Meanwhile, back at the Yellow House: On conflict and the im/possibility of a memorial in Lebanon

Author ········· Muriel Kahwagi
Published ······ Online, Apr 2015
Section ·······  Culture

Photo Courtesy of Peter Matar

When my father drove me to beit Barakat to meet Youssef Haidar, the maître d’oeuvre of Beit Beirut, I asked him, rather naively, if he knew anything about the history of the building. The uninformed reader will regret to learn that naively = inanely + rhetorically; my manic yammering about the Barakat building for weeks on end had exasperated my poor father, a man of great generosity of spirit, whose singular forbearance is seldom tested. “The tramway used to pass by here,” he said matter-of-factly. “It used to be one of the most beautiful buildings in Beirut.”

The Barakat building as it stands today is formidable, pits and pockmarks notwithstanding (I hesitate to employ the word “beautiful,” both for ethical and aesthetic reasons). A friend of mine recently likened its rutty exterior to Swiss cheese, “so thoroughly interpenetrated with holes that you wonder how it holds together.” I’d seen pictures of it before making my way to Sodeco, in the central district of Beirut, to interview Haidar that day, and knew more or less what to expect. Bullet holes; graffiti; bunkers; Fox News’s favourite Middle East-centric compound adjective, “war-torn,” comes to mind. Haidar – dressed as though ready for a safari journey, complete with khaki pants, thick-rimmed sunglasses and a fishing hat – greets me at the site’s main entrance. “So, this is it,” he says. “This is Beit Beirut.”

Beit Barakat a.k.a the Yellow House a.k.a. Beit Beirut is a four-story, trapezoidal building at the intersection of Damascus Road and Independence Street. It survived Lebanon’s 15-year-long civil war, and, miraculously, its ensuing and exceptionally unruly reconstruction plan. Were it not for the valiant campaigning of Mona El Hallak, a Beirut-based architect and preservation activist, beit Barakat would have been sentenced for demolition in the late 1990s. It is thanks to her indefatigable efforts that today, this iconic building is being converted into Beit Beirut, a museum of the memory of the city of Beirut.

Photo Courtesy of Peter Matar

Conceived and built in separate stages by two architects, beit Barakat is made up of two identical structures that are joined together by a series of shops along the street level, and a common bridge on each floor, the latter forming the narrow end of the trapezoid. Nicolas and Victoria Barakat, whose surname lends the building its eponymous moniker, commissioned Youssef Aftimos – the mastermind behind some of Beirut’s most prominent buildings, including the Grand Serail’s Hamadiyyeh clock – to design the building for them in 1924. Initially two stories high, it was fashioned from sandstone, giving the façade its signature yellowish hue (whence the epithet the Yellow House).

“What makes this building architecturally unique is the spatial configuration of every room within its eight apartments,” explains Haidar. Whereas most buildings of that period only gave one or two rooms in the house a proper street view, “each of [these rooms] looks out to the street, and connects its occupants to the city. It was probably the first time in the history of Beirut that a building achieved this level of transparency.”

"If my love for Gilbert is a crime, let history witness I am a dangerous
criminal," signed by 'Tarzan.' This graffiti allegedly refers to two gay
snipers (Gilbert and 'Tarzan') who were presumably in love. While
Tarzan was based in beit Barakat, it is uncertain if Gilbert was also. Photo: Courtesy of Youssef Haidar

Photo: Courtesy of Peter Matar

In 1936, the Barakat family decided to add two more floors to the building. “Why build two floors, then build two more several years later?” I ask Haidar. “It’s simple,” he says. “Money – or lack thereof.” Due to Aftimos’s engagement in other projects at the time, Fouad Kozah, a then-burgeoning architect, was contracted to build the next two stories. Fascinated by the 1930s’ modish resurgence of concrete, he incorporated the building material into the newly added floors and details. “If you look closely,” says Haidar, “you can see a subtle difference in the architectural elements between the first two floors, on the one hand, and the third and fourth floors, on the other.” This discrepancy, explains Haidar, is not merely indicative of the stylistic differences between the two architects’ individual work, but of a wider transition in the architectural trends of the 1930s as a result of the introduction of concrete to the market.

Photo: Courtesy of Peter Matar 

Then the Lebanese civil war happened. (Bang. Pow. Kaboom.) It was 1975. Beit Barakat, perched astride the Green Line that separated East and West Beirut, was eventually vacated, only to be occupied by snipers who used the building as both a bunker and a shield. “Whose side were they fighting on?” I ask Haidar. “They were Christian militias,” he answers, “but I always tell people that it doesn’t matter. It was war. Everyone was fighting everyone else. Across the street from where we’re standing was another building with fighters who belonged to another sect and another party, and they were shooting people too. Anyone with a gun is equally culpable.”

