Beit Beirut: snipers’ lair turns into museum of Lebanon’s war memories
Written by Malek   

Beit Beirut: snipers’ lair turns into museum of Lebanon’s war memories

BEIRUT // For a city still divided more than 25 years after the end of Lebanon’s civil war, Beirut is embarking on a journey to preserve fading memories of the conflict in the once-residential building-turned snipers’ lair of Beit Beirut or house of Beirut. Also known as the Barakat house, the building – which sits on Damascus Road and straddles the green line that used to separate Christian East Beirut and Muslim West Beirut – will be transformed into a museum and cultural centre when it opens in late September this year.

The ochre Ottoman-style edifice with elements of Art Deco and Rocco styles will tell the stories of the snipers who once lived and fought within its walls, as well as the story of the bourgeois Barakat family, who commissioned the building in 1924. It was designed by Lebanese architect Youssef Afandi Aftimos, with two more stories added by architect Fouad Kozah in 1932. Aftimos was a well-known architect, who built the grand theatre in downtown Beirut and the clock tower of the Grand Serai, now the seat of the Cabinet.

The Barakat family plaque still hangs in the ruins of the building, surrounded by pockmarked walls that serve as a lasting memory of the 15-year civil war that killed more than 100,000 people and left several building carcasses strewn along the green line.

Old Arabic graffiti scratched on Beit Beirut’s walls describes the lives of snipers such as Begin, who took the name of Menachem Begin, a former Israeli prime minister and the founder of the Likud party.

"I want to tell the truth, my soul flew away in a minute," scribbled Begin, in what could be a reference to the act of killing, according to Youssef Haidar, the current architect for the museum project.

Other graffiti hints at the mysterious relationship between two snipers – Gilbert and Katol. Katol, who adored Gilbert, confessed his feelings in black scribbling that survives today.

Additional details about some of the snipers still alive today will also be revealed when journalists sit down with them to help the museum tell their side of the story.

In black, the word "hell" is written on the building’s walls, a poignant reminder of their dark lives.

"We didn’t do our memorial duty for our history," Mr Haidar said. "We just went from general amnesty to general amnesia. In this project the idea was to preserve all the traces of time."

In a country where warlords rule as politicians and the civil war is treated as a distant memory, reconciliation is hard to come by.

But individuals overseeing the project, from Mr Haidar to preservation activist Mona Hallak would like to turn the building and former war zone into a space for exhibitions, seminars, archives, a library and other facilities aimed at educating the public about their city.

"It’s not a museum of war," said Ms Hallak, "It is a museum of the memory of the city, including the war because the war was a big chunk of our modern history."

Ms Hallak, along with assassinated journalist Gebran Ghassan Tuenini and other prominent personalities, fought hard to preserve Beit Beirut.

It has taken around 22 years to pull together the project, which got mired in Lebanese politics and bureaucracy. The memories within the walls of Beit Beirut will be preserved in the archives to help recount the story of the capital, from modernity to post-war.

Ms Hallak is also trying to reconstruct the history of Beirut through the pile of rubble she found in the apartment of a prominent dentist, Fouad Chemali, who was one of the inhabitants of the Beit Beirut building.

Chemali, who hobnobbed with politicians such as former prime minister Saeb Salam and deceased Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt, owned a collection of cinema brochures from the 1930s to 1950s, which reveal the cultural evolution of Beirut during that time.

His dentist chair, which was left in the apartment, was lost then reappeared in the banned film Civilisées, a 1999 French-Arabic language film that talks about the Lebanese war and the love affair between a Muslim militia fighter and a Christian maid. It now sits in Ms Hallak’s garden.

Before the war, Christians and Muslims lived in harmony with one another, including those who lived in the Beit Beirut building.

All that changed when Lebanon’s civil war started in April 1975, sparked by the fatal shooting between Palestinian Muslims and Maronite Christian phalangists.

Found in Chemali’s apartment was a copy of the speech in which the dentist, a devout Maronite, congratulated the new Maronite patriarch in March 1932, saying: "If there is one complaint that we raise to you, it is that the Lebanese are divided into different sects and different groups that do not unite for the glory of Lebanon, we appeal to you to reunite us."

The document, which will become part of the archives of the building, remains a sombre reminder of the divisions that continue to plague Lebanese society today.

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