A new children’s book shows the rise of Lebanese fashion designer Elie Saab

Suhair Sultan recently published her first book, a children’s story about Lebanese fashion designer Elie Saab.

The life of Elie Saab it may seem like an amazing story for children, but for the Sultan, the designer’s story is perfect because it encompasses themes of hope and goodness, two traits she believes are desperately needed in today’s world.

“The whole thing started in 2018,” she says The National. “I walked into the Kinokuniya bookstore in Dubai Mall and saw a series of books about famous characters, but they were all people from the Western world.”

Donaldson’s illustration showing Elie Saab and his family fleeing the 1976 Damour massacre in Lebanon for ‘The Life of Elie Saab’ by the Sultan.  Photo: Motivate Media Group

Growing up in Manchester, Sultan, she says, was a child who read a lot of books and always loved the theme of hope contained in the pages. “I liked it, all those books that are talked about, if you work hard, you can achieve many things. But I haven’t seen it here.

So I said to myself, ‘Imagine being able to write books for children in the region about characters I can relate to, who have gone through hardships but have become successful and famous. Let me write about characters that exist in the Middle East right now now.”

She wasn’t sure where to start, but the inspiration came from a documentary about the designer. “I saw Elie Saab hold his son’s wedding in Lebanon. He could have had it anywhere, but he said he needed people in Lebanon to make money.”

The Sultan was inspired to write a book after watching a documentary about Saab.  Photo: Motivate Media Group

Driven by his willingness to help others rise, the Sultan began researching him and discovered that not only was Saab now a world-renowned fashion designer, but as a child he survived the Damour massacre in Lebanon in 1976. She knew she had a subject. “I want to tell the kids, it started here and it arrived here.”

To illustrate her story, the Sultan reached out to artist Cath Donaldson in Abu Dhabi, and the couple had a series of meetings over several months at a cafe in Dubai’s Iba Battuta Mall because, Donaldson says, it was “halfway between we both live.” .

Donaldson was impressed by the Sultan’s determination to bring the story closer to a wider audience. “Her whole idea is really interesting,” explains Donaldson. “There are tons of books about people with high achievements, but they are usually people from the West, so her idea is to look at people in the Middle East. She has a great vision.”

It took Donaldson six months to complete the illustrations, most of which were spent on research. “Since this is a true story, it was really important that I got the feeling of Beirut in the 1970s, even to the clothes people wore, the buildings, the street signs and the cars. I’ve watched so many old movies. . “

With a book dealing with Saab’s escape from Damour and his later rise to fashion fame, the couple thought about how best to translate so children could understand without being intimidating. “I had to find a way to illustrate a truly tragic event – the massacre – when all of a sudden everyone had to leave in their cars,” Donaldson explains. “The Sultan’s language is really good, and quite open, so parents can decide to work it out or leave it at that. The drawing is to just drive away and give parents a chance to talk about it.”

Donaldson’s work is key to the book, especially in documenting two powerful moments in Saab’s life: his family’s escape from Damour and Halle Berry who collected her 2002 Oscar in one of his dresses, a move that launched the designer into the world scene.

Halle Berry carries Elie Saab for the 2002 Donaldson Oscar for ‘The Life of Elie Saab’ by the Sultan.  Photo: Motivate Media Group

While Donaldson was creating the drawings, the Sultan encountered a new problem. “The publishers told me, this is never going to happen, you need Elie Saab’s permission. So I called his company and said, ‘Can I write you a life story?’ He was traveling so I had to wait two weeks, but then his PR wife called me and said he liked it. Go ahead. “

Motivate Media Group took over the book, publishing it first in English to assess public reaction, with plans for an Arabic version later. After four years, the Sultan admits that it was an emotional moment when she finally held a copy in her hands.

“Can I tell you the truth? I cried,” she says. “I can’t tell you the path, the ups and downs. I wanted to give up, but finding Cath was a miracle. I’m sending her a signed book with the message, ‘Thank you for answering my email. You changed my life that day.’

Although the journey was extensive, there is an echo of the Sultan’s experience in Saab’s story. “Always be kind to people because you don’t know what they’re going through. When we see people like Saab, we think, oh, they must have had such an easy, wonderful life, but no, he went through the war, and that’s why he’s kind. That’s the message of the book. Just be kind to people and see what happens. “

Updated: June 5, 2022 at 2:15 p.m.

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