An artist's perspective: General Spears and Lebanon's Independence

Through the lens of an artist, it’s important to have an objective view of a man, a country, and a nation that fought for its freedom.
by Zeina Nasser English Zeina_w_Nasser

22 November 2017 | 15:54

Source: by Annahar

Garden at Zaher house, previously known as General Spears' house, depicted as a painting, and a photograph. (Photo Credit: Karim Sakr)

BEIRUT: Stemming from his belief that people deserve to know their history, particularly in a country where he says cultural, architectural, and environmental history has and is being erased at an alarming rate, British artist Tom Young sought to make a film about General Spears.  

The film mainly focuses on Spears' role in Lebanon’s independence, and its target audience is the Lebanese and British public and those who want to learn more about Lebanon and the Middle East.

Young, who has been residing in Beirut for several years, is aware that “due to sectarian divides, history is not agreed upon in Lebanon.” In his opinion, “this obstructs the development of a strong identity.”

Young tells Annahar that “as long as it is well researched and balanced, a film about the formation of the modern republic of the country as we know it today could help Lebanon become stronger.”

According to him, “it can also bring the history alive for children and students; so that way, the film is not just about the past, it is also about the future.”

Another inspiration to make the movie is Young’s wife Noor Haydar, a Lebanese artist/curator, who wants to know about her country’s history.


An artist’s perspective toward what was happening back then is a lot different than any other person would view. “My role as an artist is to bring history and memories alive through paintings and events in atmospheric places,” Young indicates, adding that “artists can do something historians and politicians can rarely do, that is to bring life and meaning to our understanding of the world by appealing to our emotions.”

He goes by the saying “art is a filter through which the unseen can be illuminated” to continue saying that cultural events give people the chance to express themselves peacefully.


Spears' role in Lebanon’s independence is a long story. Here is how it looks like from Young’s perspective: To begin with, Spears was not in Lebanon because he wanted to help Lebanon in particular. His initial approach was deeply colonial and military. He wanted to stop Germany from winning the war. The Nazis had begun using Lebanon and Syria as a base to land their planes in to refuel and attack the British in Iraq.

The French government had recently surrendered to the Nazis. If the Nazi-sympathizing Vichy French remained in control of Lebanon and Syria, then the Nazis would be able to go on attacking the British in Iraq, get control of the oil there, and also attack the Allies in North Africa. As a result, they would have almost certainly won the war in the Mediterranean, Africa, and the Middle East. So, as ever, Lebanon was the location for other people’s wars.

"Between two flags" painting by Tom Young

Young continues narrating by saying that Spears helped form the Free French movement and support De Gaulle, and together they led an invasion of Lebanon and Syria in 1941 to defeat the Vichy French, which they succeeded in doing after a vicious and absurd short war.

After Spears came to live in Lebanon, he developed a great affection and empathy for the rights of the Lebanese, whom he thought were being treated badly by the French, and acted to assist them to gain Independence from France.

In fact, he was fired by Churchill for doing so, because Churchill was really only concerned about keeping the French as allies in the war against Germany. Spears grew up in France, loved the French culture and spoke perfect French. The events are mixed up in the nasty Imperial rivalry between the French and the British at the time. There are those who think he was a hero, and those who think he was an arrogant man representing a terribly damaging colonial regime.


The artist mostly wants to highlight, through his movie, how the country gained its independence, although, “it is not always so pretty, and as we are seeing at the moment, the dream of independence hasn’t been achieved yet”.

He sees that despite the foreign intervention of the British in enforcing independence, Spears’ vision was that Lebanon should be free from foreign meddling in the future. “I think it is worth revisiting this ideal, however unrealistic it may be,” Young indicates.

“Also, we should remember the important part played by women in the independence movement, such as the huge march of Muslim and Christian women, led by Zalfa Chamoun, which Spears wrote about in his memoirs,” adds Young.

Women's March in Beirut, 12 November 1943


Young has already painted in Spears’ house. "I painted in the house in Zarif, where Spears lived and had most of his important meetings about Lebanese independence, for six months from 2016-17, as a guest of Dar Al Aytam Al Islamiyya, who owns the building now and uses it as an administrative center. I taught children there, and we held an exhibition on the importance of architectural heritage in March-April 2017,” Young informs us.

He adds that “it was very inspiring to paint in the house where such important history happened.”

Young read Spears’ memoirs of his time in Lebanon called ‘Fulfilment of a Mission,’ and a biography of him by Max Egremont called ‘Under Two Flags,' whilst he was in the house. “I like on-site reading,” Young says.

He adds that “people are lucky that the house was well maintained by the British until the early 1980’s, and then bought for Dar Al Aytam by Mohammad Barakat in the 80’s,” mentioning that “Barakat protected it from militias during the civil war and used it first as a home for deaf and blind orphans after the Israelis had bombed Dar Al Aytam’s main centre in Aramoun in 1982.

