Born in 1941, Leila Nseir’s expansive artistic career and deft mastery of different styles, including Realism, Expressionism and Surrealism, has made her one of Syria’s foremost artists. Poet and artist Monzer Masri and Nseir have been friends for many years, first meeting at the Centre of Fine Arts decades ago, and it is this long-standing friendship that has allowed for an interview of unprecedented candour and honesty – at times poignant, at times uncomfortable – as Masri visits her, now in her late 70s and with failing health, in Latakia.
Any time one wanted to visit Leila Nseir, one first had to call beforehand. Several times. Sometimes even that would prove impossible, for very rarely does the 77-year old Leila check her mobile phone. Moreover, because her television is always on, her landline must be left ringing for a long time until she is able to hear it, let alone get up and cross the 10 metre distance between bed and telephone to pick up the receiver.
All of this needs to be accomplished before you can tell her to expect you at a specified hour, or better still, a specified minute. Then, she can toss you the key to the door adjacent to the Al Ahram movie theatre (which has been closed for two decades) through an opening in the staircase. Then there are the 60 steps one has to climb just to reach her apartment, situated as it is on the third floor, overlooking, on the northern side, Al Maliki street, which is famous for its cinemas and merchants of gold and watches. From the southern side, it overlooks a wide roof occupied by the huge air vents of the movie theatre.
So there I was, climbing up those 60 stairs and pondering how Leila Nseir, in her present condition, was capable of going up and down those stairs every time she left the house. And, until recently, she did just that; she went out with her cane shopping for fruits and vegetables and local newspapers, which she bought to entertain herself with crossword puzzles. Eventually I made it to the long narrow corridor that led to her door. I don’t know how many times I had done the same journey or how many times I would be doing it again in the future. I’m afraid there may not be that many. I look at that wide roof of the movie theatre, crisscrossed with huge air vents, and I see Leila Nseir, through the metal mesh, hanging up her laundry
I call out to her to open the door for me. I call out several times and each time I raise my voice so that she can hear me.
A piece of paper with ‘Leila Nseir’ written on it is pasted to the door. Near it, some small white pieces of paper, from which hang a pencil on a rather long piece of string. The purpose? Visitors who have dropped by and haven’t found her can write their names and the dates of their visit. I have never read anyone’s name there, despite my frequent visits to her during these past seven years.
The ghost of Leila Nseir opens the door. It wasn’t the Leila Nseir whom I have known since I was a student at the Centre of Fine Arts; whom I would meet in Damascus at a solo exhibition of hers or a collective exhibition in which she participated. That special woman, in form and substance, with her very white skin and short reddish hair, was probably the first woman to wear trousers in Damascus. That social and artistic rebel is not the Leila Nseir of today.
Today, she weighs barely 35 kilograms and the moment she sits down with you she starts talking in detail about her deteriorating health; 12 heart attacks, four strokes, diabetes, fluctuating blood pressure and swelling in the limbs. She shows you her swollen wrists and fingers and doesn’t mind if you take pictures. She actually asks you to photograph her, because with these hands she still draws. She says: “Look at my latest drawings. Aren’t they wonderful?” For the third time during this particular meeting and perhaps for the hundredth time in previous interviews and telephone communications, she declares that if it wasn’t for the experience she herself had gained in looking after herself after so many years of struggling with her ailments, “I would have been dead five years ago at least”.
Chaos prevails in the house; books, newspapers, drafts of drawings, boxes of pencils and charcoal pens, and new and used colouring tubes are all mixed together and stacked everywhere: family pictures in black and white, old portraits hanging on the walls and two portraits of her sister and father. New paintings are laid against the backs of sofas. She asks (and insists) if you would like something to drink, like coffee, tea, Nescafe with milk, or “if you’re hungry there is an oven dish of chicken and potatoes, or at least have a petit four or a piece of chocolate, which are right there on the table. You like sweets if I recall”.
I said Leila Nseir today is not the same Leila Nseir that I knew. But wait, this cannot be true. Read the following and judge for yourself.
Monzer: Leila, what I want to do right now is to interview you, as you heard me say on the phone to Fady Yazigi a minute ago. Mouna Atassi, the owner of Atassi Gallery in Damascus, and who is now in the UAE, is embarking on a documentation project about Syrian female artists. I don’t know the exact details, but it is something you should be a part of.
