No-one has figured it out. Not his wife and children nor even himself. But 72-year-old Elias Badawi has suddenly turned from taxi-driver to master icon maker.
‘I don’t know how I do it,’ he tells me after he and his wife warmly welcome me into their small three-room flat. Dozens of his icons – mostly made out of golden threads creating Madonna, saints and Jesus figures – adorn the walls of the flat. ‘I’ve tried to explain it to my family but I can’t. I just do it.’
His wife describes a kind of trance once her husband is immersed in icon making. ‘He doesn’t hear anything or anybody,’ she says. ‘He goes into another world.’
Art or handiwork has never been a trait in the Badawi family. Until 1985 that is. While driving his taxi looking for customers, Badawi suddenly suffered a massive heart attack. He was rushed to the hospital and underwent open heart surgery. His recovery, physicians told him, depended on his giving up the strenuous work of a taxi driver.
Boredom with sitting at home and worry about his lack of income soon began to gnaw at Badawi. In frustration, he prayed. And then he remembered a trip he took to Russia in 1955 as part of a Lebanese football team. In one of the churches, he had stood mesmerized in front of an icon.
‘It was the most beautiful icon I had ever seen,’ he says. ‘It was a style that was only made in Russia.’
For an inexplicable reason, he found himself determined to create icons as gifts for the physicians who saved his life. To his family’s surprise, he bought some slabs of wood, gold threads and material. Setting up a small table at home, he set to work.
‘I didn’t know how I was going to make it,’ he recalls. ‘I just knew that I could.’
For hours, Badawi worked on the icons. ‘I couldn’t stop,’ he says. ‘There was shelling all around us those days. But I heard nothing and felt nothing. I just knew I had to keep working.’ He only knew that he had been working throughout the nights when his wife showed up in the kitchen in the morning hours.
Weeks later, two icons were completed. On impulse, Badawi decided to show off his work to his brother, a priest, before presenting them to his physicians. His brother, Father Nicholas, was stunned. He refused to return them and instead sent Badawi off to produce even more icons. Several months later, Badawi had completed 35 icons. Father Nicholas immediately seized them and insisted on holding an exhibition in his church.
‘I became so nervous,’ recalls Badawi. ‘What would people say? I began to tremble with anxiety.’
His fears were put aside, however, during the exhibition as people came up to him, hugging him and shaking his hand. Before he knew it, bids to buy his icons began to pile up. The thought of selling his work had never occurred to him. But friends stepped in and priced the icons.
‘And that’s how it happened,’ he explains with enthusiasm. ‘Suddenly this became my profession.’
Years passed and Badawi acquired a wide reputation, attracting many personalities to his exhibitions. As always, the strongest encouragement came from his number-one fan: his brother Nicholas.
But in 1990 tragedy struck. As the priest was walking to his home, he was killed by a stray bullet. Distraught, Badawi turned even more fervently to creating icons. ‘It was my one comfort,’ he says.
Badawi falls silent. After a few minutes, I awkwardly ask to see his workshop.
He suddenly smiles.
‘Workshop?’ he laughs. ‘Well, come and see it.’
And there in the midst of the couple’s tiny kitchen is a small table. His tools nestle in a rusty biscuit box. Some kitchen drawers behind the table contain the golden threads and material he uses.
‘That’s all I need,’ he says. And this is where he sits hour after hour, mesmerized ‘until my wife taps me on the shoulder and makes me eat’. His doctor has advised him to cut down on the hours, but Badawi can’t. ‘It’s in me,’ he says. ‘I can’t stop.’
On impulse, he takes out some material. ‘Would you like to see how I work?’ he asks.
He sits and begins. And there, slowly but surely, the golden threads begin to show the figure of Madonna.
Badawi looks up at me and sighs.
’I am getting old now,’ he says. ‘I would like to pass this on to younger generations. I have tried to teach both my sons but I couldn’t do it. I myself don’t know what I’m going to do until I sit down and do it. I guess I’ll be taking the know-how with me when I die.’
He continues to work for a few minutes in silence. Then suddenly he stops and smiles, his eyes brightening. ‘But it’s nice to know I’m leaving my icons behind, isn’t it?’
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