Beirut heritage activist receives French medal of honor
Preserving heritage is not usually a very acceptable activity in Beirut. Activists are routinely harassed for documenting it–sometimes assaulted just for taking pictures of historical sites, even threatened by officials and developers. But the tide could be turning.
Architect and preservation activist Mona El Hallak was just awarded a French medal of honor–the “Ordre National du Merite” by the French Ambassador in Beirut. El Hallak has worked on a number of preservation campaigns over the last 20 years, the most prominent of which is her effort to save the early 1900s Barakat Building, which will now be turned into a museum, with help from French institutions.
El Hallak told me the historic building was just four days away from demolition in the early 1990s in a piece I wrote last year for Al Jazeera about the continuous destruction of old Beirut amid real estate speculation.
At first Mona teared up when she approached the podium, flanked by French Ambassador Patrice Paoli.
But she quickly gained her composure and delivered a rousing speech, casting light on the many battles that have been waged and the many battles ahead, where activists have been volunteering their time and making progress.
These include struggles to protect the last undeveloped seafront at Ramlet el Baida and Dalieh, the struggle to demand the opening of public parks and to resist the destruction of green spaces by municipality projects such the halted Boutros Road–battles to overcome the power of real estate companies and government officials and give citizens a voice in how their city is built. (See Mona’s full speech at the end of this post)
Many of the big TV channels showed up.
And plenty of photo opportunities with Ambassador and members of Lebanon’s vibrant civil society.
But where were our government officials? Mona told me she hadn’t seen any of them. So why is that foreign governments are recognizing the value of our hard-working professionals and not the local Lebanese government that stands the most to gain from their efforts?
And while Beit Beirut is now under construction by the municipality, how long will it take to open? The expropriation order to save the building was issued in 2003 and this 2007 photo shows the scaffolding up:
While this 2010 photo shows the banner has changed with completion date of 2013:
Today, almost 12 years after the first expropriation order, some progress has been made on the interiors and window frames, but the completion date has been moved to 2014, which has now also passed:
If anything, this proves activism and preservation is a long term project in Lebanon, but one that is steadily seeing results. It will take much hard work and dedication from people like Mona to keep the momentum going to push this project and other preservation efforts forward. Maybe now with some international recognition, local officials will slowly start to come around.
Here is Mona’s full speech, delivered at the French Ambassador’s residence on Jan 15:
Thank you Your Excellency Ambassador Mr. Patrice Paoli.
I am honored to be standing here among family and friends receiving such a distinguished
recognition from France in such a remarkable architectural setting. To be decorated in the
Residence des Pins from the porch of which General Gouraud proclaimed the establishment of
L’Etat du Grand Liban in 1920 is almost a dream.
But in Beirut, my beloved city, one has to keep on dreaming…
I dream of a city with proper urban planning where real estate speculation and construction are
regulated by building laws that serve the city’s interest and creates a good urban environment
rather than allow chaotic developments to satisfy the developers’ greed .
I dream of a city with a law to preserve its architectural heritage, where unique early 20th
century buildings are not destroyed for towers to be built changing irreversibly the character
and scale of the few remaining intact heritage clusters in the city. Yet the sign at their entrance
gate still reads in the shadow of the tower:”Rue a caractere traditionnel”…a city where when
they say Sama Beirut, they mean our beautiful blue sky on a sunny Mediterranean day and not
a glass faced tower rising infinitely in a closely knit neighbourhood ruining its unity and
overloading its infrastructure beyond redemption.
I dream of a city where cultural heritage is also preserved in buildings like Theatre de Beyrouth and
Studio Baalbeck. I dream of a city with a public transportation system where people can enjoy urban mobility
without having to drive their car to move from one point to another in the city, or walk safely
on an uninterrupted sidewalk…
I dream of a greener Beirut, of children playing again in Horsh Beirut, the largest public green
space right next to us closed for more than fifteen years now, like I did when my father used to
take me there for the famous swings every Eid.
I dream of a city where public space is celebrated as a necessity in our polluted and congested
where the public sandy beach of Ramlet el Baida is in no way and under no circumstances
thought of as a private hotel and beach resort,
where Daliet el Raouche is an extraordinary public maritime parc on the last coastal area of
Beirut whose morphology and paysage have remained intact with its rich biodiversity and
unique archaeological, geological and cultural significance…not one more private exclusive
resort and marina,
I dream of a city where when the choice is between creating the Fouad Boutros urban parc and
reviving an obsolete 1950’s highway plan that would destroy the beautiful existing fabric with
gardens and open green spaces, the choice would be to find a way to resolve the problems that
make the parc a reality instead of trying to defend the highway and minimize its destructive
I dream that my son Yazan will have the chance to walk in a Downtown Beirut buzzing with life
and people from all over the country and all socioeconomic layers, not a compound built by the
rich for the rich; a beating heart of the city where the Martyrs’ statue is celebrated as a national
monument not left in the dark surrounded by car parks that await further high end luxurious
construction projects that will change the identity of Martyrs’ Square forever.
And I always dream of Beit Beirut “La Maiso Jaune” glowing with its yellow furne stone as a
uniting place in the city,a space for peace and hope, an urban cultural center
dedicated to the memory and the history of the city where people talk and listen to each
others’ stories, instead of fighting and killing each other; a project that will instill some civic
engagement and collective belonging where people will go in to learn more about their city and
go out to discover it, respect it and hopefully preserve it better. a place that will use art as a
means of cultural expression to make memory issues more accessible to the wider public and
through its interactive exhibitions, screenings and lectures , it will be a platform to raise
questions, initiate the debate and address the reconciliation process in the city, 25 years after
the end of the civil war.
When I discovered the Barakat Building in 1994, I found in the first floor East apartment of Dr.
Nejib Schemali an old newspaper with his photo receiving the Ordre National du Merite from
Comte Du Chayla. I never imagined that after twenty years , I would be standing here receiving
the same honor from you, Mr Ambassador. In that paper, there was a verse that read in arabic:
غير بلبنان ما بتروي غليلها فرنسا منَا قلبها دليلها
لو حللوا دمنا تحليل كيماوي فرنساوي وحياة عينك فرنساوي
This is the historical relationship between France and Lebanon : “une histoire anciene et riche
des liens d’amitie” . I take the chance to thank France for all the support it has given the
Municipality of Beirut in the past decade: be it the Region Ile de France in the Bois de Pins
Rehabilitation, Le Projet de Liason Douce, et Le Plan Vert de Beyrouth , or the Ville de Paris
with the project management assistance for Beit Beirut and the institutional and scientific
support from the French Embassy and the Institut Francais du Liban.
Allow me to thank H.E. Mr Yaacoub Sarraf for his invaluable support as the Governor of Beirut
to get the expropriation decree for Beit Beirut in 2003,
to thank the previous Beirut Municipal Council -Mr Ralph Eid is here with us today- and the
present Beirut Municipal Council- who are having their Council meeting right now so no one is
here with us- for making Beit Beirut a reality.
and to thank H.E. Governor Ziad Chbib for keeping Beit Beirut a top priority project inorder to
proceed with the cultural program of the Museum.
I thank my family, my mom who never understood why i fight so fiercely for buildings that are
not owned neither by my father nor my grandfather, my husband Anas who shares my
enthusiasm and tolerates the time it takes me away from home.
Thank you again Mr Ambassador for receiving us in your beautiful residence and inshallah we