Leila: But why don’t they talk directly to me?
(I called Fady and passed over my mobile phone so she could talk to him. Her tone changed and she showed him a great deal of affection. I had often heard her praising his efforts. He, in turn, to the best of my knowledge, considers her to be one of his important influencers. In fact, he was the one who introduced her to Khaled Al Samawi, the founder of Ayyam Gallery. As a result, the latter organised a big retrospective exhibition of her works in 2008, along with the issuance of the most important book about her life, even though I think the book lacked proper documentation of her work and her rich artistic history. She seemed to remember Mouna Atassi with difficulty. She said that she was in a state of total confusion and would no doubt remember her later. I wondered perhaps if she held a certain grudge or if there was a reason for this forgetfulness.)
Monzer: It has always been written that you were born in Latakia, but as far as I know, you were born in Al Haffa city, north east of Latakia and because of your father’s job, you moved from one village to another. Do you remember in which year your parents moved to Latakia?
Leila: I don’t remember. I was just a child and it’s been a very long time. I’m on the verge of departure.
Monzer: Did your upbringing have anything to do with drawing?
Leila: Certainly. My mother [Wadia’ Rabahiya) loved Bernard Shaw, Marc Twain, the Lebanese Gibran Khalil Gibran and Taha Hussein. She had a penchant for art and she knew a little French. My father [Moussa Nseir) had no relation whatever to art and literature.
Monzer: Did you have a library? Who purchased or brought the books?
Leila: I don’t know! Maybe my mother’s father, but no… As for my father, he was the governor of the Raju district, which was Kurdish. Then he was appointed the district commissioner of… maybe Salkeen, and later Slonfeh, where the poet Badawi Al Jabal used to visit us and play chess with my father. We also had a Lebanese family friend who was well known, but I don’t remember his name. He used to visit us frequently and he loved literature. Maybe it was he who brought some books and had an influence on us. We also had communist books as my brother, Joseph, was a leftist.
Monzer: Before traveling to Egypt and enrolling in the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo, did you draw? Were you serious about becoming a painter?
Leila: I’ve been drawing since my childhood. I drew my siblings when I was 14 years old. My dream was to be like Michelangelo and Van Gogh. I also wrote romantic poems and stories. Back then I was in love with a young man who inspired one story. After that, I wrote many stories, which you helped me publish in the Al Safeer newspaper. Those stories could have been collected and published in a private book.
Monzer: You travelled to Egypt on a government scholarship. What year was that?
Leila: I don’t remember the year but if you know the year of my graduation, then you will know which year it was. I travelled directly after getting my Baccalaureate certificate from Lattakia when I was 18. As for my date of birth, it is either 1940 or 1941, because I had a sister named Leila who had passed away and hence I was given her name. My birth date was later corrected. I have four brothers and three sisters. In Egypt, I was given a test. They put a statue in front of me and told me to draw it. When I asked them how, they replied: “As it is.” Then they shouted at me: “Why did you join the faculty of arts if you can’t draw?” However, one of them, who was young, seemed to like me and wanted to help me, so he said: “Hold the pencil like this and draw. Draw what you see and take your time.” He taught me a few things and then he left me to draw on my own in the teachers’ room. Then the artist Hussein Bikar came over and said to me: “You don’t know how to draw but you are talented.” Yes, he thought I was talented.
Monzer: What was the name of the young teacher who helped you?
Leila: Ammar? That’s what I remember. He became a famous artist.
Monzer: Who were the rest of your teachers in Egypt?
Leila: Ezzedine Hammoudah, who was famous for drawing portraits; Hussein Bikar, the section director, and my own teacher, Abdul Salam Al Shareef, who taught design and was very fond of me and stood by me. He even invited me to visit him in his family home near the pyramids. He greatly influenced my experience. I befriended all of them and I used to visit them in their homes. And there was Mukhtar, the ‘father of sculpture’ but I don’t recall now how deep my personal acquaintance was with him. Perhaps I’ll remember later.
Monzer: That’s all right, never mind. Maybe I’ll call you and ask if the need arises. What about the other Syrian students at the faculty?
