During the last edition of the Beirut Art Film Festival, a young but already indispensable event for art and cinema lovers in the Lebanese capital, we chanced upon what is believed to be the biggest movie posters collection in the Arab world. While casually browsing a local magazine our eyes were caught by a photo portraying a smiling middle-aged man surrounded by huge stacks of old posters in what looked like a treasure trove for cinephiles. Thanks to the generosity and good offices of the Lebanese playwright Nadine Mokdessi, the day after we found ourselves before that very man in that very vault of film memorabilia.
Abboudi Abou Jaoudé very kindly welcomed us in the charming cubicle where he has stored the proceeds from over 40 years of assiduous film collecting. Nestled in the back of the archives of the publishing house he runs, its cozy walls protect from deterioration and oblivion a most precious piece of world cinema. Jaoudé has been collecting film posters, magazines, lobby cards and even tickets since the mid 70s when as a teenager he contracted the virus of cinephilia. Since then, he started attending every screening he could in the many cinemas that could be found in Beirut at the time, especially in Hamra, the downtown neighborhood where his archives currently are. He shows us photos of the movie theatres where he would go to watch films and then ask for their posters, places that are no longer there, erased by the amnesiac fury of war and urban speculation. The oldest poster he has dates back to 1932 and it’s of an Egyptian film called Al Warda al-Baydaa (The White Rose); of the over 20,000 posters in his collection most are from movies that have literally vanished in the meantime.
These posters and lobby cards being the sole records and traces of a whole chunk of film history that is forever lost. In a region where, for obvious reasons, film preservation is not amongst the top priorities the wealth of materials he has gathered has a value that goes well beyond the fetishism of collecting. Throughout the years Abboudi Abou Jaoudé has in fact accumulated posters from Lebanon, Tunisia, Palestine, Algeria, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Kuwait and Morocco, though he amusedly points out how he would find “Iraqi film posters in Egypt, or Tunisian film posters in Jordan.” “It’s a puzzle to me,” he wonders, referring to the mysterious ways through which film posters have travelled around the Arab world without an apparent logic.
The civil war that engulfed Lebanon from 1975 to 1990 and forever transformed the morphology of its capital didn’t put an end to Abboudi Abou Jaoudé’s activities, “but I had to move part of the collection to my uncle’s place in the countryside at some point,” he remembers not too fondly. In the late 60s and early 70s Lebanon was the second largest center of cinematographic production after Egypt, the historic powerhouse of audio-visual creation in the Middle East. As a consequence film culture too was thriving, Jaoudé reminisces while showing us old movie tickets from the 70s on which he wrote down the date and the name of the film that he watched on that day. On the back of one of them is scribbled: “6/11/77, The Night Porter.”
Asked about how wide the range of films distributed was back then, Jaoudé remarks that the main bulk was constituted by American movies, but European fare too found its way into Lebanese movie theatres as well as Middle Eastern films. The war coupled with the change in viewing habits transformed the film landscape in Beirut, with only a couple of old movie theatres still resisting and the vast majority of movie-going happening in malls these days (Abboudi Abou Jaoudé still goes to the movies every week). Another essential part of his collection are the film magazines that he has religiously gathered over the years. An entire bookshelf is dedicated to Lebanese film magazines (one cover features Bruce Lee, a topless woman and Roger Moore), another one to film publications from Egypt, the only Arab country he tells us that still has a print film magazine.
Abboudi Abou Jaoudé is occasionally asked to exhibit parts of his incredible collection, most recently in 2015 in Beirut to coincide with the publication of a book about Lebanese cinema. But for the most part this treasure of inestimable importance for the history of Arab cinema remains confined in a relatively small storage in the heart of Beirut and, reassuringly enough, to the loving care of Abboudi Abou Jaoudé, a veritable guardian of cinema.