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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
In black, the word "hell" is written on the building’s walls, a poignant reminder of their dark lives.
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.
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.
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
Hallak, along with assassinated journalist Gebran Ghassan Tuenini and
other prominent personalities, fought hard to preserve Beit Beirut.
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.
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.
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.
that changed when Lebanon’s civil war started in April 1975, sparked by
the fatal shooting between Palestinian Muslims and Maronite Christian
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."
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.