Tea and scandal: A one picture show

Unknown photographer
Picnic near Mar Chaya Monastery, Lebanon
albumen print
11.5 x 15.1 cm (image and sheet)
Private collection, Australia

Interpreting an old photograph can be a tricky undertaking.

Where to begin, what to consider, how to best to contextualise?

Despite the often documentary nature of early photography the image is framed – it includes and excludes just as abruptly as attempts at fact-finding, empathising and imagining do.

Both research and assumption play key roles in arriving at an explanatory narrative. The process of deciding what we know, what we think we know and what we’d like to think we know can be protracted and at times unsatisfactory, however the process is necessary if a story is to be told.

In the end, the beauty of not really knowing is that more can always be said.

In addition to marking Albert Einstein’s miracle year, 1905 is memorable for the founding of Chelsea FC in the UK, the banning of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer at the Brooklyn Public Library, the births of Christian Dior and Jean-Paul Sartre in France and an expedition to Majorca aboard H.M.S. Venus to observe a total solar eclipse.

Picnic near Mar Chaya Monastery, Lebanon 1905 could not appear more remote or removed from such events and places. The scene has a romantic, somewhat exotic air; it is recreational and carefree making it difficult to imagine any of those pictured actively engaged with world events. There is a hint of culture clash with a slight colonial overtone but also a sense of familial contentment that is inclusive. Added to this is a mix of formality and informality that makes delineating relationships and deciding who might be known or related to whom, as opposed to ‘other’, very difficult. Nonetheless, the location of the party, the picnic accoutrements, floral arrangement and modes of dress, all tempt one to understand this photograph as a record of an insular affair.

Whilst valid observations, these first impressions, belie the reality that during their lives these picnickers were connected with each of the countries mentioned above and many beyond. Indeed, by virtue of their profession as educators and connections via distant family and friends, these individuals had a keen interest in the world and were more likely than most to be abreast of events in the fields of science, sport, literature, fashion, philosophy, and astronomy. A degree of jerkwater tea and scandal was quite probably consumed along with luncheon, however the conversation of this group would have ranged across a far broader landscape than this picture frames.

The figure seated at the very centre of the image provides a convenient place to begin.

Wega shares her name with the brightest star in the Lyra constellation. She sits, smiling warmly with her third child, Charles, seated on her lap. Over the course of her life Wega raised her family, supported her community, travelled, ran her family’s hotel, and spoke English, Arabic and German fluently, whilst also possessing a passing knowledge of Amharic, French and Spanish.

In 1905, three generations of Wega’s family lived in Brummana, Lebanon and the two hundred year old Mar Chaya Maronite Monastery lay a short journey from the village making it perfect for day-tripping.

Her parents had travelled a great distance before making Brummana their home. Wega’s father Karl Saalmüller was German and had gone to Ethiopia with the St Chrischona-Pilgermission in 1858, while her mother, Woisero Beletetch, known as Mary, came from Ethiopia and was of mixed Ethiopian/British extraction. The Saalmüller’s left Ethiopia after the British took Magdala and Emperor Tewodros committed suicide in 1868. They spent some years with the Temple settlement in Jaffa, Palestine before deciding to join Mary’s sister, Woisero Jewubdar, known as Susan, and her husband Theophilus Waldmeier in Lebanon in the early 1870s.

On the far right of the picture is Wega’s husband Thomas, head master of Brummana High School, which was established as a Quaker school by Theophilus Waldemeir in 1873. Although the pith helmet probably renders this remark redundant, Thomas was an Englishman, and within a decade each of the three Little children would be sent to England to complete their education.

Their eldest daughter Sylvie, seated to Wega’s right, would become a nurse and establish her career in Omdurman, Sudan. Vera, standing directly behind her mother, followed in her father’s footsteps and became a teacher. She went to live in the United States where she and her husband, Ted, raised their two children. Charles, returned to the Middle East in his twenties before moving, with his wife Ruth and their son, to Africa where he worked as an artist and archaeologist.

Two of Wega’s sisters are also pictured. Sarona sits on the left toward the back. Sadly, Sarona died giving birth to her first child. By contrast, Stefana Armbruster, seated on the far left at the front, lived to be 103. Stefana and her husband Charles lived in England and Africa before settling in Majorca, Spain. Many years later, when both women were widows, Wega left Lebanon to join Stefana there. Another sister, not pictured, married a Frenchman who began his career as a photographer in Beirut before also moving to Brummana to run an hotel. Marielie and Adrien Bonfils soon left Lebanon to pursue hotelier opportunities and raised their family in France.

The names of the other people pictured are recorded in largely indecipherable handwriting on the reverse of the photograph. It is noted that the young men are all teachers at Brummana High School and as such each would have been part of Wega’s daily life. Emmeline, stands at the back wearing a simple scarf. In front of her, a lady only identified as EM sits, gazing ahead rather than at the camera. Mr Tibsherany is to the left of Vera, wearing a light coloured suit, and to his left sits Mr Chamoon (possibly a misspelling of Chamoun). Mr Hourie appears above the hat of Stefana and Mr Chalat peeps out on her right side. One can only imagine the connections these individuals had with places and people across the world during their lives and careers. They may have been Lebanese or hail from somewhere else entirely. Many teachers and past pupils from BHS have retained a connection with the school and village for generations whilst at the same time dispersing to the four corners of the globe as did Wega’s extended family.

The lifetimes of those pictured in Picnic near Mar Chaya Monastery, Lebanon coincided with a period of relative stability in Lebanon, which in 1905 was under Ottoman rule. The American University of Beirut was well established and the country’s ethnically, politically had religiously diverse population had for some years shown signs an increasingly harmonious and outward looking sensibility. Perhaps it is this spirit that the camera captures. The eyes looking out at the lens each carry their own attitude – direct, confident, curious, happy – and each expression has it’s own story to tell.

by Pat Little
6 August 2011

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