A brief glimpse inside a Beirut “killing machine”

Al-Jumhuriya joins a rare guided tour of Beirut's restored Barakat building, an aristocratic villa-turned-sniper-nest, which has finally opened to the public—but only temporarily.

Few Beirut landmarks are more evocative of the toll of Lebanon’s civil war on the city than the Barakat building. Straddling the intersection of Damascus, Independence, and Monnot streets, the sandstone structure so bursts with symbolism and metaphor it would risk being a trite cliché were it not so absolutely, terrifyingly authentic.

Built in 1924, shortly after Beirut had passed from Ottoman to French hands, it was one of the early jewels of the city’s expansion outside its historic walled center, which had suffered variously from Italian bombardment in 1912, Ottoman demolitions in 1915, and the ravages of World War I, including British airstrikes in 1918. Determined to create a showpiece, the Barakat family who built it as their private home commissioned a celebrity architect, Yusuf Aftimos, who counted the former Ottoman Sultan Abd al-Hamid II among his clients, and who also designed such defining monuments of Beirut’s French Mandate era as the City Hall and Grand Theatre.

The most remarkable feature of Aftimos’ bold design for the Barakats—as the architect and heritage activist Mona El Hallak explained last Tuesday on a rare, hour-long guided tour of the building, which has at last been restored after years of delays—was the gaping void he left running down its center, effectively splitting it in two. This “extraordinary concept,” to quote El Hallak, had the effect of giving almost every room in the building a view of at least one, if not two or more of the surrounding streets.

“You could be in a small room on Monnot St, and you turn your head and you see Damascus St.”

The unorthodox innovation added natural light to the interior, and was no doubt a cause of much envied marveling at the cocktail soirées thrown by the Barakats and their blue-blooded brood over the ensuing half-century. It was also the feature that proved most attractive to the snipers who, from 1975, converted the villa into what El Hallak calls “a killing machine.”

War came fast and pitiless to the Barakats. Paul Barakat was set to get married on 14 April, 1975: precisely one day after the bus massacre now generally held to mark the civil war’s official commencement. The wedding went ahead, but only just; minus many of the guests, and with the bride wearing her maid of honor’s dress, unable to retrieve her own from Jounieh, 20km up the coast. It was to be the family’s last celebration in the house. What Nicolas and Victoria Barakat could hardly have foreseen in 1924 was that their then-exclusive address (with a tram station right on the doorstep) would, after witnessing dramatic increases in population and urbanization by the 1970s, happen to coincide exactly with the demarcation line that would slice the capital in two for fifteen years. By June 1975, the violence was too intense for the Barakats to remain, and they left, never to return.

In their place came militiamen, who, as mentioned, discovered a very different kind of advantage in Aftimos’ architectural ingenuity. With, in effect, a panoramic view of the highly strategic intersection in front of them, even from deep inside the building, from their twenty-four distinct sniper channels they could hit anything that moved within hundreds of meters while remaining almost completely impervious to attack from the outside.

“It was perfect for the fighters,” said El Hallak. “They could hide in the sixth room from behind, and use that visual axis that was created to connect people to the city, to actually disconnect people from the city […] This is a rare overlap. We can see, in every other building that was used by fighters, they had to break holes in the walls from one room to another so that they shoot through them. In this building, the holes were architectural.”

Walking inside the place today, the interior is still in many ways just as the gunmen left it. The ground-floor staircases, deliberately smashed by the militias as a security precaution, remain as uneven stubs in the walls (a new staircase has since been installed in a different position). Numerous sniper turrets with their cement support frames have been kept in place, including the striking triple-turret positioned in the central hall; one rifle for each of the three arched windows forming the quintessential Levantine façade. There is even still some of the original graffiti scrawled by the fighters, now encased behind protective glass. “If Gilbert’s love is a crime, let history witness I’m a dangerous criminal,” reads one (in Arabic).

El Hallak is eloquent, indeed almost lyrical, about the building’s symbolism. That a house split in two halves by its architect should have come to embody the splitting of the city itself in two halves might be thought potent enough on its own. But things start to sound like the plot of a Ziad Doueiri film when El Hallak goes on to say that, at the time the war broke out, the two adjacent apartments on the first floor (the Barakats having by that stage moved to a higher floor, renting out the space beneath them) were occupied by, on the east side, a Lebanese supporter of the Christian Phalangists, and, on the west, a Palestinian family. Noting that the exterior beams and balconies that partially connect the building’s two halves at its front corner, giving the superficial appearance of unity, were in fact added eight years after the initial construction by a second architect, Fuad Quzah, El Hallak remarks:

“For me, we are a country that is very vertically divided, even horizontally divided, and we always at every occasion give the impression to people that we are united, or we want to unite. But I still unfortunately think that our unity is as fragile as this flying beam that you see on your way in and out of this building, and as inefficient as the flying balustrade that was only for the void; it was just visual.”

