|Joined: 09 Mar 2007
Location: Jbeil Byblos
| History: Postcards: Science, Art or Passion? (Fouad Debbas)
|Presentation made by Mr. Sami Toubia at a Round Table on 25th June, 2001 at The Sursock Museum in Beirut in Hommage to Fouad Debbas
Participants included Mr. Ghassan Tueni, Mr. Sami Toubia, Mr. Badr el-Hage, Mr. Jalal Toufic and Mrs. May Davie.
Postcards: Science, Art or Passion?
As a means of communication at one and the same time explicit, succinct and concise to act as a souvenir of oneself, to greet one’s family or to assure one’s friends on the occasion of a voyage or a stay abroad, postcards have become widespread ever since they first made their appearance in 1870.
While one can always find open messages having been sent far back in ancient times, if one takes into consideration the clay tablets in Assyria of the fourth millennium B.C., the first idea of the postcard belongs to the second half of the nineteenth century. The concept of the official postcard may be attributed to a Prussian Councilor of State named Von Stephan, who at the Fifth Conference of the German Postal Association in 1865 at Karlsruhe proposed “a cardboard leaf for correspondence circulating openly”. The idea, which on that occasion was not retained, was taken up again on 28th January, 1869 by Emmanuel Hermann, professor of Political Economy at Vienna, who was the first to use the expression Correspondence Card.
The first kind of postcard, a merely practical square of cardboard, allowed Parisians under siege during the war of 1870 to communicate with one another. But one had to wait for 1889 for the appearance of the first illustrated picture postcard; this card, representing the Eiffel Tower, was used during the Paris Universal Exhibition. Several hundred thousand were printed and the era of the postcard had dawned. The first postcard with photograph is commonly considered to have been the brainchild of Dominique Piazza of Marseille, in 1891. In only a few years these little rectangular pieces of cardboard became the rage, objects to be collected by those who sent and received them.
Beirut had its first batch of postcards in 1897. They showed general views of Beirut and of Baalbek printed in medallions surmounted by the inscription Gruss aus..., meaning Souvenir of... . Produced in Germany and Austria, they were sold in bookshops in Beirut and now are among the most sought-after.
One year later, new techniques of printing offered the public panoramic cards, reproducing the shots taken by the earlier photographers, mainly French ones, such as Bonfils, Dumas and Charles Bézier. These were followed by native photographers such as Sabounji, Sarrafian and Tarazi, who took the first snapshots produced locally. They fixed on film views of Beirut and the countryside, the traditions of the mountain villages and the local costumes.
The increasing demand called for the production of an ever greater number and variety of postcards. To judge by the inventories, there were over 120 Lebanese and foreign printers and over ten thousand different cards showing Lebanon printed between 18997 and Lebanese independence.
During the French Mandate, with the flow of foreign troops into Lebanon, postcards abounded. With an unlimited demand, facilitated moreover by the military postal service, a new generation of publishers appeared, among them Ferid, Mann, Angeli, Amalberti and even the French Post.
From 1943 on, the postcard in Lebanon passed into decline, despite the efforts of certain photographers such as Scavo, Gulbenk and Manoug. This decline was certainly the result of the development of various means of communication and information, but most of all due to the departure of the French and other foreign military personnel subsequent to the declaration of independence. The Lebanese were much less disposed to use this form of correspondence.
The postcards printed between 18997 and 1940 bear precious witness to the past sights of our country. They have borne the wear of the passing of time and recall a mass of detail reflecting the history of an epoch. They immortalize historic events such as the Mandate, illustrious individuals, the practice of crafts, and streets and buildings which have now completely disappeared. Through them one sees Beirut with its new architecture, its alleys and its barracks, and wide views of Tripoli, Zahleh, Antelias, Sofar and Aley with their little railway stations.
Most moving are the postcards which speak of the intimate life of individuals and their affairs. On the back of one card a certain Albert relates the sufferings of a young soldier wounded during the revolt of Jebel Druze, while another speaks of the endless wait of a certain John anxious to get back to his sweetheart in England. On another a Frenchman newly disembarked in 1901 gives a detailed description of Beirut. Finally, with what deep feeling one reads on the back of a postcard sent by a certain Christian to his relatives about the ravages caused among the population of Lebanon by the famine of 1916!
As souvenirs both visual and sentimental, these documents constitute a precious heritage from our past, being archives of inestimable value. Fouad Debbas understood this immediately and his efforts in the matter were the work of a pioneer. Starting in 1974, he formed the most complete collection of postcards covering Lebanon between 189997 and 1940. Stocks in Lebanon were exhausted, scattered, ignored, lost or burnt. Then, contrary to what one might imagine, most of these postcards have gone abroad, which obliged Fouad Debbas to look for them outside the country. Finally, his search led him to amass more than nine thousand cards, forming the most substantial collection of postcards dealing with Lebanese subjects.
With the rigor of a true historian and the zeal of a collector, Fouad Debbas swiftly compiled this patrimony in a work entitled Beirut, Our Memory (Beyrouth notre mémoire), published in three languages. He made his postcards available to several exhibitions about Lebanon and wrote articles in a large numbers of specialist magazines.
A new generation of postcard lovers or “cardophiles” appeared. With real success, these enthusiasts revive memories and will allow Lebanese historians and researchers to establish the facts and to illustrate the Lebanese heritage.
Collecting Postcards, a Science
The considerable number of postcards dealing with Lebanon obliged Fouad Debbas, a Centralist by formation, methodical, rational and perfectionist, to set up an original special archival system classifying by sequence, theme and publisher.
This classification allows the constitution of a database and the drawing up of catalogue. With this, Fouad Debbas has been able to provide both for himself and for other researchers, whether sociologists, ethnologists, urban planners or architects, an essential documentary source allowing them to to formulate their analysis of our country’s past.
Collecting Postcards, an Art
While they are a means both of communication and of scientific research, the interest of postcards lies also in their artistic value. In point of fact, the artistic evolution of the photograph has allowed the development of the postcard. The more widely they were used, the more the artistic quality of postcards was improved. Photographers paid more and more attention to their frame, their angle and their subject. Even the human persons were better chosen.
Collecting Postcards, a Passion
In the way Fouad Debbas went about it, postcard collection is certainly a hobby and more than a hobby. It is precisely the happiest occasions that have become for me today the most poignant memories. What extremes Fouad went to for his Lebanese Postcard! He set aside a whole room of his Paris apartment for arranging his collection and his postcards even invaded his bedroom, where he hoarded the most precious ones he had acquired. He called in master cabinet-makers to make him the best possible repository for his beloved postcards. In order to find a missing item he would rummage the attics of his friends, comb shops in London, Paris and Istanbul, or take a plane to Brazil, the USA or Canada, to try to lay hands on an important postcard that an indicator or collector had told him about. So it was that to acquire the first photograph taken in the Levant by the Frenchman Goupil-Fesquet, showing the ruins of Baalbek, he competed with the Jerusalem Museum during an auction in New York and finally had it knocked down to him!
Fouad knew how to awake in others enthusiasm like his own with the pleasure it gave. He led them to share his passion to such a degree that he never traveled alone in search of his treasures. Together we have foraged dozens of times in the flea-markets of Paris, Brussels and elsewhere to find “what is still missing”.
For every one of us, postcards mean memories. For Fouad it meant loving his land through its past, to be ever more strongly attached to the land of his birth, and to wish to keep it intact in his albums and alive in the memory.
(Extracts from the book "Sarrafian - Liban 1900 - 1930")