The Beirut blast shattered her masterpieces. Now, the rebuilding starts.

Written By: Ben Hubbard © 2020 The New York Times The New York Times
Hazmiyeh, Lebanon Published: Oct 18, 2020, 11:26 PM(IST)

Maya Hussein works in her studio in Beirut, Lebanon, Sept. 16, 2020. Over three decades as Lebanon’s premier stained-glass artist, Husseini advanced a fragile medium in a country prone to violent shocks. Then came the big one. (Diego Ibarra Sanchez © 2020 The New York Times) Photograph:( The New York Times )

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In three decades of exacting work, Maya Husseini had established herself as Lebanon’s premier stained-glass artist, her work making the light of the Mediterranean dance in many of the country’s best-known churches

Her hands created the gentle smile on the face of the Virgin Mary, the folds in the robes of the Four Evangelists and the glow surrounding the cherubic baby Jesus.

In three decades of exacting work, Maya Husseini had established herself as Lebanon’s premier stained-glass artist, her work making the light of the Mediterranean dance in many of the country’s best-known churches.

As she celebrated her 60th birthday Aug. 3, she was looking forward to wrapping up a final project and retiring. But Lebanon had other plans.

The next day, an enormous explosion in the port of Beirut ripped through entire neighborhoods, gutting apartment buildings, killing more than 190 people and causing billions of dollars in damage. It also tore through churches housing Husseini’s work, reducing a dozen of her delicate tableaux to jagged shards and twisted metal.

“Thirty years of my professional life were gone,” she said in an interview after the blast in her workshop near Beirut. “Dust!”

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In the aftermath, as her phone filled with images sent by distraught priests and pastors showing her work obliterated, Husseini decided that retirement would have to wait.

“I wanted to stop, but I don’t have the right to stop,” she said. “It is patrimony. You don’t have the right not to bring it back the way it was.”

There have always been risks to working in such a fragile medium in a country so prone to violent shocks.

Since its 15-year civil war ended in 1990, Lebanon has lived through political assassinations, Israeli airstrikes, jihadi car bombings and the influx of more than a million refugees from neighboring Syria. All of that was before new crises over the last year ravaged downtown Beirut and tanked the economy.

Husseini’s life and art had always traversed the chaos that before the Beirut blast only occasionally reached into sacred spaces.

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One of those was a church damaged in the 2005 car bombing that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Her first major project — extensive stained-glass images in the Notre Dame du Mont church in the mountain town of Adma, Lebanon — was also damaged when Israel bombed a nearby television antenna during its war with the Hezbollah militant group in 2006.

Last month’s blast, the largest explosion in Lebanon’s history, greatly surpassed the other blows, and the toll on her work was clear during a recent visit to her workshop outside Beirut, where the large metal door had been punched in by the impact. In the entryway sat the remains of shattered stained-glass windows from three churches and one home, in hopes that they could be repaired.

Inside, an energetic Husseini looked on as two assistants pieced together the paper pattern of a large portrait of Jesus, Mary and Joseph during the flight to Egypt. She had installed the original in Beirut’s Saint Joseph Church in 1992 and dug up the original pattern after it was destroyed in the blast to make it all over again.

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Husseini grew up in a Maronite Christian family in Beirut, where she and her four sisters went to church regularly and she began drawing at age 12. She was 15 at the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war, when an array of militias battled for turf, scarring and dividing the city.

She studied at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts and did a two-month stint focused on stained glass at Ateliers Loire in Chartres, France, home to the cathedral thought by many experts to have the finest stained-glass windows in the world.

Although Lebanon has more Christians per capita than any other Arab state, stained-glass windows were not common in its churches before the war, Husseini said. But after the guns fell silent in 1990, some congregations wanted to add them as the country rebuilt.

The first barrier she had to overcome, she said, was the hesitation of male church leaders to hire a woman for what was seen as physically demanding work.

“It was not often that they would trust you,” she said.

Her father, an engineer who built churches, convents and religious schools, helped her get started, and she completed her first commission in 1991 — more than 1,300 square feet of glass in the church in Adma featuring scenes from the life of Christ. The next year, she crafted images of saints and a mural of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Egypt for the St. Joseph Church in Beirut.

As her name spread, she got more jobs, ultimately designing and producing stained glass for more than 35 churches and related facilities around Lebanon. She also did facades and murals for homes and the red, yellow and blue windows of the Sursock Museum, a private contemporary art museum in Beirut.

In 2016, she completed one of her most important projects: 39 windows in the 150-year-old St. Louis Cathedral in downtown Beirut, with the annunciation of Mary, Jesus’ birth, Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, the crucifixion and the resurrection. Around the cathedral’s cupola, she put 10 angel musicians.

“It was a lot of work,” she said. Some pieces were fired in the kiln four times because of all the detail.

Her process has changed little over the years. She works only on blown glass and by hand, with no computers. After getting a commission and visiting the site to assess the light, she draws the design full size in pencil and felt-tip pen.

Each section of the drawing gets two numbers: one for its place, the other for its color. She then cuts them with special scissors and uses the pieces as patterns to cut the glass.

Panes with illustrations such as faces and clothes are painted by hand and fired in a kiln to bind the paint to the glass. The pieces are then assembled with lead strips, welded into a frame and covered with mastic, a kind of sealant, for protection.

Nearly all of the supplies are imported — the glass from France and the lead from Canada — which has made it harder for Husseini to get them, because Lebanon’s currency has lost about 80% of its value since last year.

“Everything is from abroad,” she said. “Only the head and hands are Lebanese.”

Before the blast, Husseini’s major remaining project was the glass for a new basilica in Jordan, near the spot in the Jordan River where it is said that John the Baptist baptized Jesus. That was to take two years, after which she planned to shift to instructing young Lebanese artisans in the craft.

Husseini was in her family’s house in the mountains above Beirut when she heard the blast Aug. 4, but she did not immediately grasp its magnitude.

Her son-in-law’s grandmother was injured and rushed to the hospital, and her patrons flooded her phone with heartbroken messages and photos of her shattered work blown across church floors. A few days later, she began visiting sites that had once held her glass, and it was the St. Louis Cathedral that shocked her most. Of the 39 windows she had labored over for two years, only three remained.

“That’s when I felt the size of the catastrophe,” she said.

In the weeks since, she has returned to work, hiring new assistants to accelerate repair jobs and beginning the lengthy process of getting materials from abroad. Fixing everything could take years, and her most extensive projects are on hold while congregations gather money for restoration.

In Europe, the stained-glass trade was traditionally passed from father to son, she said, but neither of her adult children is interested. Her son is pursuing a doctorate in Switzerland and her daughter, an interior designer, plans to emigrate to Canada.

Husseini hopes the repair process will teach younger artisans the trade and keep it going when she finally retires.

“If I stopped, this work would completely stop in Lebanon,” she said. “And it would be a shame if it stopped.”

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