
Lamei sits at a small desk. All the furniture in his rather small and humble room is Arabesque. I am somewhat surprised by his stature. Not because he is physically small, but because I had heard so much about his ego. He does not, however, boast about his accomplishments. After handing me his CV -- a hefty 20-page document -- he prefers to talk about the country and the craft.
"If I'm going to speak to you with honesty," he says, meditatively, "then I have to say that it's not even that public awareness is lacking, but that there simply is none. Conservation is not about 'rebuilding', which is what some restorers in the Arab world actually do! The problem is that it's very hard to explain to people that the old structure itself has authentic value; be it in terms of material, or of craftsmanship, or the design, or the setting."
The problem, he says, is lack of thought.
"Let me give you an example," he says, with a humorous smile. "During the 1930s and 1940s, when I was in school, the British Army was in the country. There was much tension [the period was characterised by a triangular power struggle between the British, the King and the nationalist Wafd Party which had the support of the people] and to attempt to voice that, and how we felt about the occupation, we used to burn our English school books. We would burn them, but we would still have to go and buy them again, because it was school, and no matter what, we still had to learn English."
He pauses and chuckles to himself.
"Look at the thinking," he picks up. "We had to learn English. If we burnt the books we had to buy them again. Regardless of what we felt or wanted, the burning of the books would not take the British out of the country..."
Lamei trails off, amused at this recollection of self- defeat.
"I tell you this because it reflects the weakness of the country -- that we really don't think. That there are lots of problems we don't fully address. We don't tackle issues in the right way. We're not pro-active. As a nation we don't mobilise in the right way for a cause."
His tone has changed, and his speech develops a new force.
"I tell you this because I believe we don't do the necessary groundwork -- be it for conservation projects or anything else. We don't seem to plan ahead, and that is why now, when we have lost a large portion of our heritage, when lots of monuments are no longer here, or are crumbling, we are suddenly beginning to be aware of 'saving' our heritage."
Craftsmanship, he stresses, is a part of that lost past. "The master craftsmen did not pass on their expertise to the younger generation," he explains. "So the craftspeople we have now don't understand the intricacies of their trade -- for example, the fact that you can't make a mould out of cement, nor out of plaster of Paris. It has to be made out of rubble. They have to understand the scientific principles of concrete, of wood, of rock -- the capabilities of these materials need to be studied, how they react to certain temperatures, or to other materials. Craftsmen today are like those who learn the Qu'ran," he suggests. "They learn, recite, win prizes for their great feat, but what did they understand in the process of memorisation? Absolutely nothing."
Lamei looks at me directly. He stops talking and his expression is stern.
"That unfortunately is the truth. People don't like to hear it, but it must be said."
Such thinking is reflected in numerous projects around the city. He uses the example of the Mosque of Umm Sultan Shaaban.
"They used metal cramps," he explains. "I'm not saying that metal cramps are bad -- they have been used historically by the Romans. But they cause problems -- this is part of what we call the 'homogeneity of structural behaviour'. Different materials need to work together and compliment one another. When you put steel and wood together, it is a negative equation, because the materials don't work together under different pressures and temperatures. Each material has a completely different set of scientific properties, and so it's not possible for them to compliment one another. Homogeneity and the integration of materials are key."
He goes on, citing a slew of local projects which were not, from his perspective, executed adequately. As an observer, one can't help but wonder if part of that disapproval stems from his marginalised place in the national conservation field. Yet as I listen to his elegantly expressed disapproval of so much local work, I end up concluding that his international stature has surely placed him above such futile bicker, and that it really is his technical expertise which is the main impetus for such candid talk.
Glancing over his CV, it is clear that Lamei's life, his every waking minute, has been devoted to the Islamic architectural heritage. A graduate of Ain Shams University's Department of Architecture, he continued his studies at the Stuttgart Technical University in Aachen, West Germany, where he eventually received his doctorate in the history of architecture and conservation.
"During those years," he recalls, his voice softening and his facial expression relaxing, "my priority was information -- reading, learning, absorbing, as much information as I possible could."
He pauses for quite a while.
"I went from lecture to lecture -- lectures about anything even remotely related to art, or building, or history. I had little money, but it didn't matter what I ate, or wore, so long as I paid my rent, and could read. I once went for over 30 days just living on boiled potatoes. It's the price I had to pay for my passion. But when you're so devoted to something, such a compromise is actually a cheap price to pay. And in life, rewards come, but in their own time. In a sense, life is like riding a horse. It takes a while to get on the horse, get comfortable in your saddle, and then move from a trot to a comfortable canter and then gallop."
To use his own analogy, Lamei has been galloping for years. He has served in endless posts -- as associate professor of History of Architecture in Alexandria University's Faculty of Engineering; as professor, academic chancellor, and ultimately dean of the School for Islamic Architecture and Restoration at the Arab University in Beirut, Lebanon; as consultant to the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation; as a member of the UNESCO International Committee for the Preservation of the Cultural Properties in the Old City of Jerusalem; as consultant on Cultural Heritage for the Hariri Foundation in Lebanon; and as a member of the International Executive Committee of the International Committee on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).
The list goes on. As does that of the international projects in which he has participated -- over 50 CIAH projects are cited on his CV.
"It's a passion, what can I do?" he laughs. "I receive great satisfaction, great pleasure, from walking around the city, in the garbage, even in the sewage water, to look at old monuments, and study the details of great structures. This is my heritage, I am proud of it and I feel it is a part of me."
He thinks for a moment.
"You know," he continues, "I think that's part of our problem -- that we don't feel rooted in our heritage. The problem of Egyptians is that we look around and see that the rest of the Arab world has an Islamic heritage, and what makes us unique is our Pharaonic heritage. So instead we focus on that, we try to live through that past glory. But what we don't realise is that as Egyptians the Islamic heritage is ours too. We were not Pharaohs. It is the Copts that were Pharaohs -- that is their heritage, not ours."
Lamei shakes his head.
"Essentially, what we must work on as a nation is our culture, our identity. We need to develop a passion for our past, we need to encourage our people to connect to their roots, to feel pride in them. If you walk down Emadeddin Street downtown, or Hoda Shaarawi Street, or Gumhouriya Street, you will notice buildings with Islamic architectural structures and a very distinctive Islamic feel to them. They were built out of the need for expression, in reaction to the British occupation. Like the tarboush. What is that? It's simply the result of needing to express one's identity. It's an expression of the self."
He looks me straight in the eyes.
"That's what our people need to start thinking about -- who they really are."