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Marina Chamma

Beirut’s Holiday Inn Hotel: Because the war isn’t truly over

Images courtesy of Marina Chamma
Images courtesy of Marina Chamma
Images courtesy of Marina Chamma / Wikimedia.org

It is almost impossible to walk the streets of Beirut and not stumble upon remnants of the country’s Civil War. After more than 24 years since the end of hostilities, there are reminders everywhere that this is still a broken city, yet to be healed. The war is seen in the city’s contrasts, pitting newly-built luxurious (and often empty) high-rises with abandoned, decrepit and once-beautiful Arabesque-styled villas damaged by war and forgotten by time. It is seen in the myriad political banners plastered on random walls and across entire roads, depicting the pictures and slogans of those who fought during the war and have still managed to lead in times of peace. But nothing stands as much of a reminder of the war’s endless dark and cold nights, its frighteningly calm days and all the senseless bloodshed in between as much as the former Holiday Inn Hotel.


One of the main sites of the Civil War’s “Battle of the Hotels,” the Holiday Inn still stands high in the midst of a new, shiny and continuously-developing downtown. It is off-limits to the general public, transformed into a military base mainly for its strategic location and to ward off squatters. Its bullet-riddled façade overlooks the Mediterranean Sea on one side, and the chaotic concrete jungle that has become of Beirut on the other. If you care to ask around, you’d be astounded by stories of the fierce battles that took place in and around the hotel. Stories about fighters being thrown from balconies during the battles, and those who still hold on to hotel room keys until this very day, perhaps in hope of having left their dark memories closed up for nobody else to see. Incidentally, the owners of this iconic landmark are currently in a battle of their own, to decide whether the building should be torn down and rebuilt, or rehabilitated instead.


I recently had the unexpected opportunity to access the Holiday Inn, even if it was only the outdoor ground level, for the launching of a documentary photography grant program by an Arab-based arts and culture fund. Similar to many others there, one of the main reasons I attended the launching was the rare opportunity to be able to set foot in the hotel, frantically capturing ever corner of the ravaged premises with my camera. I wondered what led to this odd sense of fascination with the building, which harbors untold stories from the Civil War. To me, the answer was unequivocal: because the hotel stood as a reminder that Lebanon's Civil War wasn't truly over.

 

Just like the still-standing —yet abandoned— Holiday Inn Hotel, Lebanon has also managed to survive “physically,” united in its 10,452 km2 (4,036 sq mi) after 15 bitter years of war. But like the hotel’s bullet-riddled walls, Lebanon continues to disregard the causes of discontent and tension–that are partly to blame for the Civil War—untouched and unresolved, hoping that they would somehow miraculously heal on their own: the social inequality, the unequal economic development, the nepotism, corruption, sectarianism, lack of a national identity and a genuine reconciliatory process in the post-war era. Like the construction that surrounds the Holiday Inn, Lebanon has attempted to destroy the scars of war by rebuilding from scratch, with the hope that this would chart a new modern history for the country and the false peace and prosperity that comes with it. And just as the hotel is closed off to the public, Lebanon and the main participants of the Civil War have prohibited access to their stories, which should be included in the history of Lebanon itself, the history which stopped being written since Lebanon gained its independence in 1943! How can a country move forward, when its past is nothing more than an anecdote with a dozen different versions told over coffee, unwritten and unacceptable to the “other?”


It isn’t that people are obsessed with the Civil War, as they shouldn’t be, but it is more of an obsession with genuinely moving away from war, as it should be. And for this to happen, Lebanon as a country and people should be allowed to remember what happened, why, when, where and who, before starting the process of forgiving and not forgetting. Lebanon often reiterates its unofficial national mantra of “not forgetting [the war] so that it doesn’t happen again” (“تنذكر وما تنعاد”). But then again, how can it not forget when it hasn’t even started to remember?


The only way Lebanon can truly move on from its Civil War is by truly coming to terms with it; learning from it, preserving the physical and institutional structures that need to be persevered, and remembering the mistakes of the past in order to prevent the war from ever happening again. In a time of so much uncertainty, and threats of blind extremism spreading across the region and knocking on Lebanon's door, it is only by dealing with its past that Lebanon can guarantee a peaceful, united and just future for its people. Does Beirut really need any more half-built, bullet-riddled structures to constantly remind it that war is always around the corner and that a war doesn’t end when the bullets run out?


Marina Chamma is a Beirut-based freelance writer and blogger at eyeontheeast.org. She holds a B.A. in Political Science from the American University of Beirut and a M.Sc. in International Political Economy from the London School of Economics. She tweets at @eyeontheeast

Images courtesy of Marina Chamma

How can a country move forward, when its past is nothing more than an anecdote with a dozen different versions told over coffee, unwritten and unacceptable to the “other?”