photos by r. whittaker
I couldn’t call my meeting with Bebe Barrett a coincidence exactly. I was walking in Kensington, an unincorporated section of the East Bay Hills north of Berkeley, and had stopped to photograph a dramatic sculpture at the edge of a quiet street. (Homeowners express themselves in so many ways. There’s the charming commonplace of vernacular objects tucked into gardens, while the lack of such personal touches—those tidy and impersonal front lawns, the overgrown or dried-out patches of bare earth or the eternally weed-free concrete or gravel yards—all speak just as clearly, if with different voices.) And as I was looking for the best angle, I noticed an older woman slowly making her way up the street. She stopped and was watching me, maybe a hundred feet away. As I continued looking for a good angle, she remained stock still, watching me from behind dark sunglasses. Besides her dark sunglasses and a scarf over her head, there was something that set her apart. Once I was finished, I walked her way.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I was taking photos of that dragon sculpture.”
“Why do you call it a dragon?” she asked, with a note of challenge.
“Don’t you think it looks like a dragon?”
“That’s just your interpretation,” she said.
I wasn’t prepared for that. “True,” I said, curious to see where this might go.
“Why do people turn things into something that’s bad or negative?” she said.
“I don’t understand what you mean,” I replied.
“Well, I don’t see a dragon there.”
“Yes, I’m calling it a dragon, but I don’t think it’s something bad.”
“Well, dragons aren’t good are they?” she says.
“I like the sculpture," I said. "You know, the Chinese think dragons can be good things.”
She seemed to take that in and her tone softened. “Are you the man who took photos of my house yesterday?”
“It wasn’t me,” I said, aware of the shift.
We talked for another minute or two and then went our opposite ways. Coming around a turn, I noticed a small white house ahead and getting closer, I couldn’t believe what I saw. The house, as well as a car parked in front, was wildly decorated with a hand-painted, blue script with a Middle Eastern flavor. The sight could not have been more surprising.
I suddenly understood the woman’s question: was I the man who photographed her house? This had to be the house—the mysterious woman’s house.
Immediately, I turned around hoping to catch up with her. Walking back up the hill, I spotted a man standing in the street—a neighbor, I guessed—and beyond him in the distance, I spotted her, still walking. The man confirmed my guess that she was indeed the owner of the hand-decorated house.
When I caught up with her, we were at the top of her street where we could look out over the bay to the west. She seemed pleased seeing me, and for the chance to continue talking.
Meeting Bebe is one of most fascinating encounters I’ve had in my walking through different neighborhoods in the East Bay, and it led to the interview that follows. But it took two or three weeks after that initial meeting before the interview took place.
During that time, I continued walking in the hills of Kensington, and when I found myself chatting with a stranger, sometimes I’d mention having met an unusual woman. It soon became clear that Barrett is a well-known local figure—one who has not rubbed everyone the same way. Kensington photographer Nan Phelps is quite familiar with Bebe, and was delighted to learn I intended to feature her in w&c. Nan shared a few stories with me. While Bebe told me she and her last husband had run a pharmacy on Telegraph Ave. in Oakland, Phelps said it had been a health food kind of place. “She knew plants and herbs,” Nan told me.
In my initial conversation with Bebe, I soon realized that her memory was compromised. “I’m eighty-seven,” she volunteered (and still remarkably beautiful, I thought). Her deeply philosophical view of life had made an impression on me right away. “I’m a Theosophist,” she’d told me. Later she alluded to a time living in Paris and attending the Sorbonne. There were studies in San Francisco and life in the Egyptian Consulate there. She’d made life masks—hundreds, if not thousands. Photos she showed me echo a rich, multicultural life. The interview gives haunting glimpses of an unusual and rich life, its details lost to memory. And yet, there’s enough here to feel gratitude for what’s been shared.
