As It Happens

Decades of work restoring Beirut's historic stained glass shattered in minutes

Maya Husseini struggles to put into words what it feels like to see her entire life's work reduced to colourful shards of glass scattered amid the rubble of Beirut.

'My heart is very, very broken,' says Lebanese stained glass artist Maya Husseini 

Stained glass maker Maya Husseini poses inside her workshop in Hazmiyeh, Lebanon, on Aug. 13. (Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)


Maya Husseini struggles to put into words what it feels like to see her entire life's work reduced to colourful shards of glass scattered amid the rubble of Beirut.

For nearly two decades, Husseini, 60, has been working to painstakingly restore Beirut's historic stained glass windows, many of which were destroyed during the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war. 

All that work was all undone in just a few moments on Aug. 4 when 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded at the Beirut port, killing at least 178 people and leaving the city in tatters. 

"Every day, I go to see the work, my work, like that — broken," Husseini told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. "I don't know how I can explain to you."

Her brother-in-law Rachid Achkar, who is more fluent in English, helped her find the words. 

"It's like losing a child," he said. "Every piece of art she does is kind of a child she has."

Husseini has been restoring stained glass lost in the civil war for 20 years. (Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)

Husseini learned the craft of making stained glass in France. She was sent there by her father, a church engineer who used to order stained glass from overseas because it was unavailable locally. 

She's spent the last 20 years recreating windows around the city, working diligently to research the history of each piece and restore it accurately. 

She's done work for people's homes and for public buildings. Among her greatest achievements is her work on the 19th-century St. Louis Capuchin Cathedral.

The church's windows were shattered during the war. Husseini spent two years restoring them, completing the project in 2014. That work was destroyed in the blast.

"Because the church is very old, I tried to do stained glass like before," she said. "It's a unique piece, and when I see [it] now ... my heart is very, very broken. It's very difficult to see this, my work like that."

A view shows damaged stained glass at the 19th-century Saint Louis Capuchin Cathedral in the Bab Idriss district of Beirut's historic city centre. (Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters)

Then there's the work she did restoring the historic windows for the Sursock Museum, a contemporary art museum in Beirut housed at the former residence of Lebanese aristocrat Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock.

Achkar, who is on the museum's executive committee, says it's hard to look at the building now, with all its expensive, restored glass blown out.

"It is as if you were ... dressed by a famous artist. Now you are completely naked," he said.

Damaged windows are seen at Sursock Museum following the Beirut explosion. (Aziz Taher/Reuters)

But just like many people in Beirut, Husseini is already setting about the work of rebuilding what was lost — again.

The people of Lebanon have both the "courage" and the "will" to restore the work, she said, and many of her clients have already been in touch about beginning again.

Before the explosion, she says she was planning to retire in the near future. But now, any thought of that is gone.

"No, I cannot stop work. I have 10 years' minimum to work now," she said. "I told you 20 years of my work, it's down. And now I want to try to rebuild [each and] every stained glass." 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interviews produced by Kate Swoger. 

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