Reviving Hammam Al Jadeed

14 May, 2021
Hammam Al Jadeed entrance hall prior to restauration, with paintings by Tom Young (photo courtesy Karim Sakr).

Ham­mam Al Jadeed entrance hall pri­or to restau­ra­tion, with paint­ings by Tom Young (pho­to cour­tesy Karim Sakr).

Tom Young

The hid­den his­to­ry in ancient walls is a fas­ci­nat­ing source of inspi­ra­tion. I’m explor­ing how to fuse paint­ings with the tex­tured sur­faces of an ancient ham­mam in Sai­da Old Souq in Lebanon, which had been aban­doned for 70 years until the cur­rent artis­tic intervention.. 

Ham­mam Al Jadeed is a beau­ti­ful­ly pre­served Ottoman style bath­house in Sai­da. Invit­ed by the new own­er of the site, Said Bacho, I start­ed work in Sai­da on a series of six­ty site-spe­cif­ic paint­ings which now con­sti­tute the on-going Revival exhibition. 

Despite numer­ous set-backs due to the Upris­ing of 2019–20, the Covid pan­dem­ic, the Beirut Port Blast in August 2020 and ongo­ing polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic cri­sis in Lebanon, “Revival” final­ly opened in Octo­ber 2020 and remains open through Sum­mer 2021. The exhi­bi­tion is col­lab­o­ra­tive: reg­u­lar art work­shops for local and inter­na­tion­al schools are run on-site, and live con­certs fea­tur­ing ‘ud play­er Ziad Al Ahmadie, singer Dania Khat­ib and accom­pa­ny­ing dance performances.

The project is intend­ed to ben­e­fit the local com­mu­ni­ty, as well as attract­ing vis­i­tors from around Lebanon to the his­toric labyrinth of Saida’s old Souq. Local crafts­men and young guides are employed by the Shar­qy Foun­da­tion which was set up by Bacho in 2018 and man­ages the site. 

Fountain on site painting by Tom Young (photo Elsie Haddad).

Foun­tain on site paint­ing by Tom Young (pho­to Elsie Haddad).

The ham­mam was also a place where the Mus­lim, Chris­t­ian and Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties would gath­er to cleanse and attend one anoth­er’s rit­u­al wed­ding cer­e­monies before it closed in 1949 —quite pos­si­bly because of the Nak­ba in 1948 which dec­i­mat­ed the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in South Lebanon.

The walls speak: paint­ings emerge from a sense of place. It is a mul­ti-dimen­sion­al immer­sive expe­ri­ence, awak­en­ing all five sens­es. By work­ing for months in the ham­mam itself, and liv­ing in a near­by dis­used con­vent in the souq, I feel the place and become a part of the community.

Some of the paint­ings allude to polar­i­ty — the jour­ney from cold to hot, blue to red, East to West, the sun to moon, male to female, ancient to con­tem­po­rary. Explor­ing coex­is­tence is a uni­ver­sal metaphor: sym­bol­ic clues to the how uni­ty may be achieved through recog­ni­tion of dual­i­ty rather than its denial, and sym­bol­ic of Lebanon as a loca­tion where oppos­ing forces meet. 

Many of the paint­ings are about spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, med­i­ta­tion and how a state of inter­nal peace can be reflect­ed in the trans­for­ma­tion of a place which was orig­i­nal­ly designed a place of heal­ing and cleans­ing. In these times of anx­i­ety and dis­ease, we need an escape: if only for a day.

The ham­mam was also a place where the Mus­lim, Chris­t­ian and Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties would gath­er to cleanse and attend one anoth­er’s rit­u­al wed­ding cer­e­monies before it closed in 1949 — quite pos­si­bly because of the Nak­ba in 1948 which dec­i­mat­ed the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in South Lebanon. This sure­ly con­tributed to the clo­sure of the ham­mam, as well as the run­ning water that was begin­ning to reach peo­ple’s pri­vate homes in the 1950s. The bath­house no longer per­formed its func­tion in soci­ety; a trea­sure was lost. 

I’m inspired by the sto­ries told to me by elder­ly res­i­dents of Sai­da who are fea­tured in the film “Ham­mam Mem­o­ries” below, edit­ed by Lebanese film­mak­er Tony El Khoury. They tell me of an age when the ham­mam per­formed a semi-spir­i­tu­al com­mu­nal role in soci­ety which no church, mosque or syn­a­gogue can achieve. 

The exhi­bi­tion cel­e­brates a time of har­mo­ny and togeth­er­ness, a time before polit­i­cal walls and def­i­n­i­tions sep­a­rat­ed these com­mu­ni­ties. It is a bridge: an attempt to shine a light on wis­dom from the past, tran­scend the dif­fer­ences which divide us, and evoke a time which may to inspire how to live pos­i­tive­ly in the present moment, and gen­er­a­tions to come.

1948LebanonrevivalSaidawalls

Tom Young is an artist based in Beirut and London whose architectural training informs his interest in light and space. He makes sketches from life, and often supported by photos, filters these experiences through memory in the studio. He combines thick impasto oil and thin watercolour washes. He is interested in blurring the boundaries between realism and abstraction, and the paradox of capturing a sense of time and inner light in a still image. Young often exhibits paintings as site-specific installations which grow from the buildings he work in, such as the Hammam Al Jadeed in Saida. Find him on Twitter @tomyoungart.

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