BY RORY McGLASSON/ At first glance, the Christmas tree inside Mouina Karam’s S. Broad Street rowhome looks grody. Its balding branches and dried bark don’t resemble the trees on Christmas cards.
But then Karam starts singing the opening verse of “Silent Night” and the dead conifer in her front room suddenly comes alive.
What started as a memorial to her dog Pepo, in 1991, has since become a shrine to all the many things that Karam holds close to her heart.
“The tree represents love, and the warm, giving spirit,” Karam says with a musical, infectious Lebanese accent.
“Take it down? Never!” Karam said. “This tree is a part of me: full of life and love, and full of energy.”
Mouina’s tree is largely needle-free now – but still standing.
Almost anyone who has had a relationship with Karam is depicted in some form or another around the three-dimensional shrine and tree.
The adornments on the tree features yuletide items, such as holly, bulbs, tinsel, but add to that pictures of Catholic relics, poems, love notes, family photographs and mini-sculptures. There’s a red Christmas tie hanging by a thread on a tired branch. “It belonged to a very good friend of mine; he was wearing that very tie when he died. He was a beautiful man,” Karam said.
“When I met Mouina, I think she knew I worked with exhibits. She asked me if I would come and see her Christmas tree. It was the end of February.”
Getz did visit the tree in Mouina’s S. Broad Street home. He touched the tree. And was stuck.
He later became part of a group of people who formed an association to try and preserve the tree.
However, the unorthodox artistic theme of the tree was too difficult to define. And despite fundraising efforts, the restoration never materialized. “Preserving and then restoring the tree was too difficult,” Getz said. “Its environment in Mouina’s South Philadelphia rowhome is the right environment for the tree.”
Struggling artists have stayed at Karam’s home, and have fallen in love with Mouina and the tree.
“Mouina’s tree is a lesson about keeping what you love, even when it gets old,” said former house guest Ricky. “It is a sign of humanity, giving and sharing, and becomes more difficult to part with every day.”
There’s an old empty bottle of Snapple among the shrine of Christmas past, present and future. Karam said the empty bottle reminds her of an old friend.
Local photographers, fine artists, university professors, sculptors, painters and musicians have paid homage to the tree at annual parties at Mouina’s home. Mark Brozak, a local documentary filmmaker, created a short documentary entitled Mouina: The Tree. It was shown at the Philadelphia Film Festival. It’s available on YouTube.
“That was the first movie I ever did,” he said. “It was a starting point for me. I’ll always be thankful to Mouina.”
Karam has a sanctuary in her backyard for the many cats she saves. Eccentric, yes. But crazy, no.
Every minute of the day, Karam has radios playing music in each of her rooms: jazz in the kitchen, classical music in the dining room, and Christmas music in the front room. She has a small television with a video playing The Sound of Music in her study.
“I view Mouina as a performance artist,” said Getz. “And the tree is her prop.”