A home in the midst of war

Published August 28, 2006

The day after the July 8 opening of Omar Zaidan's exhibit at the Tarpon Springs Cultural Center, the Lebanese-American artist left for Falougha, his hometown in the mountains outside Beirut. The bombs began to fall July 12. While none hit Falougha, neither the village nor the artist has escaped the war's wrath.

Omar Zaidan had barely arrived. Three days earlier, he had returned to Falougha, just as he does every year, to run his family's cafe for the flocks of summer tourists. Then without warning, the season, the summer, the semblance of normalcy simply exploded. Rockets and fire in the cities and the South drew streams of refugees into the village, Zaidan would later tell his friend, Tasia Kaponikolas, of Holiday. The people came with nothing but their clothes, he said. They sleep on the floor of the cafe. He said some were missing hands, some were missing feet. Zaidan stayed to help refugees when the other American citizens were evacuated. He prepared food in his family's house - a house still marked by artillery from the last war - which Zaidan has spent decades rebuilding.

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When Tasia Kaponikolas, 47, dropped Zaidan off at Tampa International, she was sad, but knew her friend would be back in Florida by September. Three days later, though, the war began. Faces of terror and tales of death filled her TV and Zaidan was suddenly worlds away. But in a pair of boxy rooms just down the road in Tarpon Springs, Zaidan's art still remained. His exhibit includes more than two dozen acrylics and oils painted over 25 years in styles that stretch from Jackson Pollock's slashes of color to Gauguin's saturated tropics, to stilted stars of Van Gogh's night skies. At the extreme is The Refugee, a hauntingly realistic portrait inspired by the National Geographic iconic photograph of the girl with mesmerizing eyes. Uniting his work, though, are several motifs - horsemen, birds and moons - symbols, it seems, of Zaidan's program notes: "I believe I have inherited an ancient dream and a song to share..."

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Zaidan came to the United States in 1979 to attend Colorado College. A traveler by nature, he moved from city to city and eventually got dual citizenship. Now, Zaidan, 54, goes back and forth between his family's home in Falougha and Holiday, which he discovered two years ago. In 1999, Zaidan was living in Boston, selling cars to support his painting, sculpting and poetry. He first met Kaponikolas there while getting his hair cut, she said. Zaidan became an honorary brother, she said, and was adopted by her extended Greek family. When he was diagnosed with cancer, Kaponikolas' family was there. Zaidan eventually went into remission. Kaponikolas, meanwhile, decided she was sick of the snow, and they both decided to move to Florida. Last year, Kaponikolas bought Hair Affair, a beauty salon on Alt. U.S. 19. She said Zaidan immediately felt like he had found a second home in Tarpon's small-town calm and seascapes.

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More than a week into the war, Kaponikolas said she was still praying and panicking, her cell phone glued to her hip. "I just waited," she said. "We always say if one of us is in trouble, we will know if something happens. I knew he would call." Around 5:30 p.m. on a Friday, Kaponikolas was cutting a Greek gentleman's hair when she saw a long number flash across her caller ID. She said it was her friend from Lebanon, and left the client waiting in the chair, under a cape with half-cut hair. Zaidan sounded exhausted. He said he and his family were fine, but bombs had taken out a nearby bridge and travel was treacherous. He asked her to tell people he loved them, as if he were saying goodbye. But by their second phone call a few days before the cease-fire, the shock had calmed. After all, this war was not the first for Lebanon or Zaidan. Beneath his neatly tucked shirts and pleated pants, she said, there are scars from bullet wounds.