“Artists can be difficult people,” she remarked on that first encounter, when I’d caught up with her. She had sized me up as a fellow artist. “Artists see things differently,” she said. “Not everyone likes that.” But she was philosophical about it. “You know everyone is afraid of death. But we’re all going to die no matter what we do.” Sitting there with this exotic stranger, I could only count myself lucky to be alive. And these walks I’d been taking, wasn’t life interesting?
Over the next couple of weeks I went by her home without seeing her. Then on a third try, she was sitting in the morning sun by her front door. After greetings, and standing in the sun next to her, I started recording our conversation.—Richard Whittaker
works: Can you tell me what the writing—the script you’ve painted on your house—says?
Bouthina “Bebe” Barrett: Yes. “From the point of light within the mind of God, let light stream forth into the mind of man. Let light descend. Peace.”
works: That’s beautiful. Where is it from?
Bebe: It’s Theosophist. I told you [earlier] they are not against any religion, which is very good. I think it’s really wonderful.
works: I do, too! [we laugh]
Bebe: Yes. Why discriminate against people if they think different? Why? [turning toward her small studio and pointing] See, those are nine heads. I really like the number nine.
works: Why is that?
Bebe: Why? Well, it’s almost at the end of the serial of numbers.
works: After nine, then the next number is one-zero.
Bebe: Yes. You see? It’s really a peaceful place here [sweeping gesture]. I enjoy this because I am a sun worshiper. I sit here for the sun in the morning and then when the shade comes, I move to that chair. [points to her little side building]
works: And up to the street above, too?
Bebe: I go up and sit there for the sunset. Very quiet. I don’t talk. The people who live there wouldn’t let me sit there, but after a few weeks, they decided it was okay. But a lot of people are very interested—“Why does she sit there all the time?”
I say, “You can join me if you want to, but no talk. Just sit and watch the sky or watch the moon or whatever.”
works: What is it about the sun you like?
Bebe: The sun gives you warmth and it is really beautiful. It grows the plants. It heals people from arthritis and other diseases. Darkness also has its attractiveness, you see. But that’s my interest in the sun. I like it because it’s a healer.
works: When the sun comes in, does it come into one’s heart?
Bebe: Yes. I feel warmth here [places hand on chest]. I feel so great. When I leave my house, because of my injured leg it’s painful sometimes, but I don’t dwell on any pain. I know one day we’re all going to go whether we’re strong or weak. We have to face it.
works: Yes. Now where should we sit?
Bebe: Because of your fair complexion maybe we should go inside. Somebody was here focusing on the writing. Everything you see [points to the painted script on her house]—twenty-six years.
works: You painted it twenty-six years ago?
Bebe: Yes. All of it.
works: Wow. [pointing] And this eye reminds me of some Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Bebe: The Eye of Horus.
works: And this script, is it Egyptian?
Bebe: It’s the prayer I just recited for you. It’s old Egyptian. I never studied it, you know. But for some reason, it comes a little bit at that time when I sit down quiet. I don’t use TV. I don’t use radio. I don’t talk on the phone—nothing! [laughs]
works: So this writing just came to you?
Bebe: Just like it’s on a screen.
works: In your mind’s eye?
Bebe: Yes. In my mind’s eye. Sometimes I wonder, “What is that?” I don’t know what is going on in my mind, you see? When something like this happens, you wonder, “What is that?”
works: Yes. Now you were born in Egypt, right?
Bebe: Yes. I was born in 1933, January 6, in Egypt, near Giza, about three miles from the pyramids. [making Bebe 88 at the time of the interview] We used to light the streets with kerosene lamps. [going inside she points to a handwitten passage on her door.] That’s a quote from Neitzsche.
(Bebe's front door, detail, with Neitzsche quote written above door knob)
works: [Surprised, I read it out loud] “This is our true predicament, together with the fear of man, we have lost the love of man, the affirmation of man, the will to man.” That’s very strong.
Bebe: That’s really my life. I go out and walk. I go up to the wall and sit because you can see the water from there, you can see the bay. What got you interested in having this conversation?
works: Well, I saw you watching me when I was photographing that sculpture just up the street from your house. Do you remember that?
