Uncovering Arab cinema's 'Golden Age' in a Beirut basement

Story highlights

  • Abboudi Abou Jaoude has collected 20,000 vintage Arab movie posters
  • The posters capture a golden era of movies that amplified Beirut's jet-set mystique
  • His most valuable item is a $1,000 poster for The White Rose, Egypt's first musical

Beirut, Lebanon (CNN)As a collector, Abboudi Abou Jaoude is nothing if not meticulous.

In the basement of an unmarked apartment building in Beirut's bustling Hamra district, several neat rows of delicate paper crowd Abou Jaoude's office. These are his true loves: 20,000 vintage Arab movie posters sourced from Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco and Syria.
    Up close, they're stunning. Splashes of bright yellow, red and blue grab you; beautiful Arabic calligraphy runs across. Scantily dressed damsels in distress are draped across gun-wielding saviors. The facial expressions are dramatic and agonizing.
    In his own way, the book publisher has been single-handedly preserving a golden era of Arab cinema that amplified and glorified Beirut's jet-set mystique.

    Preserving a legacy

    Abou Jaoude never boasts about his archive, but his eyes light up as he grabs the first poster he ever collected, from 1965's Western For a Few Dollars More, starring Clint Eastwood.
    "When I was young, I liked Steve McQueen, Burt Lancaster and Clint Eastwood," he says. "I think the movie theater was the first place I enjoyed, and it was cheap for a kid ... Later on, when I would go to the movies the theaters began just giving Arabic movie posters to me."
    What started as a hobby transformed into a life's mission. When Abou Jaoude discovered as an adult that there was no official archive in Lebanon, he decided to start one, flying across the Middle East and North Africa to grow his collection.

    A nation of cinephiles

    Abboudi Abou Jaoude sits in his office in Hamra, Beirut.
    In the 1950s and 60s,the Lebanese were among the biggest cinephiles in the Middle East, thanks to cheap ticket prices and limited action to television. Abou Jaoude estimates there were more than 200 theaters scattered across the country including his favorite, the Rivoli cinema in Beirut's Martyrs' Square.
    But it's the 60s and 70s that Abou Jaoude considers the Golden Age of Arab film. In those two decades, filmmakers in the Middle East followed Western trends, embracing musicals, romance, political thrillers and, particularly in the 70s, sex.
    "[Sex] was to draw people in the movie," he says. "I have a poster from the 50s, The First Kiss. [Back] then it wasn't a problem for actresses to kiss on camera, now we don't want it. We can't make posters like this in Arabic."
    His collection is also a tribute to the Middle East's love for American and Italian B movies, and spaghetti westerns.
    Because filming in Lebanon was so cheap and profitable, Abou Jaoude says, over 20 B movies were shot around the country in those two decades -- including Mickey Rooney's 24 Hours to Kill, and the Italian spy thriller Last Plane to Baalbek.

    The impact of war

    But his country's fascination with film wasn't to last. Following the country's 1975 civil war, many theaters were too expensive to maintain or were damaged (Abou Jaoude's beloved Rivoli was demolished in the 90s), and the posters were destroyed.
    After the war, he says, "people stayed in their homes and VHS and TV began," and nostalgia for these films was lost.
    Not so for Abou Jaoude. When asked if he was impressed with any movies made after 80s, he makes it clear he's a purist: "I prefer movies from the 60s and 70s. After Raiders of the Lost Arc and Star Wars, movies finished because they made them on the computer. It's not real. The action isn't real."