Tags Posts tagged with "Beirut heritage"

Beirut heritage

    Here are some photos of the current demolition happening at the former home of Amin Maalouf, one of Lebanon’s best-known authors. Apparently conservationists have just lost the battle to preserve the building.    

    These photos were taken this morning by Maalouf’s cousin Roya Kanaan, who tells me the developer Kettaneh Group, has unilaterally begun the exterior demolition despite a series of meetings in which the multinational firm showed a willingness to engage in preservation efforts. Of course these photos seem to tell a different story:

    I’ve written extensively about the history of the Maalouf home, which has been rented by the family since 1950. Read my interview with Maalouf’s son, Ziad, and see photos of the interiors he sent me.

    If preserved, the iconic century-old home could have played an interesting role in a possible rejuvenation of the historic Badaro area. See pictures of the neighborhood and the role it undoubtedly played in Maalouf’s writing here.

    But instead of preservation, we’ll be getting yet another overpriced high-rise, appreciated by the few elites who can afford it.

    Read here about the now-failed efforts to reach the Kettaneh Group, according to Kanaan.

    As always, I’ve hoped that the Kettaneh company respond to these pieces–and the accusation that they have sidelined preservation efforts– but I have yet to hear anything from their side.

    UPDATE 5:30PM:

    I’ve just been down to the site and the demolition seems to be moving quickly. The entire elevated terrace has been destroyed and now wrecking crews have begun destroying the home itself:

    If that were not bad enough, it seems one of the house closet doors is being used to fill a gap in the perimeter wall:

    Are Amin Maalouf’s own furnishings being used to conceal his home’s destruction?

    While at the site, I also met a few of the guys from Save Beirut Heritage as they were doing interviews with the media outlets that had been dispatched to the scene.

    I asked why they were not able to stop the destruction and they said Culture Minister Gaby Layoun had already signed off on the demolition.  (This is the same Minister Layoun who approved of the destruction of a 2nd century BCE site believed to be a potential Phoenician dry dock earlier this year.)

    Culture Minister Gaby Layoun

    In the case of the Maalouf home: “the Minister said ‘he was sorry,'” Naji Esther from Beirut Heritage told me, recalling an earlier phone conversation with Layoun. “He said ‘he didn’t notice’ that the site was made of sandstone.”

    Esther explained that sandstone composition is one of many factors that can qualify a site for preservation. Apparently hosting the life of one of Lebanon’s most prominent authors, does not qualify for anything.


      There is no news about plans to demolish author Amin Maalouf’s former Badaro apartment, covered on this blog last week.

      A meeting with the developer, Kettaneh Group, did not take place on Friday as had been hoped, according to the prominent writer’s cousin Roya Kanaan. She says she could not reach the multi-national construction firm last week, despite its promise to discuss alternatives with the Maalouf family before launching a luxury high rise at the location.

      But Kanaan says there have been other “encouraging meetings” over recent days with groups and individuals concerned with heritage, and promises to update me on developments as they happen.

      For now, I can share some interior photos of the Maalouf apartment including the author’s bedroom and desk, taken by his son Ziad Maalouf:

      These photos were shot before the appartment was vacated last year after the building was sold for a reported $10 million, according to Kanaan. Notice bullet scars from the civil war above bed.

      Here is how the rest of the house looked:

      Amin Maalouf’s mother Odette and his sister Hind:

      Portrait and statue of Odette by her late husband and renowned journalist Ruchdi Maalouf, who first rented the home in 1961, when Maalouf was 12:

      Odette, pictured below at the building entrance, was the last Maalouf to live in the house, though her son and grandchildren often visited:

      For more on the history of the home, and its significance to Maalouf’s writing career, see my full interview with his son last week.

      On a related note, a group of school children visited the home last week after reading about it’s planned demolition on this blog:

       The pictures were sent to me by their 8th grade literature teacher, Kathleen Saleh, right:

      Hopefully these students won’t be among the last to see and appreciate the house of a local literary giant before it is gone.

      If anyone has more info (particularly from the developer’s side) please feel free to post in the comments below. 


        Having witnessed the destruction of so many Beirut buildings over the past two decades, it’s refreshing to see some businessmen interested in preserving the past.

        One such venture is Metro Al Madina (above), a relatively new bar and stage venue on Hamra street.

        Instead of tearing down the old in favor of glitzy furnishings, Metro tries to take a step back into the past by reviving Hamra’s theatre and cinema scene, which peaked in the 1950s and 1960s.

        Today most of Hamra’s theaters have been boarded up, while others reportedly sold to developers. Rather than reinvest in rejuvenating this once-vibrant entertainment scene, most big investments in the neighborhood go toward glass and steel residential towers and trendy bars and restaurants, often modeled on outlets in the West.

