When Mona El Hallak first walked into the Barakat Building – later to be known as Beit Beirut – in 1994, she was in awe. Mesmerized by the architectural detail inside the Beiruti building that was desecrated during the civil warfare, El Hallak came across 10,000 photo negatives in Photo Mario on the ground floor of what had become a snipers’ den during the years of fighting. For her, these photo negatives were time capsules, freezing a pre-war moment in time. The significance of the building, the pictures, and their linkage is where the story of Beit Beirut began.
Scores of art installations, bullet-riddled buildings, and films have tried to keep painful memories of the Civil War alive in Lebanon. In part, this effort serves as a reminder to the Lebanese: Never again will we bear arms against one another. Years after El Hallak first came across Beit Barakat, the negatives she found inside were used for an exhibition at Beit Beirut.
These relics of the past were brought forth to tell the story of those who lived through the war. “Who are all these people looking back at us through these negatives?” asked El Hallak. “What stories do they have to tell about the city and the pre-war days?”
For those whose lives remain forever changed by the war, memorializing the fighting seems like reversing any kind of progress that has been made more than 20 years after the end of the war. And with a presence such as that of Beit Beirut in this ‘post’-war city serving as a memory of the war in and of itself, Beirutis seem to be divided about whether Beit Beirut reminds them of their commonalities or enshrines their differences.
From Architectural Galore to Sniper Den
The most definitive – and painful – period in the history of ‘modern’ Lebanon is the Civil War that took place between 1975 and 1990. Warring factions divided along religious lines, backed by foreign powers, and armed with ardent identity politics, took up arms and split Beirut in half. After 15 years of gruesome fighting and a death toll that neared 200,000 people, the war came to a halt with the signing of the Taif Agreement in 1989, instigating a supposed period of peace.
Lebanon was quick to come to its feet, focusing much of its post-war effort on reconstructing parts of the country that were destroyed. The reconstruction and economic revitalization of Lebanon was primarily focused on its capital, Beirut. And despite the progress that the country has made since then, Beirut remains filled with memories of the war. In almost every neighborhood lies an abandoned building, a street light still bearing bullet holes, or a resident who too vividly remembers living through those days.
Beit Beirut’s opening comes at a time when Lebanon is still fighting to get on its feet after an Israeli invasion, multiple civil conflicts, and an influx of refugees from neighboring Syria. There are still 17,000 people missing or unaccounted for since the Civil War, leaving their friends and families in the dark in regard to their whereabouts. Governmental officials have not given a definitive answer on their fate nor has there been an adequate investigation into the matter, which gives the Lebanese people more reason not to accept that post-civil war Lebanon has moved beyond the conflict.
Beit Beirut lies at the intersection between Damascus Street and Independence Street in the Sodeco neighborhood in what was Eastern Beirut, right along the wartime Green Line that divided the city in two. Beit Beirut, which is Arabic for House of Beirut, is itself unironically connected to the war.
Formerly known as Barakat Building (named after the family that owned it), the structure today houses a museum. It was also known as ‘yellow house’ due to its limestone facade. The four-storey building, built by renowned architect Yusuf Aftimos, is spacious and was constructed so as to give each room a view of the street down below.
Before the outbreak of the Civil War, the Barakat Building housed a number of well-to-do Beirutis. On the bottom floor was the Mario Photo that El Hallak came across when she discovered the photo negatives in 1994 and Fouad Chemali’s dental clinic. When the fighting began, Beit Barakat’s residents fled their homes and abandoned the building, making way for Christian paramilitary snipers. It was the building’s wide window panes and encompassing view of the street down below that made Beit Barakat, dubbed “the killing machine,” a strategic sniper’s den.
The toll that the civil war had on Beirut’s residents also carried over to the city’s buildings, the Barakat Building being no exception. The paramilitary snipers eventually abandoned the building in 1985 as a snipers’ den and only used it as an observation point since they were worried it would collapse due to the gaping holes and infrastructural damage incurred during a decade of fighting.
With the close of the civil war, the paramilitaries lowered their weapons and Beirut was unified. As the economy began to grow, real estate prices in the city began to skyrocket, which encouraged the Barakat family to demolish the property. And it was then that the role that Beit Beirut has played in the memory of the war began.
When in 1997, Sodeco’s most notorious building was slated for demolition, a number of heritage activists protested the move. After El Hallak, among other activists, fought for the historical building, the city agreed to stop its demolition. In 2002, the city bought the property to be restored and announced its plans to turn it into a museum of Beirut’s 7,000 years of history.
Beirut-based architect Mona El Hallak, one of the key activists in preserving the building, was also the first to recognize the building’s architectural and war-time significance. For El Hallak, the civil war, as a part of Beirut’s history, was not something she felt should be swept under the rug of history, but rather talked about.
El Hallak was one of many Beirutis who lived through the civil war. And although she says she never lost anyone to the fighting, she believes that the war touched everyone.
