Fayza Al-Khazen Beirut’s Learned Princess

July 2014

FAYZA AL-KHAZEN IS FROM ONE OF LEBANON’S OLDEST FAMILIES. RESEARCHER, PUBLISHER, COLLECTOR AND PIANIST, AL-KHAZEN’S LIFE IS A PERFECT FAIRY TALE…

If I was told to choose a city to live in outside of Istanbul, it would be Beirut hands down. When I go there with my esteemed mentor, collector Erol Makzume, as a reference, the doors of the city’s intellectual community open to me instantly. We settle into our fashionable boutique hotel in the city center, make a mini tour of the city and set out for our appointment with Fayza al-Khazen. The address is in the Raouché district, better known now as the Pigeon Rocks, one of Beirut’s most beautiful and prestigious neighborhoods with a magnificent view of the Mediterranean. I ring the bell of a house from the 1950’s in pastel pink, a two-story house with high ceilings, multiple rooms and a spacious balcony. Escorted by the Filipino maid who lets us in, we go straight to the living room. Sunlight sifting in through the windows in a sparkling Mediterranean play of light makes the ambience of this interior even more attractive. The walls are covered with antique Ottoman artifacts, Beykoz, Iznik and Kütahya ceramics. Yıldız porcelain cups with sleeves adorn the 18th century French cabinets. Piled randomly with sheet music, the well-worn piano is clearly not just a part of the decor.

IN THE PRESENCE OF FAYZA al-KHAZEN
The sound of soft footsteps on the staircase from the upper floor announce Fayza al-Khazen's arrival. Supremely chic without a trace of ostentation, a perfect European in her smile and demeanor and a perfect Middle Easterner with her warm hospitality, Favza’s elegance complements the house’s exquisite decor… As lemon and mulberry sherbet are served accompanied by tasty homemade cookies, the time finally comes to get to know Fayza al-Khazen herself. Playing in the background is a magnificent Anouar Brahem piece, and we continue the conversation to strains of The Astounding Eyes of Rita.

GOING BACK TO LOUIS XIV
Fayza al-Khazen begins by telling us she is from Lebanon’s Maronite community, betraying in her words her pride in being from an old, established family influential in the city government and local administration in the Ottoman period and the Bourbon dynasty’s representatives in Beirut for a hundred years. A letter written by Louis XIV hangs on the wall as a memento of the old glory days. Although Arabic is her mother tongue, she is equally conversant in French, But I am not a Francophone, so we continue half in Arabic, half in English. I do however take great delight in hearing Arabic spoken in the light, refined Lebanese dialect. But to return to Fayza al-Khazen and her story. She started her education in Beirut and continued in Paris as a young woman. So too her life… Paris, where she traveled for pleasure in peacetime, became a second home during the periods of war and turmoil. “Beirut is my home, my child, the place where my soul belongs,” she says with a sigh, probably remembering the days when Beirut was the Paris of the East. But an expression, impossible to describe, of sadness intermingled with hope clouds her eyes as she adds, “Somehow, like the phoenix, this city always manages to rise again from its own ashes!”

COMING HOME
Fayza al-Khazen got into the publishing business when she returned to Beirut from Europe in the nineties. Her books are read as textbooks in the Lebanese schools. She even prepared for publication the maps of Lebanon that are used in the country. Her prestigious books, each one a reference work in the field in terms of printing, design and contents, followed one another in rapid succession. Studies on Lebanese architecture, the houses of Sidon and Tripoli, medieval Anatolia, and the art and architecture of Cilicia and Cappadocia are just a few of the books she has published. At this point the conversation turns to Sultan Abdulhamid II. “Without a doubt, he is a very important figure for Lebanon as for the entire Ottoman geography,” she says. “To show the value and importance I place on him, I collected two hundred photographs of Lebanon from his photographic album and published them in 2010 under the title Beirut & the Sultan, with backing by the Beirut Municipality and Banque Libano-Française.” And together, with appreciation, we remember the late, great sultan.

SUNSET ON THE MEDITERRANEAN
We move to the balcony now to watch the sunset. A busy avenue passes in front of the house. We watch the sunset and the swimmers, fishermen, cyclists and people out for a stroll or a drive along the coast in the cool evening sea breeze. At the end of the day, we head back to our hotel, delighted to have made the acquaintance of this distinguished lady and font of knowledge.