Leila: Khaled Mez was there before me, as was Elias Zayyat. Nazir Nabaa came after them and so did Mumtaz Bahra, the number one painter of children in Syria. Don’t forget Mamdouh Kashlan, although we were never friends because of the way he treated the other Syrian students there. There was also a woman, whose name was Rabi’a Al Solh. She fell in love with Nabil, an Egyptian engineer, married him and neglected art.
Monzer: How long did you stay in Egypt?
Leila: Four or five years. At the end of my studies, they asked me to stay on and join the Luxor Center, to live there and study some courses. I went there but I couldn’t stay long; scorpions crawled between our feet and I was there on a scholarship anyway so I had to return.
Monzer: Don’t you, the Syrian painters who studied in Egypt, consider yourselves to be the founders of the modern artistic movement in Syria?
Leila: Before us, there were the painters who studied, for the most part, in Italy. These included brothers Adham and Naim Ismail, Nassir Shoura, Mahmoud Hammad, Fateh Moudarres and Louay Kayyali. They were pioneers, but it’s true that those who studied in Egypt started the [Syrian art] renaissance.
Monzer: How was your artistic relationship with them?
Leila: It was good in general. I clashed with some of them and made friends with others. Louay Kayyali was different from the rest. I met him during the opening of one the Autumn exhibitions in Aleppo. I had been warned that he was eccentric, but I refused to believe it. I sat with him in the Intellectuals Café in front of everyone and we chatted and argued very respectfully. How good he was! I felt that he was a victim of others who were taking advantage of him. When I found out that he was in Harasta Hospital in Damascus suffering from burns (1), I visited him with a friend of mine. I saw that he was in pain, tossing and turning restlessly. As soon as I went in, it looked like he wasn’t suffering at all. His ego did not let him show his weakness. His whole body was covered except his head. He simply said, “Welcome Leila.”
Monzer: You were a beautiful girl and many fell in love with you. Yet you were never involved with anyone.
Leila: In Egypt, I was loved and sought after by many. I was a young girl with white skin and long red hair that reached my arms. There was no other girl around with red hair. I drove them crazy but they did the same to me afterwards. I was young and innocent. In Syria, I was also loved by many and I did fall in love with some of them, but no one was worthy of my eternal commitment. They would use my name and make me walk behind them. Then I was exposed to poisoning and a kidnapping attempt. All that made me reject the artists’ milieu and live in isolation.
Monzer: After returning from Egypt, what did you do?
Leila: In the beginning, I taught art in Lattakia, where I held my first exhibition in 1970. Shortly after, I resigned and went to Damascus, determined to become a plastic artist. That infuriated my father and siblings. I worked at the School for Art Education and held my second solo exhibition at the Arab Cultural Center in 1972. It was my only exhibition of oil paintings. After that, I turned to painting with wax and acrylic.
Monzer: It is widely spoken of that at this time, you were extremely rebellious and defiant.
Leila: I refused the labels: a ‘male artist’ and a ‘female artist’. I was the first woman in Syria who wore trousers, and I used to sit at the Al Rawdah Café wearing my very tight trousers. I was bold, reckless, and out of the ordinary in the whole Arab world. My main concern was to open doors for others.
Monzer: In 1976, you interacted with the Semiramis Operation (2) and drew the Palestinian Fidayeen who executed it. Some of those drawings were of people chained: either thrown on the ground or turning their backs so that their chained hands could be seen. In 1976, you took the trouble to go to South Lebanon and you drew the mothers and children of martyrs, while in the meantime, the Syrian artists orientated towards Al Kalamoun and Maaloula (3). How did you have the guts to do that so early in your life?
Leila: At the time, I was saddened by the hanging of those young brave and poor men. I protested against their cruel punishment. I made several drawings, one of which was a picture of five youths hanging without heads. It had an unprecedented audacity. As for my travels to the South of Lebanon in 1980 and 1982, I went to Al Shakeef, which was a barren uninhabited land except for the volunteers who were there, hidden below the mountain. Because of the heavy shelling, I was asked to take refuge with the peace-keeping forces and was later taken to Nabatiyeh. I wanted to experience their daily life and find out what was really happening. Naturally I sympathized with them and despite my fear, I drew many of them; from the first longest-living woman in the Arab world to the fighter who sat motionless with his rifle at his feet, after having fought for 10 hours. I was ashamed but it was a marvellous drawing. I wanted to draw people I couldn’t draw in my own country.