If this sounds borderline rhapsodic, it’s understandable that the building stirs emotions in El Hallak. It has been a part of her life ever since she first happened upon it in 1994, on a gloomy day pacing the ruin of the demarcation line after witnessing the razing of the city center’s Martyrs Square. What began as a curiosity and hobby—she would show fellow architect friends around inside, and collect memorabilia found in the rubble on the apartments’ floors—turned into a heritage campaign when, in 1997, the building was formally earmarked for demolition by the municipality. Managing to persuade Rajeh al-Khoury, then-editor at Annahar newspaper, to print a story about it the day she found out, El Hallak led a civil society battle against the municipality (and its real estate associates) that eventually succeeded, in 2003, in getting the demolition order repealed. It then took a further nine years to win the authorities’ approval—in principle—to turn the building into a museum, and another four years after that to complete its restoration.

It must be said that this has been done well; the various fortifications and other fittings put in place while leaving a great deal of the original structure intact, bullet holes and all. Beirut’s municipality deserves its share of credit, not least for spending a reported $25 million on the project. But the job, unfortunately, remains unfinished, and there can be no real celebration until the day it opens as a museum, as planned and agreed. (It was only because the artist Zena El Khalil had arranged for an installation of hers to be held at the site for a few weeks that we as members of the public were able to be there at all. While there’s currently another exhibition underway, there is no guarantee of another after it.) Why exactly the museum plans are currently stalled is unclear, El Hallak told Al-Jumhuriya after her talk.

“I don’t know why. There’s no reason. We are a rich municipality; it’s not a matter of money […] I don’t know what to call it, but there is a link that’s missing. It’s now in the hands of the [Beirut] governor [Ziad Chebib], and he says he’s [studying] the legal structure that would make this possible. But you don’t need a year and a half to make this possible […] there’s something that’s not right, and it hurts.”

And it’s all the more disheartening for being needless. The war ended 27 years ago now, meaning no one under the age of 30 has any personal recollection of it. While there can be no doubt that the passions that fueled it, and the pain and anger it caused, continue to smolder in the national consciousness, the familiar claim that the Lebanese are axiomatically incapable of moving on looks sillier with each passing year. Speaking of Ziad Doueiri, his new film The Insult is a case in point. In a country where movies and even plays are routinely banned on pretexts of “threatening civil peace” and “inciting sectarian strife”—and where a parking dispute can escalate into a fatal shootout—Doueiri’s astonishingly realistic portrayal of a feud between a Lebanese Christian and a Palestinian Muslim refugee (using the real names of current politicians and warlords, and the real flags of their parties, with extensive references to real events from the war) wasn’t only allowed to air in the biggest cinemas in the country, but, when it did, led not even to shouting matches in the aisles, let alone sandbags in the streets. A substantial—and growing—segment of society is clearly more than ready to face the war’s demons head-on. If the authorities are as intent as they claim to be on forestalling new hostilities in future, it’s past time they enabled them to do so.

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As a postscript, it was impossible to listen to El Hallak’s talk without thinking of Syria, and the colossal scale of annihilation visited on such cities as Homs, Aleppo, and now Raqqa. I asked El Hallak if, in light of Beirut’s experience, she had any words for Syrians if and when the day comes that they embark on their own reconstruction chapter.

“I’ve come here with lots of Syrians, and Syrian artists. I hope that they would learn from the Lebanese experience; learn from the Lebanese destruction-slash-reconstruction, because this is coming to you. This is coming. Real estate developers do not think about memory, or identity, or history, they think about money.”

Nonetheless, El Hallak believes there may be one respect in which Syrians are better equipped for the challenge than their Lebanese counterparts were.

“What is to your advantage is that there’s a lot of documentation, which wasn’t the case for us. There was no social media. This is really important. At least they exist; the memories exist. What we have to collect now is already collected.”

“But it needs a huge, a huge effort, and it needs people who understand that not all that glitters is good for the city.”