Oum el Nour, Turtles, and the Fight Against Drugs

Up until a month ago, I had never heard of Oum el Nour, which translates to “mother of light” in Arabic. A Lebanese NGO established in 1990 with sister branches in France and the US, Oum el Nour was born out of an urge to save a captive friend from the shackles of drugs. Over the past 28 years, the organization has assisted over 7,000 men and women to recover and go on to lead productive, prosperous lives. Services are rendered free of charge, so raising funds is of critical importance to keep the wheels in motion.

This year, Oum el Nour, steered by a fresh and vibrant committee, enlisted the skills of 15 internationally celebrated artists to reconceive their peer Ghassan Zard’s sculpted turtle for eventual auctioning. Why the turtle? Long recognized as the epitome of persistence, determination, and endurance, the turtle is a survivor. It possesses the ability to protect itself against aggressors, which to be fair are few. Such an innocent aura dons it longevity, perhaps explaining why the turtle is one of the oldest living animals on Earth today. Beyond the corporeal, the turtle embodies the “slow and steady wins the race” mantra. It symbolizes the victory of hope in the face of life’s obstacles.

Turtle conceived by Oum el Nour residents in collaboration with Vera Mokbel

The slate of artists who contributed to the exhibition included Nada Sehnaoui, Ramy Boutros, Nada Debs, Roger Moukarzel, Hania Farrell, Youssef Haidar and Jean Boghossian, to name but a few. The turtles were as unique as they were numerous, some outfitted with LED light bulbs to function as lamps, others sporting quills in the manner of a porcupine to ward off attackers. They were displayed at Platform 39 in Achrafieh for nearly a week before being bid over during Oum el Nour’s annual fundraising dinner at Al Mandaloun Night Club on November 15. The bidding, moderated by auctioneer and art consultant Taline Boladian, started at $2,000 and culminated in sales as high as $9,000 per turtle!

"Woolly Mammoth," by Lebanese-Finnish artist Anastasia Nysten

In the foreground, "Survivor," by Jean Boghossian. In the background, "The meditative one, looking for the light within," by Nada Sehnaoui.

"The Golden Lady," by Roger Moukarzel

"Trees Lady," by Youssef Haidar

"Adria," by Ramy Boutros, doubles as an LED lamp

Champagne, filet mignon, and macarons fleshed out the menu of the evening, as guests were treated to a fashion show by designer Rani Zakhem, organized by fashion expert and consultant Paola Rebeiz, as well as soulful music by various artists. It was a night of many firsts for me: first auction in Lebanon, first visit to Al Mandaloun (shame, I know!), first time I slug back three flutes of champagne (blame the fact that I was seated conveniently at the bar). It was a wonderful soirée under the auspices of a great cause, animated by art and facilitated by devoted individuals.

Major props to the artists, who gave freely of their time and talent to see 100% of the proceeds go to Oum El Nour. My hope is that the organization will continue to take under its wing those in need of succor. May it illuminate their winding paths and teach them to build a hard, impenetrable shell, just like the mighty turtle.

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