Beit Barakat

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After life is exploded, changed, dehumanized, there are shattered pieces that do not heal for years, if at all. “What is left are scars and something else – shame, I suppose, shame for letting it all continue. Glances at the past where solace in tradition and myth prevailed only brings more shame over what the present is. We have lost the splendors of what our ancestors have created and go elsewhere.” (Anthony Shadid _ House of Stone)

Some buildings were destroyed during the war, and what the war had left, the fast growth of the city and human greed has managed to obliterate. The Barakat building, now known, as Beit Beirut is a building of many tales, of its people, of wealth, of happy stories, of modern architecture, of wars and deaths, and of life and what it might bring.

Around the corner from Sodeco Square, standing quietly, fatigued, overlooking Damascus road and Independence Avenue, it sits. The building itself is huge, three floors, six apartments of 500 square meters each built in 1924.

Nicolas and Victoria Barakat, originally from Syria, having moved to Beirut towards the end of the 19th century, owners of the well-known fabric store Bachour and Barakat, commissioned it.

Youssef Aftimos, a renowned Beiruti architect who designed the capital’s Municipal Building along with the Serail Clock and the Grand Theatre and later Fouad Kozah were the two architects commissioned to build the Barakat building.

Retaining Islamic architectural features in its sandstone walls and interior arches yet it combined classical and Western features, including a geometric facade with colonnaded verandas. Instead of the pointed arches of traditional Eastern design, the building’s triple arches are concrete-sculpted, rounded and modern. Mirroring the general mood of the era of that time, the Barakat Building with its high ceiling and yellow color, was very modern from the outside yet very oriental from the inside. Just like the city was going through its transitional state so was the building being created with a mandate period transitional architecture.

The Civil War erupted four decades later, dividing the city along that very street where this beautiful yellow building stood, with Christians to the east and Muslims to the west. It became known as the Green Line, a no-man’s land where bullets fell, the birds grew silent, and life would never be the same again.

Christian militias occupied and fortified the building during the conflict, where many of the bullets came down on anyone who dared to cross the streets.

Strolling through the building, stripped of everything, one never looses, with its ingenious architecture, its connection to the skies and the light, and to this world that is unraveling outside on its streets. The building, formed by two identical structures with a common entrance, itself divided by this void in the middle between East and West, became a sniper’s nest synonymous with fear, death, war and all its atrocities. Somehow the unraveling of the war has managed to create from this thing of beauty, a killing architectural machine where life was never spared.

In its destrucuion, the building, liberated, reveals its stories and the many layers of life that went through its light drenched rooms. In chaotic geometry, rooms were constructed and reconstructed first by architects and then by snipers, becoming a structure of death were snipers had obstructed the lights by building rooms within rooms, seeing everything with a tunnel view yet hiding away from the outside world.

The building houses stories of an Orthodox family, Dr Néguib Schemali, a Maronite Phalangist dentist, and the Fallah, a Palestinian family right across from him. It houses stories of a hairdresser who lived in Broumana, who won the national lottery and was able to accomplish his lifelong dream of opening a salon in Beirut, where he became synonyms for his “chignon.” This same man, once the war was over, went back to his ‘salon,’ fixed it and went back to work disregarding the complete havoc that all those years of war have left the building in. It houses stories of snipers that left graffiti behind like: “I want to tell the truth, my soul will fly away in a minute,’ ‘Begin’ that speaks volumes about this part of our history and affiliation with Israel, and “if my love for Gilert is a crime, then let them witness my crimes,” hinting to homosexual inclination of some of the snipers. It houses stories of a sniper named George, who is now so disturbed psychologically that he only lives during the night and sleeps during the day. It houses stories of snipers called Katol and Tarazan. It houses stories of a Beiruti lady, who entertained constantly and had commissioned an architect to build a side staircase for the building so the servants could bring things in and out undisturbed. It houses stories of families lost, of letters left to the demises of time, of a city that has gone through madness and came back to life.

As you walk in, the light seems to touch every corner of the building, trying in its way to christen it from its sins, to wash away the horror of darkness that had concealed it for years. The city noises seem to muffle down and the breeze enters slowly, cautiously, sweeping every corner yet fearfully rushing away. “This war monument stands today as a testament to what happens during the war to human beings, to its city, and its aftermath” says Mona Hallak. It stands today peering through the eyes of its visitors, where once snipers peered through it, into an unknown future, gazing, wondering whether an awakening of this mass amnesia will ever take place, and whether the time will ever come when its citizens will claim this city as their own.

Initially known as the Barakat building, named the Yellow house due to the yellow ochre color of the sandstone. The name of the building changed with the alteration of its function; it was dubbed the building of death during the civil war. Now a museum and urban cultural center celebrating the history of Beirut and namely the civil war, called “Beit Beirut” (the house of Beirut) and commissioned to architect Youssef Haidar for its restoration.

To my Beirut and its heartbreaking history.

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