There is so much to say about Khaled Youssef that it would easily fill a book. But three words sum him up: Surgeon, Artist, Altruist.
Have you seen that man in Nice, or in Paris, Berlin, Oran or even Myanmar… the man with his soap water bucket and the big sling with which he produces gigantic bubbles? Did you watch how children’s eyes lit up in delight, how even adults stopped for a magical, fleeting moment, and how these simple bubbles seem to bring the whole world together? That man is Khaled Youssef. And yes, he makes bubbles. But that’s not all, by far not. He is also a photographer whose lens captures the world in these ephemeral jewels. And he writes poetry with the unique sense of lyric and philosophy that only a native of the world’s oldest civilization has the secret to.
But being the accomplished artist that he is today was not his original calling. Khaled was born in Damascus, Syria in 1975 and grew up in a middle class family. When the time came to choose a career, Khaled wanted to do something where he could be useful, and opted for studies of medicine, “a noble profession where you can help people.” After his medical education back home, he moved to France in 1999 to study French and specialize in surgery, and a career opportunity brought him to Nice in 2007.
But art had always been something he had been interested in, and that he had great talent for. He found his media of choice – poetry and photography – and engaged more and more in his passion. But this poètographe is also a man who has preserved the capacity to see the world with childlike wonder, and he discovered the magic he could create with bubbles. Seeing kids dance with joy as they chase the soapy marvels, watching them as they are trying to catch a dream, made him want to immortalize the ephemeral nature of the moment, and what better way than through photography? “What is amazing, if you think about it, is that these photos capture a world that does not really exist. Or more precisely, only a part of that world truly exists…. the children,” he says.
Asked whether he sees himself more as a doctor or an artist, he says that there is really not that much of a difference. “To me, both are a way of giving of oneself… of sharing, loving, bonding, and communicating.”
Giving, sharing, loving, bonding, and communicating. These words, spoken with passion and conviction, come up time and again in his speech. You can feel they are the force that drives him… the philosophy that guides him. “Art is always the search for oneself, within oneself. With your work, you reveal a little bit of yourself, you let people see the world through your eyes. This creates a bond between you and the other. Your view and your hopes become theirs. Sharing them is a way of connecting with others from all walks of life, and learning to understand them,” he adds. His poetry only underlines what his photos already express but even without images, his words speak to you with heart-stirring power, and always with a note of optimism, of hope for a better future:
Khaled Youssef – NE PARLEZ PAS
Ne parlez pas de départ…
mais d’une continuité d’envol
d’un déploiement de l’âme
dans l’étendue du ciel
et son infinie clémence
Ne parlez pas d’absence…
mais de la présence subtile
dans vos mémoires vibrantes
au souffle de nos souvenirs
Ne parlez pas de mort
mais de l’éternité d’une fable
inachevée car nourrie
du miracle d’aimer
At the core of all that Khaled says and does is a profound message of equality. “There are no differences, nowhere in the world. When you look at the expression on children’s faces in the photos, you will see they are the same here as they are elsewhere.” But children are not the only ones he is concerned with. He has lived in France for 18 years now, holding dual French citizenship, but he remains Syrian to the core and his thoughts are with the people in his war-torn home country every single day. The public image of Syria, one of a country in shambles, does not do justice to the world’s most ancient civilization. Syria has traditionally been among the most progressive countries in the Middle East, on a par with Europe. A tolerant place, where people of different religions peacefully lived alongside each other, where women were respected and treated as equals to men, and where education was prized. Khaled’s home town of Damascus, to this day the most beautiful place on earth for him, was a thriving city. “For all the conflicts in Syria, this is all still true, in a way. But the international media only report on war and terror. When people on the outside get to see this, they believe it applies to the entire country and everyone. We have to find a way out of this image,” he says firmly, his voice tinged with only the slightest melancholic note.
But Khaled is not a man who talks – he is a man who acts, and he does it through art. A couple of years ago, he co-founded Creative Havens (Syria.Art), a virtual art gallery featuring 700 artists at home and in the diaspora who demonstrate that they continue to work, to create, and to oppose hostile powers in their own way, all with an immense joie de vivre. Among these are painters, sculptors, photographers, videographers… world famous ones like Khaled Takreti but also others who simply create as a means to come to terms with the world around them. Several successful international exhibitions bear witness to just how willingly their works are received.
“The sheer life force of these talented artists is unbelievable. The darker times got, the brighter and more expressive their art became. It was as if they had a need, even an urge, to express their hopes for a better tomorrow, and to use their art as a means to work against ‘l’arme et larmes’ (weapon and tears),” Khaled describes the energy behind the movement. Free of any ideology, this organization is the best way to show the true Syria, he says, and to educate people outside the country about its crucial role at the crossroads of East and West. “We really seek to exchange with others and to drive a peaceful dialogue.”
Which ties directly back into Khaled’s life philosophy of communication as the shortest road from one heart to another, from one mind to another. And the gallery’s virtual existence echoes his bubble art as an artistic means of showing that something ephemeral in nature becomes a reality the very moment it is shared. “I know that with what we do, we cannot change the world. But we can touch people by giving of ourselves. Even a simple Thank You means a great deal, because it proves we have been able to reach out to someone.”
But Khaled and Syria.Art are also helping others whenever they can. He and his organization play a significant role in the Nice-Berlin SOLIDAR(t)ITE charity show held on January 29 at the Théâtre Francis Gag in Nice, where over 20 Niçois artists perform together, with proceeds going to the victims of the recent Berlin terror attack. Khaled will be displaying ten of his works, pledging proceeds from sales to the Berlin Victims Fund. He also presents a video message from Syria.Art as an encouragement from one terror-plagued country to another, and as a Thank You to Berlin for giving so many Syrian refugees a new home. A noble gesture indeed, especially in view of how little Western countries do in return for Syria and its suffering people.
We said earlier that Khaled Youssef is a surgeon, an artist, and an altruist. A small correction to that statement is warranted: for all his accomplishments in medicine, this man is an altruist first. Someone whose life’s purpose is to give, share, love, bond, and communicate. He also heals – not just bodies, but minds and souls. And he does all this with grace and kindness, and a purity of heart that makes you believe that in this harsh and egoistic world, the good in people does still exist after all.
All images courtesy Khaled Youssef