“The last boxes just arrived from London today,” says Abir Dajani Tuqan, as she leads the way through the art filled Beirut home she shares with her husband Usama. For the past two months she has been in the midst of shipping items from her London apartment to her home in Beirut. “London has been home for us, but we’ve always loved Beirut as well. It’s a magical city so unique to the Middle East with its vibrant mix of cultures and history,” says the grandmother of four, who regularly flies to the British capital to visit her son Tarek as well as daughters Suha and Salma, who is the Curator of Contemporary Arab Art and Design at the V&A.
Entering her light filled living room with its views of the Mediterranean Sea, she proceeds to open the first of many garment boxes holding a decades worth of collected treasures from around the world. Over the course of an hour she pulls out a museum worthy collection of traditional North African costumes and gorgeous hand embroidered Palestinian thobes. She holds up a traditional Tunisian djellaba with an abstract pattern made from sheets of gold. “I actually wore this to a gallery opening in London with jewelry I designed,” she adds of her sophisticated approach to chic dressing, one reflecting her rich heritage and travels over the years. Her love of art and literature can be glimpsed through the many books on history, philosophy, politics and culture lining the shelves of her house, while its walls display the work of noted Arab artists such as Nja Mehdawi from Tunisia, the Iraqi Issam Al Saeed, as well as Palestinian painters Jumana Husseini Bayazid and Laila Shawa. “I love to mix these pieces with lithographs by David Roberts, the 19th century orientalist painter who traveled throughout the Middle East, as well as the Spanish artist Canalis,” notes Abir, who was born in Jaffa and was very young when her family was forced to leave their home during the 1948 Palestine War.
The London-educated lawyer cuts a striking figure in an iconic look by Romeo Gigli in the grand reception room of Sursock Palace in Beirut
Photography by Sebastian Bottcher
To listen to Abir’s recollections of her early childhood is to recall a time when Palestine boasted a thriving educated bourgeoisie and a culture whose remnants are scattered across the world today. “I don’t have many recollections of Palestine during that period, apart from stories I heard from my parents who brought it to life through their memories,” says Abir, whose family’s history is closely linked to that of the Holy City of Jerusalem. During the 16th century, the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent appointed the Dajanis as the custodians of Prophet David's mausoleum and the site of the Last Supper. “The family’s cemetery and houses surrounded the mausoleum on Mount David, and they used to maintain a tradition of offering a free dinner to pilgrims passing through,” says Abir, who lived with her grandmother in Cairo before joining her father in Libya, where he was a legal advisor to King Idris Al-Sanussi and Supreme Court Judge in Tripoli. “I have very fond memories of Libya. It was very cosmopolitan, with a large Italian community and a beautiful conrniche that rivaled Beirut’s at the time,” recalls Abir, who followed in her father’s footsteps, pursuing a degree at London’s Middle Temple, Inns of Court School of Law, where she was called to the Bar in 1973.
She stops at a large box marked 1975, the year she married her husband Usama Tuqan in London. Carefully lifting its lid, she reveals her wedding dress designed by John Bates. “I loved this dress because it was slightly Elizabethan with its high collar,” says the barrister, who shortly after getting married moved to Kuwait with her husband, where she began practicing commercial law. “The ‘70s were an exciting time to be in Kuwait and I met some of my dearest friends there who I continue to visit. At the time, most of the women worked in government ministries or went into private business,” recalls Abir of her time in the Kuwait, which included hosting a private trunk show for Valentino at her home in 1977, together with the legendary ‘50s model and Givenchy muse Bettina Graziani. “I also became good friends with Najat, Ghazi and Farida Sultan who opened Kuwait’s first art gallery in 1969. They used to put on wonderful shows and I remember attending an exhibition and dinner for Andy Warhol that same year,” adds the art collector.
Pictured in her Beirut living room, Abir wears gilt-accented Karizia pantaloons with a gold disc necklace by a Lebanese artisan
Photography by Sebastian Bottcher
The preservation of Palestinian arts and culture is a cause dear to Abir’s heart. Together with her husband, she has worked with London’s Arab British Centre as well as the Edward Said National Conservatory on a number of cross-cultural programs, the most recent of which was a concert by the Palestinian Youth Orchestra at London’s Royal Festival Hall. “The hall was packed, and it was an incredibly moving experience when the entire audience stood up to give the orchestra a standing ovation. It demonstrates the power of the arts to transcend politics and create bridges,” says the Palestinian lawyer, who is also a trustee of the Barakat Trust as well as a board member of the Spaford Children’s Day Center in Jerusalem.
The next day Abir pays a visit to Lady Yvonne Cochrane, a dear friend and scion of one of the city’s grandest families whose historic ties to Beirut stretch back to 1714. Born to Alfred Sursock and the daughter of an Italian duke, Donna Maria Serra Di Cassano, today Lady Cochrane resides in the family’s ancestral home; a 19th-century neoclassical mansion that is one of Beirut’s largest private palaces to have survived intact. She went on to marry Sir Desmond Cochrane, the Irish honorary consul in Beirut. Up until the 1960s, when the city was known as the Paris of the Orient and every diplomat hoped to be posted there, the Cochranes frequently hosted legendary parties, where big cars purred up to the gates depositing guests under ancient Jacardana trees. “Yvonne is a force of nature and single handedly led efforts to preserve much of what’s left of Beirut’s architectural heritage,” says Abir, as she walks through the palace’s Italianate garden up to its front entrance. “In many ways Yvonne evokes the glamour of a very different past, but one which serves as an important reminder of what Beirut once was and could be,” she adds, before returning home later that afternoon to finish opening the remaining boxes.
Abir wearing a vintage Tunisian djellaba with an abstract pattern of gold embroidery and jewellery of her own design made from traditional Tunisian buttons
Photography by Sebastian Bottcher
“I wanted to save the best for last,” says the elegant barrister with a smile, as she proceeds to unpack a sculpted tulle skirt the color of burnt saffron, form-fitting velvet gilets sporting delicate oriental embroideries, and satin tops in dusty shades of blue and rose. All are the creation of Romeo Gigli, the Italian designer who changed the course of fashion in the mid ‘80s and early ‘90s with his romantic shawl-collar necklines, rounded shoulders, empire-waist dresses and cocoon coats that were an antidote to the era’s power suits and shoulder pads. “I discovered Gigli at a boutique in Kuwait called Echo, which had an amazing Lebanese buyer named Kristiane Oaun. She had a great eye for spotting talent and also bought Dolce & Gabbana when they had just launched their line. I remember her showing me pieces from Romeo Gigli’s first collection in 1984 and I became an instant fan,” says Abir of the designer, whose pieces she has continued to wear throughout the years.
“His clothes were so unique from what was out there at the time and I loved his use of rich colors, textiles and embroideries that recalled the Orient or Ottoman influences, as well as the way he’d frame the neck and face with high collars. Although I bought some Giglis from Browns in London in later years, it was the boutique in Kuwait which had the most amazing selection,” notes Abir, who wore her Giglis during big events such as weddings in Kuwait, London and Beirut where she would make an entrance in an opulent tulle gown by the designer. “I think it all comes back to my childhood memories of attending operas with my mother. I was 11 when she took me to my first performance of Verdi’s Aida at the open-air amphitheater of Caracala in Rome. Gigli’s clothes were also very operatic in that they captured that sense of emotion which is a rare ingredient that I continue to look for in a designer,” notes Abir, whose chic approach to dressing continues to reflect memories of a cosmopolitan Middle East.
Read Alex Aubry’s full interview in the May 2017 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia, available on iPad and in-store now.