Bebe: Oh, the dragon sculpture?
works: Yes. We started talking. You wanted to know if I was the man who photographed your house [for a Kensington paper]. Then I walked down the street and saw the house with the hand-painted script. So I guessed it must be your house the man had photographed.
Bebe: [laughs] You just guessed like that?”
works: Yes. But it was a pretty easy guess because what you’ve done with your house is so interesting. So I turned around and walked back up the hill and found you and we talked a little while. You were saying, “We all have to die and that’s what everyone is afraid of.” And I just thought you’re a very interesting person, and that’s why I wanted to learn more about you.
Bebe: I’m an interesting person?
works: Oh, yes. Like with your house. People around here don’t paint their houses with such script and designs like you have, for instance.
Bebe: Yes. I don’t think anyone paints it because not everyone is an artist.
works: But you are an artist.
Bebe: Yes. I studied at the Sorbonne in Paris long, long ago.
works: What did you study?
Bebe: I was there four years. I studied art and stenography. I am good in French stenography because I used to work in the Egyptian embassy in San Francisco to do the French translation and the stenography.
works: When did you come to the U.S.?
Bebe: Ohh. I don’t remember. Long, long time ago.
works: And you have a son, I heard.
Bebe: I have two sons—one attorney and one doctor. They both live near here. But I don’t see the youngest one, the attorney. We are different. But the doctor is very understanding and very helpful in every way I could image. He’s very, very human. And the younger one is still contacting me.
works: That’s wonderful. So how did you get to the Sorbonne? How did that happen?
Bebe: Well, because of my study at the Lycée Francais when I was in Egypt. So I graduated from the Lycée Francais, then… and my husband was a diplomat, a consul, and they asked me to do the translation in the embassy. The consulate was in San Francisco. So then
I did the translation for the Egyptian Consulate.
works: I see. And your husband is not alive now?
Bebe: He died long ago. I have a picture of him here. Did you see it? [no] He was a very handsome guy [shows me and we look through photos]. I drew this from a magazine, King Farouk and the queen Farida, because I danced in their wedding when I was young [shows me a pencil drawing of the couple].
works: That’s your drawing then?
works: And you have made a lot of masks, too.
Bebe: Yes. One thousand ninety-seven.
works: What attracted you to making masks?
Bebe: Because the face is very important. It reflects your insides. You get your expression from inside out. Sometimes you try to hide, but you can’t. It’s impossible.
works: For the person who has the eyes to see, everything is visible?
Bebe: Everything is very visible. I see here in your face [touches] and here [touches] and around the eyes [points] and here over on the forehead—of course, age has something to do with these lines, but this is a very attractive and peaceful face.
works: Oh, thank you.
Bebe: I wish I am making the mask for you.
works: Do you have any masks around here?
Bebe: I think I have… [we get up as she looks around —no luck] For some reason they come here and take things. They like something, they take it. Let’s see. This is how I make the masks. [shows me a collaged sheet of small photos] It’s a letter from the mayor, I think. You know, most of the creative people, they get depressed.
works: Is that something you’ve struggled with?
Bebe: I was, before. I was very, very depressed and they put me in the hospital to treat the depression. I think it was the Jewish Home.
works: The Jewish Home?
Bebe: Yes. It was very good, really excellent.
works: It must have been nice for the Jewish people there to have a person from Egypt.
Bebe: They treated me excellent! Really unbelievable treatment! Observation 24-hours. And I snapped out of my depression and went back to my regular walking, and [gestures] my home here.
works: So you’ve passed through the depression now?
Bebe: Oh, yes. I’m eighty-seven and there’s not much to do. I read a lot. And I make résumés of things I really like. I probably gave you a copy of a writing. Did I?
(an example of Bebe's writing/artwork she let me scan)
works: No, but I’d love to see something you’ve written.