Since those days the house has been renovated and well looked after by the management of Dar Al Aytam. Apart from a new entrance façade and interior elevator which were installed in 2002, it hasn’t changed much since Spears’ day.


Since he believes that it is vital to get Lebanese opinion on the story, in addition to getting women’s perspectives and the opinion of someone who was actually there, who worked with Spears, and witnessed the independence events unfold, Young interviewed May Arida, along with other eyewitnesses, historians, and family descendants.

Arida, described by Young as “a great lady, and such a personality” was Spears’ secretary.


There are a number of incidents related to Lebanon's independence that the Lebanese don't really know about. Not everyone knows that women played such a big role in the independence movement.

Young adds: “Not everyone knows that Spears acted in such a strong way to aid the Lebanese. It was a letter which Sir Richard Casey, British Minister for the Middle East, wrote with Spears’ assistance to General Catroux of France that if the French did not release the Lebanese Government from imprisonment in Rachaya Castle and proclaim Lebanese Independence by 10:00 a.m. on November 22 1943, then ‘they [the Lebanese] would be set free by British troops.’ This letter marks the date we now celebrate as Lebanese Independence Day,” mentioning that “most people don’t know that Spears was fired by Churchill for doing this.

“People don't know that Spears was anti-Zionist, and this may have contributed to him losing his job as “British Minister to the Levant,” he stresses.

He continues: “I don’t think most people know that the house in which many of the important meetings happened is in Zarif, or that the wife and children of President Bechara El Khoury went to stay in the house under the protection of Spears after the President had been imprisoned in Rachaya Castle on November 11, or that the house is perfectly preserved thanks to Dar Aytam.”

Most people on Rue Spears don’t know why it has this name, or that the man who it is named after lived in a big house just up the hill from the street.

Tom young, while in his residency, painting at Zaher house. (Photo Credit: Karim Sakr)


He is a fascinating man and full of contradiction, according to the painter. It is an epic and complex story, which is full of individual and national courage, scandal, vanity, romance, and difficult issues surrounding colonialism, imperialism, and foreign interventionism.

“As a British artist living in Lebanon, I’m interested in a story which seems to connect my homeland and my chosen home. I love both places, but often feel they are far apart,” Young expresses. He adds: “So in some ways, this is a personal quest to unite seemingly disconnected parts of myself.”

Young’s architectural projects have often led him to do research on Lebanese, Armenian, and Palestinian history; never his own country’s history, up until now.

“As we know, Britain’s history in this region is not good at all. By chance, thanks to an original idea from Beiruti scholar Dr. Khaled Shbaro, my journey in Beirut led me to paint and exhibit in Spears’ house,” he says, adding: “The story found me. Seeing that my architectural work is about memory and heritage, I felt compelled to investigate the amazing story of what happened in the house.”


Foreign intervention has always been present in Lebanon. Through the lens of an artist, and specifically, the lens of Tom young, understanding world history and economic forces, led him to know that small countries, particularly those in parts of the world where continents and cultures meet, are always arenas for bigger countries’ conflicts and pressures.

Lebanon, he says, must be the supreme case of this. This makes it a precious and fascinating place, but also a vulnerable one.

“I feel a sense of urgency here to contribute something positive and worthwhile, to capture things before they go, and to reflect something important about Lebanon, the rich cultural life, and heritage,” he says.

Young continues to say that the irony of Spears is that he embodied foreign interventionism, yet his vision was always for Lebanon to be self-sufficient and, to quote from him, ‘free from the helots of an alien race.’

General Spears in Beirut. 


Through an artist’s lens as well, in Britain, Spears is mostly forgotten. His gravestone is cracked and falling over, with no sign that here lies a man who did a lot to win both World Wars, gave vital support to the Lebanese to gain independence, and gave initial support for Charles De Gaulle, the man who eventually created modern France.

However, in Lebanon, Spears is remembered only by the name of the street near Sanayeh which bears his name.

“As far as I’m aware, people don’t know that in fact, it was Spears who made sure that Lebanon was granted independence at a time when the French seemed intent on not carrying out their promise to grant Independence. Whether they would have done eventually, or whether the process should have happened more gradually is debatable,” Young says.


The film is co-directed and filmed mostly by Tony El Khoury, who made the award-winning documentary ‘Lebanon Wins the World Cup’.

Young and El Khoury have collaborated several times before; most notably for the Carousel/Villa Paradiso trilogy.

The artist thinks that it's important that the filmmaker is Lebanese, and aims to release the film next year.

Currently, he is looking for more witnesses to the events of 1943.

“I am particularly interested in finding people who are critical of what Spears did, as I want to make a balanced film which presents different perspectives, so that people can watch it and make up their own minds,” he mentions.

Through the lens of an artist, it’s important to have an objective view of a man, a country, and a nation that fought for its freedom.

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