Monzer: You draw a lot of pregnant women and children as well, in fact, all your women are pregnant. Why is that?
Leila: I got pregnant once and it was a catastrophe. I had an abortion because I couldn’t marry a relative of mine. What could I do? I was 25 years old then. The same thing happened to many girls I knew because of their love affairs. The incident affected me deeply and I started caring about the plight of children. Those children that one sees waiting until night for the shawarma restaurant on the street corner to close so that they could get the leftovers, after which they slept on the street. The sight of that drove me crazy. I used to bring them to my house and let them sit on the balcony and eat sandwiches and drink coca cola, which was their dream. I would also give them 500 Syrian pounds, which was a fortune to them, in return for letting me draw them. They started knocking on my door, like the eight-year old shoeblack who was forced to support his family. When I asked him, “Who are you?” he would answer, “It’s me.” They didn’t even know how to speak. The neighbours protested: “Has your house become a shelter?” They were worried about me.
Monzer: And the war. How have these seven years of suffering for Syria and its people affected you and your career?
Leila: These seven bitter years have affected me in every way. Psychologically, I was crushed to see what was happening to Syria and how everyone rallied against it. Physically, just look at my hands. I have had three heart attacks and 12 strokes. My brain is diminishing in size. Dr Rafqa in Beirut said to me: “Never in my life have I seen anyone like you, Leila. Your brain is getting smaller while your mind is growing.” As for my art, and in spite of all that has occurred and my weakness and ailments, I have kept on drawing, holding and participating in exhibitions. I drew Syria, drew it carried on the forearms of men and women along with their children; the wounded but not yet dead Syria.
Monzer: However, you have maintained your style of symbolizing a scene; I mean you prefer to be symbolic rather than direct.
Leila: That has been my style for many years. I never draw ‘direct’ pictures. This time I drew people and animals, handicapped and without limbs. Look at this picture of the horses; each one of them has only three legs.
Monzer: In March 2015, you held your last solo exhibition, at Marc Hashem Gallery in Beirut. You exhibited a number of new works inspired by the Syrian tragedy. How satisfied were you?
Leila: It was very bad. They tried to kidnap me while I was transporting my paintings from Damascus to Beirut.
Monzer: I don’t want to go into that now. I’m interested in talking about the exhibition itself.
Leila: But I DO want to talk about the incident. A car followed me from here and I kept watching it all the way from Homs until we reached Al Nabak. I tried to confront them but my driver shouted at me to shut up. But I asked them: “What do you want from me? I am the painter Leila Nseir and I’m going to Lebanon to hold an exhibition that would raise my country’s name up high!” They left us, but as a result I had a heart attack in Beirut four days after the inauguration of the exhibition. I was staying at Siba Haroun’s, and it turned out the exhibition dates coincided with Mother’s Day. Who was going to leave their mother to come to the exhibition? Marc Hashem had his eye on a painting that he wanted to buy. I offered it to him for free. Afterwards, I had to sell one or two works at prices much lower than my usual prices. I left the rest of my paintings with some relatives of mine there. I didn’t gain any money from that exhibition although I desperately need it these days. They made me feel unimportant. Oh! Yes, I remember Mouna Atassi. Upon her invitation, I took part in a comprehensive exhibition [Syria: Into The Light] for the main Syrian artists that she organized in Dubai. Yes I remember her now. I loved her and still do.
Muzer: Permit me to ask you this question. If, God forbid, something happened to you, which ultimately is inevitable, who will preserve your portraits and works of art? Have you thought about that?
Leila: The family, of course, in Syria and abroad. My sister comes and goes frequently. My brother and his family live in Tartous. Yesterday, his wife came to visit me and brought me kibbeh, stuffed vine leaves and sweets. Would you like to eat some sweets?
Monzer: Has it ever crossed your mind to write some sort of will whereby you bequeath your niece Yara, for example, certain works ?
Leila: Yara is my weakness. After her father died, she became my charge. I always tell her to let her mind overcome her emotions. She is such a compassionate human being. My house in Al Hiffa is hers.
It was time to say goodbye to Leila. Usually, she would accompany me to the door and remain there until I crossed the corridor to reach the stairs. But this time, she got out of bed to bid me farewell with hugs and kisses, saying: “Monzer, you know that I love you.”
April and May, 2018