Photo: Courtesy of Youssef Haidar

We walk past puddles of mud, shelled walls, and dangling wires, and reach the first floor, where the damage that the building sustained during the civil war – and the years since – becomes more palpable. Though myriads of bullet holes have pecked at the walls and gnawed away the pillars, the building’s erstwhile charm is not completely gone: some of the Art Deco marble tiles and the ceiling’s hand-painted Art Nouveau patterns are still relatively intact, if timeworn. “From the very beginning, our goal has been to preserve this building – to keep it exactly as the snipers had left it – not to fix it,” says Haidar.

Photo: Courtesy of Peter Matar

“A building is like a human being,” he adds. “You have to tend to it. If there are missing parts, you add prostheses. But if there are scars, you keep them. Scars are important because they remind you of the past. You have to remember the past so you can forgive – and ultimately forget – the atrocities of the war.”

He shows me one of rooms that was converted into a bunker; fashioned from sandbags, it’s punctuated with gun slits through which the fighters aimed and shot their weapons. Elsewhere, concrete shafts and high walls were erected to bolster and protect the snipers’ newly forged fighting base. But nothing was as crucial to the functioning of this “killing machine,” explains Haidar, as the building’s spatial disposition itself, which granted its new occupants with a full-blown 360°-view of the neighbourhood, and gave them total control over that chunk of the demarcation line.

But did their efforts actually work? “Absolutely,” says Haidar. “And they managed to kill many, many people from this very building.”

Photo: Courtesy of Peter Matar

The eternal question of the life combative (to employ a Joyceanism) cropped up. Can sanity and empathy, especially in the midst of warfare, exist in a gunman? Beit Barakat’s pockmarked walls alone do not and cannot answer that question, but some of the graffiti that the fighters left behind bears witness to that turbulent time, and what it drove them – and much of the population – to. Spray-painted across the length of one corridor is the word al-jaheem, Arabic for ‘hell.’ “And that’s exactly what war is,” Haidar interjects. “It’s hell.” Another message written by ‘Begin,’ a sniper whose nom de guerre references Israel’s then-prime minister, Menachem Begin, seemingly reads: “I want to speak the truth: my soul flew away in a minute.” Time and weather-beaten, however, the same graffiti’s faintly morphed letters can also be understood to read: “I want to speak the truth: my soul has become impure.”

Graffiti signed by 'Begin' with a double entendre "I want to speak the truth: My soul flew away in a minute" or "I want to speak the truth: My soul has become impure." Photo: Courtesy of Youssef Haidar 

“It’s very emotionally draining to be in this building, surrounded by all of this,” says Haidar. “But it’s important for people to see it and be exposed to it, and to really reflect on what it means to be at war. We’re not that different from beit Barakat – we all still bear the scars of war.”

“Will Beit Beirut focus on the memory of the war?” I ask him. “It will tackle the war,” he says, “but it will not focus on it entirely. Beit Beirut will be a museum for the city of Beirut, a beit for all Beirut. The war takes up a fraction of this city’s history, but not all of it. People often forget this.”

Photo: Courtesy of Peter Matar 

Only the first floor of the museum, Haidar tells me, will be dedicated to the memory of the war. Visitors will be able to see where the snipers were based, and explore the architecture they built in order to transform the building into a machinegun. The first permanent exhibition on this level will showcase the personal belongings of Dr. Najib Chemali, the dentist who used to live on that floor – these include photographs, newspapers, cinema brochures, visiting cards, and clothes, among other things. (Apropos: El Hallak, whom I met up with a week after interviewing Haidar, is the one who collected most of these items over a decade ago. We had a wonderful conversation about Beit Beirut, which I shall report on in a follow-up article, and in which she endearingly and unselfconsciously stated: “I have two children: Yazan, and beit Barakat.”)

Al Kannas (Sniper). Photo: Courtesy of Youssef Haidar.

The second floor will be dedicated to the urban history Beirut, from the 19th century to the present day. What did Beirut’s architecture look like? What was Beiruti society like? What did day-to-day life look like? This is where people will gain insight into the history of Beirut at large. The third and most luminous floor, on the other hand, will be devoted entirely to temporary exhibitions.

“Going through the entire museum is a journey, and it’s not just a historical one,” explains Haidar. “You start off in hell, and from that jaheem, you finally reach this lighter, uncluttered space [the third floor], closer to the sky, where things start to clear up. As you go from one floor to the next, you’re also purging your soul, in a way.”

Beit Beirut is set to open in 2016. It will also house two auditoriums, four basements dedicated to archives, a state-of-the-art research library,
and an urban planning observatory, in addition to a shop and a
restaurant. For more information, visit 

Muriel Kahwagi is a Beirut-based writer. Her work has appeared in Monocle, Rusted Radishes, and F/I/M2/P. Together with James Brillantes, she founded Jizz&Jazz, a fictional music- and podcast-producing duo that parodies normative paradigms of conflict resolution in the Middle East. Currently, she is the head of communications at the Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock Museum.