For those who didn’t live through the Lebanese Civil War, the 15-year tragedy is a haunting patchwork of stories. Older family members recall hiding in shelters, crossing checkpoints, dodging bullets – or firing them. The Lebanese are natural storytellers, and oral history is a strong tradition in the Middle East in general, so it’s no wonder every household has its own war narratives.
If walls could talk they would tell stories too, but their mere presence speaks volumes in itself. What was once known as the Barakat building, and was often referred to as the Yellow House because of its vivid limestone exterior, today has a new name, Beit Beirut, but as of yet, no clear identity.
Originally built in the 1920s, its striking, unusual architecture is a testament to the city’s pre-war prosperity while its bullet-blotched facade tells of the brutality of the conflict. Sitting on the city’s former demarcation line in Sodeco, architect Mona El-Hallak discovered it in 1994 on a walk to work. Fascinated by its magnificent avant-garde design, she admired it frequently and often toured its interior with friends. In 1997, when the city was being bulldozed in bulk, the building was threatened with demolition so El-Hallak sparked a campaign to save her beloved yellow house. Almost 20 years later Beit Beirut is “nearly finished,” yet the building’s purpose is still undefined.
Its website says the former apartment building will serve as a museum, cultural and artistic space, and a facility for archiving research and studies on Beirut’s history, as well as an urban planning office. According to Matilda Khoury, who is in charge of the cultural portfolio at the Beirut Municipality that includes Beit Beirut, a legal framework is only now being set up for the museum in order to proceed with recruiting a director and management team, and the opening is foreseen for September 2017. But with nothing signed, no plan or date is really final.
El-Hallak says she’s been calling for the appointment of a cultural director since 2010, adamant that it should have been done before appointing an architect. “There needs to be a vision for the museum before the architecture,” she says, revealing that Onda Culture was already chosen in 2012, via a competition, to handle cultural management, but they were still waiting for approval of the Beirut governorate as of December 2016. El-Hallak and many others question why Beit Beirut is still not a functioning building: “Today, the cost of the museum has already been no less than $18 million, so why not invest another $2 million and make it a living project?”
She maintains she’s hopeful for a speedy process under the newly elected municipality, but in the meantime the beautiful building stands empty. “The actual work has finished without any cultural direction. There’s no staff, no governance,” El-Hallak laments. Throughout the years she has offered private tours to those interested, but to the general public the building with so much to say is silent.
She’s learned a lot about life in pre-war Beirut from the building and what was left in it by the people who lived there. A Palestinian family resided in one of the apartments. In another lived an affluent dentist who kept company with the country’s elite and had collections of cinema brochures and newspapers dating back as far as the 1920s. On the ground floor there was a photography studio, where over 22,000 negatives of portraits were discovered. El-Hallak hopes the archives of documents, photos and other remnants will be featured in future exhibitions at the space.
“It has avant garde architecture, at the same time it houses memories of the city before the war, and also of the war because [at that time] it became a killing machine,” she explains. The building’s corner design and strategic location during the conflict made it a prime spot for snipers, and the architectural additions built by the fighters were kept intact in the museum, as was the original graffiti.
Careful to clarify that the museum is of the memory of Beirut, not of the war, she says it would talk about the war as an experience but there would be no account of historical facts. Rather, the focus would be on war memories and personal stories passed down through oral history. Khoury confirms that the war is one of several themes in the museum, but it will be discussed from a social perspective. “It’s a cultural center and a museum, not a platform for politics. It’s a place of healing,” she says.
But more than a museum, Beit Beirut is becoming the symbol of an ongoing struggle to preserve Beirut’s memory. Its mere existence is a small step in “saving the city from amnesia and loss of history,” says El-Hallak. “We are still suffering from destruction and gentrification — Beirut doesn’t look the same anymore, but there’s still lots to be saved,” adds the activist, who was awarded the Ordre National du Merite by the French Ambassador in Beirut in 2015 for her continuous conservations efforts.
Although the building itself has not been wiped out, there’s a perplexing, ongoing delay in revealing its memories. In November 2015 Beirut’s then-Mayor Bilal Hamad told Executive the building itself was nearly ready for visitors, but Governor of Beirut Ziad Chbib hadn’t signed the proposed plan for a cultural program. In December 2016 still no plan had been approved, and despite numerous attempts, Chbib did not respond to Executive Life’s questions regarding the project. While 2016 has seen a new municipal council in Beirut, there’s been little transparency or publicly accessible discourse on Beit Beirut.
Silence is a powerful thing. We may tell war stories in the comfort of our living rooms, but collectively, Lebanon hasn’t come to terms with this recent history. Officially, there is silence on the subject. It’s been over 15 years since the end of the war and there’s still no formal account; nothing of the war is taught in history books. Politics aside, maybe governing bodies think we aren’t even ready to share our memories in public. Or they don’t want this collective healing to happen just yet.
In her acceptance speech for the Ordre National du Merite, El-Hallak said, “In Beirut, my beloved city, one has to keep dreaming.” She’s been proactive too, working tirelessly for those dreams. Here’s to hoping we all dream, speak up and take action for our beloved city, so that we may all listen to its stories and hear the truth, not wallow in our collective silence.