Maalouf: “We don’t have a home in Beirut anymore”

I just got off the phone with Ziad Maalouf, a son of Lebanese literary giant Amin Maalouf, who’s childhood home (pictured above) has recently been sold and is reportedly slated for demolition.

After posting an article and some pictures on Facebook about this story, I was contacted by my colleague Massoud Derhally, a former longtime Beirut-based correspondent, who put me in touch with the Maalouf family.

Ziad, 36, the youngest of three sons, phoned me from Paris and explained that the land owners have actually been trying to evict his family for at least a decade: “They’ve been talking about forcing us to leave for the last 10 to 15 years,” he said.

The Maalouf family had moved into the building, located in the Badaro area, around 1961 and occupied the second floor apartment. Amin Maalouf, author of over a dozen books and the first Lebanese inductee into the prestigious 40-member Academie Francaise, spent his formative years in the home from the age of 12 to 22.

The period marked the beginnings of Maalouf’s writing career, his son Ziad, a journalist for Radio France Internationale, explained.

“They were very important years,” Ziad said, noting that Maalouf had begun working as a part-time reporter around the age of 16, alongside his father, Ruchdi Maalouf, a well-known journalist and poet in his own right.

As a student, Amin Maalouf’s room overlooked a courtyard garden and he had access to his parent’s library, “the books that made him,” Ziad said.

Amin fled to Paris in the mid 1970s at the outset of the Lebanese civil war, but continued to spend time in the home in the preceding years and regularly visited with his family.

“The library was just the way it was until the end of last year,” Ziad said. “It was the place where he grew up: reading literature, listening to the radio; nothing changed.”

For the younger Maaloufs, stepping into the home was like entering “a ghost of the past,” and a living memorial to his late grandfather Ruchdi, who passed away in the 1980s.

“It was a very beautiful apartment, 500 square meters. It was untouched since the 1970s; the paintings on the wall, the shell holes, the bullets. The house was right on the (civil war) demarcation line.”

Amin Maalouf’s 91-year-old mother was the last of the family to reside in the home. She packed everything up late last year after losing a number of legal battles to the owners and developers.

“We don’t have a home in Beirut anymore,” Ziad said. “We have no place to stay–except with friends or family, which is sad.”

While his father was “very moved” by the interest of activists who have sought to shed light on the demolition, Ziad says he has not made efforts to prevent it: “My father is a very humble man. He is not the type of person to demand his memory be kept alive.”

He may also lack the resources to do so: “We are a famous family, but not in fields that make money,” Ziad said with a chuckle.

But the younger Maalouf is worried the move is part of a larger trend in the Beirut real estate market: “It’s a symbol of a city that does not respect its past, but destroys it.”

He laments the continuous loss of 1930s-1950s iconic Lebanese architecture in favor of new towers, many which remain empty; the product of real estate speculation more than planned development, he says.

“These landmarks, you can’t rebuild them. You can capitalize on skyscrapers for the future, but you can also capitalize on your history and those who build the pride of your country.”

“The former does not exclude the latter. The only thing is who decides what to preserve and where to build skyscrapers–if you need them.”

Correction/Clarification:

Ziad Maalouf is 36 not 33 as originally posted. He would like to clarify that he was returning my call and not initiating the conversation. It should also be noted that this piece is told from the family’s perspective and is not intended as a definitive history but rather a starting point for research on this topic. I welcome any comments or different interpretations to address the issues brought up in this post.

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