El Hallak thinks that facing memories of the war, like hers, are necessary for coming to terms with Beirut’s dark past. She wants Beirutis to confront their memories of what it meant to live through a war; to grapple with the fear that residents lived with and the anguish the guerrilla soldiers carried within them to remind each other to never kill one another again.
Onwards – But where to?
After its demolition was ceased, the Barakat Building sat untouched for many years. In between the 2005 Cedar Revolution, Israel’s offense in Beirut in 2006, and the Hezbollah offensive in 2008, the government remained preoccupied and activists couldn’t get them to begin restoration. As the dust settled and Beirut came to a relative calm, Beit Beirut underwent an $18 million restoration under the city municipality in 2012. Then-mayor of Beirut Bilal Hamad praised the restoration effort and spoke of the space becoming a national and cultural museum in commemoration of Beirut, saying it was slated to open in 2016.
As of 2018, Beit Beirut remains only semi-functional. Although the edifice of the building and its interior have been touched up, Beit Beirut remains without a permanent director and staff. For now, it only functions as a venue for art exhibitions and other events. Several attempts, according to Daily Star Lebanon, have been made to push government to open the museum to no avail. But even with the onslaught of issues that Lebanon continues to grapple with, Beit Beirut may remain semi-functional for other reasons.
Despite the fervor that El Hallak speaks with when discussing the potential Beit Beirut has for post-war reconciliation, not everyone is so keen on keeping the memory of the war alive. Lebanon’s school curriculum does not even mention the Civil War, since Lebanese schools are not required to teach their students about any history post-independence.
The renovation of Beit Beirut mindfully restored parts of the building, while leaving the relics of warfare left behind by the paramilitaries. As soon as you approach the building, your eyes quickly shift to the gaping holes on its edifice. Inside the building, graffiti plastered on the building’s walls can still be seen. “I want to tell the truth: my soul has become filthy,” one reads.
Beit Beirut still houses many of the makeshift infrastructural modifications that the paramilitary snipers made to the building. The main room of the building houses sandbags that snipers had piled up and the walls of the second floor are still reinforced by the concrete they placed to protect the building from shelling. Most evocative of all these modifications are the sniper holes that the paramilitaries used to fire on to civilians down below during the war.
“The line of fire here is formidable,” said Beit Beirut’s architect, Youssef Haidar, to Middle East Eye. “It goes through the living room, the stairs, the balcony and continues for a kilometre.” The very architecture of the fighting is mirrored in the architecture of Beit Beirut, which is a nod to both how Beit Beirut, as a museum, plays into a narrative of post-war Lebanon and also how the building itself serves to remind Beirutis of the war.
Forgive and Forget or Forgive and Never Forget?
Often forgotten in understanding the importance of post-war reconciliation is that both perpetrators of the war and civilians of the war experience traumas. While it remains difficult to humanize gun-wielding paramilitaries, they, too, lived the war. And when the fighting ends, it is important to include these individuals in the post-war reconciliation effort.
In April, El Hallak attended Peace and Beyond, a conference commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Northern Ireland’s post-Troubles’ Good Friday Agreement, where many survivors of civil conflict from around the world were present. She spoke of being well aware of re-traumatizing Beirutis with their memories of war. For her, Beit Beirut does not serve as an omnipresent war memorial, but, rather, a bitter relic of a past no Lebanese wants to relive.
For Michael Raggi, a former paramilitary who fought with the National Liberal Party, Beit Beirut is a step toward effective reconciliation. As an 11-year old child, Raggi began fighting alongside NLP paramilitaries who occupied the Barakat Building during the war. “I would go straight from school to the fighters. I spent all my time there,” he said to Middle East Eye. “I had no social life. It was hell.”
Raggi thinks that Beit Beirut needs to remind all Beirutis of the pains of the war and engage in discussion about those traumas. “We are still divided between Christians and Muslims, between Shia and Sunnis,” he goes on to say. “There needs to be an in-depth social and political discussion so that [the civil war] never happens again.”
No one really knows why Beit Beirut hasn’t officially opened. Mona El Hallak, among others, said she has approached the government time and time again, but that her calls remain unanswered.
In post-war cities, revisiting the relics of warfare remains a sensitive subject for everyone. And as the government remains adamant on quelling any conversation that might spark another conflict, efforts like Beit Beirut to foster a constructive environment for reconciliation are silenced in the process.
Beit Beirut’s experience in post-war Lebanon touches on the impact that the war continues to have on the country today. The museum can be seen as a symbol for the effort to reconcile a stratified society, a divided political system, and a history that is proving to be difficult to untangle.
“Real estate developers do not think about memory, or identity, or history, they think about money,” El Hallak said. Beit Beirut’s fight for keeping memory, identity, and history alive is documentation of a past that has, for too long, stifled the present.