UK

Sea of Stories

Writer

John Burns

Photographer

Inzajeano Latif

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‘I guess I was a little unlucky on that one,’ says Carole Corm, musing about the guidebook to Damascus she published in 2010, one year before the Syrian civil war broke out.

‘The Damascus Guide’ was the first imprint from the Lebanese journalist’s publishing house, Darya Press, which she runs out of her family’s home in Beirut’s Sodeco district. ‘I’d worked on a couple of books with other travel writers before starting Darya Press. I saw how books are made, what are the mistakes to avoid and that kind of made me realise that, “Hey! I could do it.”

I try to highlight the Middle East’s positive aspects and find topics that people have overlooked

Some, Corm says, now consider ‘The Damascus Guide’ as an artefact – a window into the city’s boom years, when it was filed by international press under ‘the Prague of the Middle East’ and when Francis Ford Coppola could be found pottering around the Temple of Bel – but she remains optimistic. ‘It might not be next year or the year after, but things will calm down eventually. People will come back and the guide will still be timely,’ she says.

Corm’s optimism for the region is what drives her imprint. ‘I try to highlight the Middle East’s positive aspects and find topics that people have overlooked,’ she explains. ‘I asked my Iranian mother-in-law for ideas for names, and she suggested “darya”, which means “sea” in Persian. The sea has the right connotations for me – it suggests travel, exploration, but also beauty, calm and generosity.’

‘Darya’ aptly describes her publications’ appeal: immersive and beautiful, with depth. After ‘The Damascus Guide’, Corm published a guide to Beirut. Like its predecessor, it dives deep into the city, offering a portrait beyond ‘tabbouleh and museums’. ‘There’s a lot of information,’ Corm says of ‘The Beirut Guide’. ‘I find that many books are a bit light on content. I wanted to make really beautiful books that stand out on the shelf, but that offer a lot of information too.’

Corm cut her teeth at The New York Times’ Paris bureau, which she describes as the best journalism school she could ever have dreamt of, before moving to Beirut for a stint as culture editor of Elle Oriental. ‘I was first and foremost a journalist, but I like delving into things and illustrating them. After the transient and quick pace of journalism, Darya Press is a natural continuation for me.’

Although currently spending time in London, Corm tries to make it back to Beirut at least once a month, during which she does the bookstore rounds for Darya Press, meets friends for coffee in one of Mar Mikhael’s many cafés and scouts out the city’s latest hotspots for Monocle, for whom she is the Beirut correspondent. ‘There’s definitely a strong attachment that keeps me linked to Lebanon,’ she says. ‘I’m kind of a roaming person, but Beirut is definitely the base for Darya Press.’

The imprint is run out of Corm House, the family’s part-modernist, part-art deco and futuristic-looking home designed in the 1920s by her grandfather, the poet and publisher Charles Corm. ‘I became very interested in the legacy that my grandfather left us through his publishing house, Éditions de la Revue Phénicienne, which he started back in 1920. With my father and uncle, we have been slowly reviving it,’ she says. ‘I spend a lot of time with my dad in the Corm archives. We’re scanning, basically, every letter that my grandfather wrote back in the ‘20s and ‘30s.’

‘What I miss about Beirut,’ she says, as she finds herself spending more and more time away from the city, ‘is having local places. In Beirut, you know your neighbours, you know the electrician down the street and you know the guy who parks the car at the restaurant nearby. Half of the city is a distant cousin of yours, whereas London’s much more anonymous.’

Still, between juggling Darya Press from afar (‘It’s never ending’) with a two-year-old son and a stack of new ideas for publication, Corm has managed to carve a regional slice out of London. ‘My favourite place is an Algerian café. I go there for coffee every morning. That guy’s my best friend here – we talk politics, he gives me the Arab press, we do a daily review of the news and talk about what’s happening,’ she says.

The inspiration behind Corm’s latest book, too, was found just down the street from her London residence. ‘I always made people laugh when they asked me what I was writing and I’d say I was working on a book about my grandmother’s hairdresser,’ she says. ‘But it’s the truth. She always talked about him and how great he was, and then I happened to be in London and his salon wasn’t very far from where I live. I went to see him and he told me all of his stories – this guy has basically seen the history of the Middle East over the past 50 years.’

Tracing the region’s history through its hairstyles, ‘Naïm: A Brush with History’, is Corm’s glitzy biography of Lebanese haute-coiffurist Naïm Abboud – the man responsible for weaving pearls into Fairuz’s ’do, and fairy lights into Sabah’s, and whom Corm dubs ‘the Vidal Sassoon of the Middle East.’

The two struck up a friendship, with Abboud walking Corm through his life story and the photographs and newspaper clippings he had stowed away in two Louis Vuitton suitcases at home. ‘He was once kidnapped with Sabah. Another time, he was on a hijacked plane on the way to Kuwait. He was the first man who did the hair of all the Saudi princesses during the oil boom, he met King Hussein of Jordan, did Queen Rania’s hair…’ she recounts. ‘It’s not gossipy, it’s more social – it gives an unexpected window on how liberal and open-minded people were at that time.’

Launched last March, the book, a large, textured coffee table tome that places as much emphasis on visuals as it does on content, looks at the historical events that ‘rocked’ the region over the last 50 years through the eyes of its most famous hairdresser, combining Corm’s fascination with current affairs and politics (‘Like every Middle Easterner, I’m a bit of a news junky’) and the scandalous appeal of Beirut’s pre-war glamour.

‘Naïm likes the book,’ Corm says. ‘He complains that haute-coiffure is over because no one wants to have the kind of over-the-top hairdos that people used to have back in the day. He says his job is over now – it’s all about blow-dries.’

This article can be found in Brownbook’s July/August 2014 Issue.

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