A museum for collective healing

The Barakat Building, one of Beirut’s most notorious landmarks, is set to be transformed, after years of lobbying, into a Museum of Memory.

Last month, in honor of National Heritage Day, an exhibition was held to display all items that will be transferred to the building when it opens as a museum in 2012. They include the possessions of Dr. Najib Chemaly, a dentist’s chair, pictures, personal letters, business cards of political figures who used to be his clients, old liquor bottles, newspapers and clothes belonging to one of the residents of the building from the 1930s.

Also known as the Yellow Building, the Barakat building is located on what used to be the Tramway Station, Damascus Road near Sodeco, and was built by renowned Beiruti architect Youssef Aftimos in 1924.

The building has a unique design, with multiple doors, balconies, huge windows that extend all the way to the interior and an open central space to allow sunlight into every room in the structure. From the rooms in the back of the building, all the surrounding streets can be seen.

“This architectural transparency was perfect for snipers, who could sit in the back of the building and shoot people in the front while being very well protected,” said Mona Hallak, a local architect and heritage activist.

The snipers left their mark on the building, and not just with bullet holes. They built concrete barricades, wooden sniper shelters and, of course, left their names on the walls: “Katoul was here” and “Abou El Zouz was here” can be seen on the walls inside.

Before the war, the building’s ground floor housed a vibrant array of businesses. Neighbors remember a shoemaker’s store, a music shop, a hairdresser, a pharmacy, an Armenian-owned photography shop and a Bohsali sweet shop.

“I went to the building in 1994. It was first time I had the courage to enter the building because everyone thought it was full of cluster bombs. As an architect, I found it was a masterpiece. They started demolishing it in 1997 but we were able to stop them on the third day of its destruction. They had removed the tiles but we were able to stop them. It took seven years of campaigning until in 2003, we were finally able to pass a legal decree to transform the building to a museum,” Hallak told NOW Lebanon.

Today, the Beirut Municipality, with the support of the Municipality of Paris has taken on that initiative.

“We don’t yet have a clear idea of what the museum will consist of,” she said, “but we know it will focus on the Ottoman period onwards. We want this museum to be a live, modern museum, displaying permanent items, such as Dr Chemaly’s souvenirs, as well as rotating exhibitions on various themes. It will also contain a memory booth, where people share their memories prior, during or after the civil war. The war is only part of the museum.”

But for people who grew up on that street, the bullet-ridden structure is but a reminder of an ugly war.

Mohammad Karout, 55, owns a small dollar store on what used to be the Green Line, the division between Beirut’s Muslim-dominated West and its Christian East. Karout grew up in the Sodeco neighborhood, hopping around the neighborhood’s shops, before he eventually inherited his own.

When asked about the war, he walks away, saying, “People died, they’re gone now and we started a new life. You can ask me whatever you want, but I know nothing about wars.”

One of the buildings’ corners lies on Monot Street, a small side street that later became a central part of the country’s nightlife. People who own stores here are free most of the day: some discuss politics, others play chess.

“We closed our stores for 15 years,” said Fawzi Salamoun, who owns a local drugstore by the building. Dr. Chemaly and Mansour Barakat, who lived in the Yellow Building, were some of his most loyal customers.

“When I closed my store, some families were still living here. When I came back, everyone was gone,” he said.

Those who survived the war, and those who left during the war, prefer not to talk about it.

“We used to call it the Sodeco front,” said Charles Ghostine, a lawyer who was commander of former president Camille Chamoun’s National Liberal Party, also known as An-Numour Al-Ahrar. “It was right on the Green Line, set up in an area of utmost strategic importance to fighters.”

“It was very dangerous, as 25 people, both civilians and fighters, died on that narrow street,” he said. “In 1975 it was no longer safe to live in that building, so its residents left. The Lebanese Army occupied it until March 1976. Al Ahrar then took over the Barakat Building, which had a strategic location and defense architecture.”

In 1977, Al-Ahrar left the building and the Syrian army took over.

It was a sniper’s den. They shot at people on the street and fighters shot back at the building. It now stands bullet-ridden and empty.

“Instead of renovating it, they should leave it as is. What better way to remind people of the destruction of war?” Salamoun asked.

Hallak said that preservation of the bullet holes in the walls is a decision to be made by the architect.

Another civil war?

Some people believe the war taught the Lebanese that it should never be repeated. The more pessimistic, or realistic as they would call themselves, believe that Lebanon is bound to be a war zone because of its location and sectarianism.

Ghostine said that the war will not return. “The reasons for which the 1975 civil war started are gone. In 1975, it was a question of Christian sovereignty versus Palestinian dominance, protected by one sect. Today, the divisions are vertical and across sects, not among sects. Nobody is prepared for war,” he said.

“Things have changed,” said Mohammad Merhi, 66, whose grandfather constructed a four-story building close to the Barkat building in 1949, one year after Monot Street was paved.

“Today, I’m supporting Chamoun, Geagea, Gemayel, Hariri and people from different sects. We, and the leaders, learned a lot from the war so they won’t go back,” he said.

But Kamal Haddad, 57-year-old owner of a nearby antique shop, says that the chances for war are not unlikely. “This is Lebanon, something is bound to erupt every 10 or 15 years. To stop war, you have to stop sectarianism.”

But Mohammad says he will never accept a Lebanon whose president is not Christian. “This is our guarantee.”

Kamal fled the war to Saudi Arabia, while Roudi Sawma, who lives on Monot Street, stayed. On how he did it, he said, “We adapt. In war, people split. Some sold weapons and others sold coffins. But at night, they went out and partied together.”

“We used to get drunk,” says Tony Al Kosta, local hairdresser who does not stop smiling, even when he talks about war.

“Whether we die or not does not matter. We love life and it’s the only way we know how to live, even if we are in the middle of war,” he added.

Kamal said: “You get used to it day by day. At first you are careful and then you start to know when the bullets are shot and what time fighting stops.”

“To forget the war, you need to forget the country,” Roudy said, because people are susceptible to political and sectarian divisions that take them to opposing extremes.

“But even if the whole world conspired against the Lebanese, if they were not willing to pick up arms, they will not,” Merhi argued. “And this is what Rafik Hariri was, a man who was Lebanese above all.”

Another civil war may be unlikely, but another May 7 is entirely possible, they agreed. 

“So what can we do? We tell our children to love the country,” Roudy said.

Tony added: “If the youth want to fight, let them do it after we’ve passed away. You’re still a young lady, you’re going to have to witness a war.”

It is a heritage building like the Barakat Building that will initiate a process of national healing, Hallak hopes.

“[Sunday’s parliamentary] elections were peaceful, but there is hatred inside people, you can read it in their slogans. There is no forgiveness and no reconciliation. The Barakat Building shows you that the city offers you things that you can love, and that Beirut is beautiful. It tells you that on Abdul Wahab Al Englizi Street, you will find an orange tree that’s 90 years old. It will tell you that Furn Al Shubbak area started with a man opening a bakery. These things are part of us regardless of which sect we are,” she said.

“They ask us: ‘You want to remind us of the war?’ Of course we want to,” Hallak said. “People are so drained by the war that all they want to do is stay in their houses, go to nightclubs and cafes. There is little say in what should happen to the city because all efforts to change have been a failure. Hopefully with this little success story, people will start to believe.”