Page last updated at 12:18 GMT, Wednesday, 15 April 2009 13:18 UK

Lebanon 'prison chic' goes global

Former prisoner at work in bag workshop (courtesy of Sarah's Bag)
Many of the women behind Beydoun's creations are former prisoners

By Nada Abdel Samad
BBC Arabic Service

Is Catherine Deneuve looking for her heart in Beirut?

The smiling French actress was recently pictured on the front page of a Lebanese newspaper wearing a black dress and carrying a matching handbag with the Arabic words "Where is my heart?" embroidered on it.

Catherine Deneuve's purchase from Sarah's Bag in Beirut

Miss Deneuve was in the Lebanese capital for the premiere of a film about the July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.

The handbag provoked a great deal of interest, not just because of the Arabic embroidery, but also because it was made by women who had served time in Lebanese jails.

The bags are the brainchild of Sarah Beydoun, who says Miss Deneuve's wardrobe designer first visited the factory with the black dress and asked for a matching handbag.

A few days later Catherine Deneuve took a trip to the factory and picked out the bag herself.

Vulnerable women

The story began a few years ago when Sarah was a student in Beirut writing a thesis on vulnerable women including prisoners.

Through a women's social centre, Sarah spent some time with former prisoners seeking a new life after release from jail.

When she completed her thesis, she thought of a way to help them.

Queen Rania of Jordan at Spanish royal wedding (courtesy of Sarah's Bag)
Rania's dress was by Chanel but the bag was not immediately recognisable

She began by employing five inmates in Baabda Female Prison to make bracelets.

Then they began to embroider pieces of cloth which were turned into handbags.

After the first lot of 12 handbags were sold to great acclaim, demand increased and the workforce was expanded to 40 female prisoners.

Sarah would visit the prison three times a week with a supply of cloth and beads. She would return later to receive the finished pieces to be turned into handbags.

Former inmates also work for her company, which is called Sarah's Bag, as a way to make a fresh start.

Royal fan

Catherine Deneuve is not the first celebrity to acquire a Sarah's Bag bag.

Queen Rania of Jordan has also been spotted with one.

A friend of Queen Rania's had visited the factory to buy her a gift and asked Sarah to put a slip of paper inside the handbag explaining that it had been made by prisoners.

At the time, Sarah's handbags were not labelled because the project was in its infancy.

Sarah Beydoun
Beydoun hit headlines with a statement of pride about her company's work

Queen Rania's bag bore the popular Arabic saying "Determination comes from those who are determined" and she carried it at the wedding of the crown prince of Spain.

Queen Rania's dress was by Chanel, but no mention was made of her handbag whose manufacturer was not known at the time.

Sarah contacted the Queen's office and asked for a copy of the picture.

She then sent it to the media with a statement describing the way her handbags were made, adding the words: "We are proud, and hope that you are too".

Many newspapers and magazines published the statement and interviewed Sarah about her project.

Today it is an institution.

Recently, handbags made by female prisoners and displaying pictures of celebrities including the legendary Egyptian singer Um Kulthoom were put on display at a ceremony celebrating outstanding Arab female singers.

In the beginning, just a few handbags were made per day. Today, there are dozens and they are sold not only in Beirut but across the Arab and the wider world.

Translated by Suheil Aranki

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