Bebe: I didn’t? [continuing to look through items on tables, picks up a paper with collaged photos] Let’s see. This here—when I make the masks, there are some famous people here—mayors and city attorneys. Children love it! And the school comes for field trip.
works: Oh, can I take a photo of that? Now what was it like for you to be at the Sorbonne?
Bebe: Very nice. There were a lot of nuns there during my time. In San Francisco, I think I was.
works: Now the Sorbonne is in Paris.
Bebe: The Sorbonne in Paris. I went there, also.
works: So you lived in Paris?
Bebe: I don’t remember if I lived there for a long time. It’s just that this information goes way back. The mind can’t store all that.
works: Parlez-vous français?
Bebe: Oui. Je parle français. Vous parlez français?
works: [I pause, trying to remember a few words.]
Bebe: Un petit peu?
works: Un petit peu, oui. Très, très peu. [we laugh]
Bebe: That’s fine. There are people who can’t even speak two languages.
works: Most Americans are stuck with one language.
Bebe: Yes. But we manage to accommodate a lot of foreigners. I think this is a most beautiful place here with all that they have—the criticism—but it is still most beautiful country. I lived in San Francisco when we had the consulate.
works: And your first husband was a diplomat?
Bebe: Yes. He was the consul of Egypt. But he got killed.
works: What happened?
Bebe: Well, there was some action in the consulate in San Francisco; some woman asked him to show a picture about Egypt. They didn’t take permission from the consul general, and there was a diplomatic crisis between Egypt and the United States. He took the picture to show them, and the consul general got so mad they sent him to Africa. They killed him in Africa.
works: That’s tragic. How long were you with him?
Bebe: Not long time. The children were seven and eight years old when he died. He was really excellent man. Very brilliant, and nice looking. [looks for photo, doesn’t find it] He had a lot of pictures in newspapers about him because he was lecturing. When I got depressed people came and moved everything around.
works: I see. Do you still do any painting?
Bebe: I just sketch something from time to time. But mostly, I write my feelings. [gets up to look for an example, picks up a local paper, shows me the photo of her house] I like this. Did you take it?
works: No. I took some photos of your house earlier, but I didn’t see you at home.
Bebe: Because I walk early in the morning.
works: I met your neighbor, Harry. He knows you and likes you.
Bebe: [laughs] I appreciate that. But you know a lot of people look at me like, “What’s she doing?”
works: Maybe because of how you painted your house and car. Nobody around here would do that.
Bebe: But it got me in trouble—witchcraft.
works: Maybe, from our conversation, they’ll see there’s nothing to be afraid of. You’re someone who has a religious feeling for everybody. We’re all humans.
Bebe: Yes. We’re all humans and there’s no reason to put somebody down because they believe different, or discriminate and make their life miserable. But with all this, life is really beautiful for me because I don’t take it to my heart. The ones who perceive me this way and think negative about me, it’s okay. There are times you’re going to know the reality of me, or you’re not. And that’s freedom.
works: Inner freedom.
Bebe: Yes. Inner freedom. It doesn’t bother me at all. It really doesn’t. A lot of people just walk in here—“We want to see how you live.”
“Here is how I live. That’s it!” I still didn’t make my bed [laughs]. But it doesn’t matter.
works: What does Bebe stand for?
Bebe: My original Egyptian name was Bouthina. My father named me that because he was professor of literature. He taught at University of Lebanon and other places. He was so much in love with me as a child and said, “I know this girl is going to be something.” [laughs] He used to say that to everybody. So he named me Bouthina, after literature.
works: I see. Did you have brothers or sisters?
Bebe: Yes. We were nine, a big family. But most of them have died. Probably I am the last one still alive.
works: Tell me about your mother.
Bebe: My mother was a very beautiful lady. [retrieves photo] That’s my dad and my mom and my sister. Here they are really madly in love with each other. [laughs] They sing together. She played music. She was wonderful.
works: I appreciate your talking with me. And thank you for inviting me into your house.
Bebe: Well, as I said, there are no hidden things. Everything is in the open. You think the way you want to think. It’s okay.