Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
Beit Beirut once served as a sniper’s den.
After Lebanon’s 15-year civil war ended in 1990, the government passed an amnesty law that protected the conflict’s participants—from warlords to snipers—from prosecution. The policy has encouraged a culture of silence around the war. Despite the efforts of some NGOs and individuals, there appears to be general amnesia when it comes to the conflict. School textbooks do not discuss the war, and no public memorials or museums dedicated to its memory have been constructed until now.
Beit Beirut (“The House of Beirut”), slated to open in 2017,* will be the country’s first publicly funded museum documenting the civil war. The building itself wraps around a corner in the city center, constructed in the 1920s and 1930s by the wealthy Barakat family. For decades, its four stories contained eight elegant apartments as well as ground floor shops.
When the civil war broke out, the residents fled, and the building became a sniper’s den. Its location as well as its shape made it almost uncannily suited for this purpose. Beit Beirut sits at an intersection on the wartime Green Line, which separated mostly Christian East Beirut from mostly Muslim West Beirut.
The building was constructed with a central void, with bridges connecting each floor. This gives each of its rooms a view of the street. Youssef Haidar, Beit Beirut’s architect, told Kalimat magazine that the building’s spatial disposition “granted its occupants a 360-degree view of the neighborhood and gave them total control over that chunk of the demarcation line… They managed to kill many, many people.”
Much of Beirut was aggressively redeveloped after the war, and Beit Beirut was almost lost to this trend. The Barakat family sold the edifice to a construction company, but activists, led by the architect Mona El Hallak, convinced the government not to demolish it. In 2003 the municipality of Beirut expropriated the building.
Haidar has kept the original structure intact, except for the addition of metal patches to spots needing stabilization. The first floor will feature the snipers’ area, with graffiti, sandbags, and small holes from which the gunmen shot, as well as an exhibit displaying the personal effects of a resident who fled, a dentist named Najib Chemali. The second floor will host exhibits on the history of the city, and the third floor will feature temporary shows. The building will also serve as a research center, with a library and archives.
Haidar likens the building to a 90-year-old scarred body that is not dissimilar to the whole of Lebanon. “We all still bear the scars of war,” he said. El Hallak hopes the museum will bring some healing—or at least closure—to these scars. “It should offer a way of beginning the process which will end in the Lebanese being able to remember, to understand, to process, and then to say ‘never more,’” she told Middle East Eye.
*UPDATE: This post previously stated that Beit Beirut would open in the fall of 2016. The opening is now planned for 2017.