Lebanon in Leipzig: Artist Mahmoud Dabdoub and doctor Marwan Nuwayhid in 2019
Artist Mahmoud Dabdoub and doctor Marwan Nuwayhid in 2019. Photo by Clementine Butler-Gallie

Lebanon to Leipzig: a friendship told through art

We are approaching the 30th anniversary of the fall of the GDR, and the “official” end of the German east-west divide. However, Germany was not the only nation experiencing an internal division. 2020 will also mark 30 years since the end of the civil war in Lebanon. It was a war that saw the country’s capital Beirut split into east and west by the Green Line.

Although both Germany and Lebanon were suffering their independent turmoils, a little-known exchange was emerging between them.

Artist Mahmoud Dabdoub and doctor Marwan Nuwayhid sit in the afternoon sun of the Spinnerei restaurant garden, having just done a final check of the exhibition at the Spinnerei Werkschau that is set to open a few days later. The exhibition Dr. Nuwayhid & Friends, presents the art collection of the Lebanese doctor and his family to the public for the first time. Every piece in the show was collected here in Leipzig, with the Nuwayhids’ niche being artists who studied at the HGB.

Not only does the Nuwayhid collection offer a large scope of talent emerging from the Leipzig art scene over the last three decades, but it also gives a personal insight into his journey of settling into the city.

Photo by Mahmoud Dabdoub, Leipzig in the GDR, 1986
Leipzig in the GDR, 1986. Photo by Mahmoud Dabdoub

Dabdoub is one of the 39 artists included in the exhibition. His black and white photographs convey an immediate sense of vintage nostalgia. Four scenes present themselves as exactly that – snapshots from the GDR.

A man walking his new lawnmower down Leipzig’s Petersstraße, a soldier contemplating in the empty pews of Thomaskirche, a gentleman caught lighting the cigarette of a young lady in Cafe Wilhelmshöhe, and two students holding hands in the square now known as Augustusplatz, as they stare straight into the camera. The young couple are the future Dr. and Mrs. Nuwayhid.

Nuwayhid and Dabdoub both left the Civil War in Lebanon to study in the GDR.

“There were not many of us,” Nuwayhid says. And so the two men met and began their 38 years of friendship.

To enroll in the universities, they had to achieve the expected level of the German language. Dabdoub tells of how the GDR was the most desired place to study in the Eastern Bloc. Having received a scholarship, Dabdoub was meant to go to Poland, but his papers were placed in the pile of students heading to the GDR in 1981 by a mysterious office worker. “It was fate,” Dabdoub smiles.

After passing his German exams, Dabdoub enrolled at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst (HGB) Leipzig to study photography.

Photo by Mahmoud Dabdoud, Leipzig in the GDR, 1984
Leipzig in the GDR, 1984. Photo by Mahmoud Dabdoub

“Mahmoud was always the artistic one,” Nuwayhid says.

The stories of their student days differ, as Nuwayhid tells me that his studies were his sole focus. He had arrived in Leipzig in 1980, one year before Dabdoub. He knew that this was his last chance to make it as a doctor and worked hard to receive a scholarship of his own that would fund his full five years at medical school.

Mahmoud and I are opposites; he is an artist, I am a doctor, he is a Muslim, I am an atheist, he is a refugee, I am not. We are friends beyond our categories, because of something much deeper.

Whilst both men found friendship in their new city, they come from very different pasts back in Lebanon. Nuwayhid grew up in a middle-class family in Ras El-Matn, a town not far from Beirut, and Dabdoub was born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Baalbek.

Each work in the exhibition of Nuwayhid’s collection holds a story. Among them, the works of Dabdoub hold a particularly special story: one of history, division, integration, and friendship.

There is one work in Nuwayhid’s collection that is not on display in the exhibition at the Werkschau. This work does not fit with his traditional selection of Leipzig artists, yet at the same time manages to encompass the collection as a whole. The bronze sculpture by Iraqi artist Ahmad Al-Bahrani is titled Uprooting. A man stands, bent backward by the weight of a suitcase that holds a trail of roots from its bottom. His furrowed brow seemingly asks many questions: Where is my home? What does home even mean? How can I settle in my new “home?”

Such questions can only be answered by each independent story. Visit the exhibition Dr. Nuwayhid & Friends and find the work of Mahmoud Dabdoub to get a small glimpse into theirs.

Dr. Nuwayhid & Friends

Neue Leipziger Schule aus der Privatsammlung Familie Dr. Nuwayhid
Group exhibition
07.09 – 18.09.2019

WERKSCHAU (Halle 12)
Spinnereistraße 7, 04179 Leipzig, Germany

Clementine is an independent curator interested in historic and contemporary structures that empower cultural exchange. She is a British native that sees herself in a semi-permanent self-exile. She is currently planning to settle by a Saxon lake, but next year the dream may be entirely different.

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