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Lebanese Calligrapher Paints the Dome of the Islamic Center of America--Gratis

posted on: Mar 12, 2008

He Captures a Jewel with a Brush – Expecting Nothing in Return

When selecting stories, our normal protocol for Your Community Voice is to profile someone who lives in our community.

But this time we’re stretching the rule ever so slightly to tell the story of Harout Bastjian. Because few of us would go beyond the limits of our settled lives – without expecting anything in return.

And so begins the story of Harout, who travels through life with his wits and a paintbrush.

“When somebody asks me how long does something take (to paint), I always say, ‘whenever it’s finished.’” He says. “This is what Michelangelo used to say to the Pope when he painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling in Rome.”

The artist from Lebanon, known for decorative painting, has weaved his art around the world. He can now add Dearborn to his list of stops. Harout recently came to the Islamic Center of America to begin painting verses from the Quran, Islam’s holy book, around the perimeter of the enormous prayer hall and inside the golden dome. His art is a feast for the eyes. People are walking slower than usual through the prayer hall of the center.

“It’s so magnificent,” says Wanda Fayz, a longtime member of the Islamic Center.

It’s a Herculean undertaking for Harout. Years in the making.

Art becomes his lifeline

Painting is the way an artist finds out what he has seen. Harout has seen more than most, as a survivor of the civil war in his native Lebanon in the early 1980s.

“We used to turn on the TV and see pictures of dead people, people fighting, people shooting each other,” Harout recalls. “This was something for me to draw.”

Harout grew up in the village of Achkout, in Mt. Lebanon. His father lost his business to the war, and couldn’t afford gifts or toys for his children. So Harout plunked himself down on the floor and created fun.

“I had to build my own toys,” Harout says. “I had to sit down at home and draw. Besides, my parents weren’t happy having us playing on the street because it wasn’t that safe to be in the street. Drawing was the only thing to do.”

He enjoyed drawing, but his parents wanted Harout to get a “university degree.” So, he went on to study business administration. But he eventually found out his ladder to success was leaning against the wrong wall.

“I was a failing student,” Harout says. “I couldn’t stand the idea of studying business administration.”

He left to follow his passion for art, and it paid off. He earned straight A’s at an art school in northern Lebanon. In between classes, he worked at a friend’s art studio, where he dabbled in decorative painting. He learned early on that he can’t please everyone.

“When I got this first job, someone from an art gallery commissioned me to do a drawing on a table,” Harout says. “When he first saw the drawing, he was upset and said that I should seriously consider changing my career.”

Not to worry. Harout was determined to continue.

“I didn’t get discouraged because I knew where I was in life,” Harout says.

Since then he has crisscrossed continents, transforming churches, mosques and homes with his paintbrush. Now, he’s on track to finishing the famous Dearborn mosque by the end of March. For the next few weeks, he will mount a towering scaffold in the mosque and go to work on the dome, some 60 feet above the floor.

“I’m so excited climbing the domes and working up there,” Harout says. “I’m not afraid of heights. Back home, I do cliff climbing and paragliding. So, it’s OK with me. I feel safe spiritually up there, you know? I feel myself in the home of God.”

Islamic calligraphy has always held a special place in Harout’s heart.

“Spiritual art is totally different from the secular art,” he says. “Islamic art has something infinite in it. It’s like the presence of God. It doesn’t have any ends in it, it just goes up, and doesn’t have any barriers.”

His work blends traditional script with free flowing lines and stylizations, including marbleizing techniques that imitate swirled marks of pigments floating on water. In keeping with the long tradition of Islamic calligraphy, the texts he’s inscribing are the shahada, the Muslim profession of faith, and short Quaranic texts testifying to the unity of God.

Expecting nothing in return

Obviously, Harout’s work is worth more than a piece of pie. He has a degree in art, and commands more than $100,000 or more for similar jobs.

But he’s taking absolutely no salary for his work at the Islamic Center of America.

“I don’t want anything in return; nothing financial, no dinners, I’m not looking for anything,” Harout says. “I’m just having fun at what I’m doing.”

Apparently, his work here has stimulated more than creativity. The project is also a lesson on spirituality and being thankful, Harout says.

“I’m very happy with my life, I just want to give something to God in return,” he says. “He gave me the talent. Why ask for money? In the end, it’s not me who is doing this. It’s God who works in everything.”

He is trading his painting and calligraphy for food, lodging, and even a computer so he can communicate with his family thousands of miles away. At least once a day, he logs on to a Web site called Facebook to communicate with his wife and four young children. Harout and his wife each post pictures to keep up with each other’s lives, now separated by an ocean.

“I really love our children, my wife, and our little one is 6 months old,” Harout smiles. “So I want to know what’s going on.”

Understandably, word of Harout’s financial and personal sacrifices started spreading throughout the congregation. Then people started showing up to volunteer and learn calligraphy, for free.

Waseem Baydoun was at Friday prayer when he heard about Harout.

“I heard that he was donating his time, so I decided to help out,” said Waseem, who helped another volunteer apply a coat of paint to a section of the wall, which Harout will later cover with his brush to create imitation marble. “This is definitely a good cause.”

Abdallah Hamka heard about Harout, and was also inspired to make a difference by volunteering his time up to four days a week.

“(Harout) is gifted,” Abdallah says. “That gives me inspiration to help out. But no matter how much I contribute, it’s not enough (compared to what he’s doing).”

Abdallah pauses, then looks over his shoulder to Harout busy outlining the calligraphy.

“You judge a person by here,” Abdallah says, placing his hand over his heart. “He’s a great guy. You can only work with people who are humble. He never shows you he’s better than you.”

“I think God sent (Harout) for us,” Wanda Fayz says. “We’re very fortunate (for his sacrifices).”

Harout believes the reward is in the journey. And for him, this journey has been a rich one.

“I really like it here,” Harout says. “I went up north and walked for hours in the woods. It was something. When you look at nature through the trees, you can see the creation of God. The project is like a vacation for me. People here are very nice. They invite me out to dinner every day. They are some of the most giving, caring people I’ve ever met.”

And obviously, that feeling is mutual.
By Raad Alawan
Community Voice