        But Metro Al Madina has traded tapas for Lebanese mezze, served to patrons while watching a 1950s style variety show… in Arabic:

        And it was a packed event, with the audience singing along to old folkloric songs. No mind-numbing, unintelligible techno lyrics. Good for them.


          The developers that plan to demolish the house of Lebanese literary legend Amin Maalouf have agreed to suspend works until this Friday, Maalouf’s cousin Roya Kanaan has just told me over the phone.

          The Kettaneh Group, one of Lebanon’s biggest construction firms, plans to build a tower on the Badaro property where the Maalouf’s lived (as tenants) for the last 50 years, but have now given the family until the end of the week to come up with an alternative plan to salvage the home.

          Kettaneh, which also operates a massive pharmaceutical, energy and automative business across the Middle East, had originally proposed a sort of monument to Maalouf (the only Lebanese inductee into the exclusive 40-member Academie Francaise), according to Kanaan who represented the family during the meeting.

          Maalouf’s office on the second floor looked down into the back garden of the home until last year.

          Such a monument would be incorporated into the proposed new structure, which will reportedly span around 20 floors of high-end residential apartments. But Kanaan refused the deal, arguing that the Maalouf home, an ornate 100 year-old garden mansion that gave birth to the career of one of Lebanon’s greatest writers, should be preserved.

          “If you are going to build a statue to Amin, really it doesn’t do anything for me,” Kanaan said, recounting her meeting with the developers today.

          When asked what she thought should be done, Kanaan counter-proposed: “I want you to help me raise money to buy it back from you.”

          Kannan says the Badaro estate could be turned into a cultural, literary or exhibition space. But with the property costing Kettaneh some $10 million, she fears that purchase could be insurmountable on such short notice.

          And because she was only given access to Kettaneh company representatives, and not the the actual Kettaneh family– one of Beirut’s wealthiest– she fears today’s meeting could have been a mere gesture.

          “Do they really want to save the house? I don’t know.

          “I don’t know where they really stand. They could begin tearing it down tomorrow morning.”

          The Maalouf home, which was located on the second floor of the iconic mansion, was still used as the writer’s library and office until late last year when the family was forced to evict.

          Maalouf, the author of such award-winning titles as “Rock of Tanios” and “The Crusades Through Arab Eyes” had lived in the home from adolescence through to the beginning of his early writing career, according to his son Ziad who shared some of the family history with me in this post last week.

          Ziad added that Maalouf’s 12th major work “The Disoriented” takes place during “that important period of his life” when he lived and worked from the now-condemned Badaro home.

          UPDATE: 6/11/12

          New pictures this afternoon. So far no construction has begun.

          Back view of the home, showing old art deco-like metal perimeter fence still in tact.

          The Maaloufs lived on the second floor since 1961

          While taking photos, a 67-year-old man passing by told me he remembered marveling at the building when he as a child. He estimated it to be around 90 years old.

          “This style could not be found anywhere,” he said, pointing out the detailed trim around the windows. He said the facades were carved in place. “Today they are pre-fabricated.”

          The building also features an elevated front garden, which is typical of some older Beirut villas.
          Kettaneh plans to replace the Maalouf home with a new high rise, which could resemble the glass and steel towers already sprouting up around the neighborhood behind it.  
          With the nearby museum and quaint shops and restaurants, the Badaro neighborhood still retains a lot of pre-war character.  

          This a panorama shot of the Maalouf home (right) in the context of Badaro.

          Back panorama shot showing towers emerging behind the Maalouf home, changing the character of the neighborhood. Will the Maalouf home meet a similar fate? 


          It won’t be long before another historic building vanishes without a trace in Beirut. As one would imagine, there is a heated debate over the redevelopment of the city center, especially because it’s being carried out by a private corporation (Solidere), founded controversially by a former prime minister. What shouldn’t be up for debate however, is photography of historic buildings as they are being destroyed. But as soon as I began snapping shots of said demolition (see photo above), the troubles began.
          “Hey you, what are you doing? That’s forbidden” a heavy man exclaimed from a parking lot across the street.
          “Hey, what? What’s the problem,” I replied.
          “Pictures are forbidden,” he said.
          “Why, this is a public street isn’t it,” I asked.
          “You are not allowed to take pictures of private property,” he said with certainty, his tone increasingly agitated. “That’s the law.”
          I was documenting the destruction of the building, I argued. “Please leave us alone and be on your way,” he replied, adding “you’ve taken your pictures, now go on, leave us.”
          He then claimed to represent the building’s owner and insisted I leave the area. When asked who the owner was, he became more anxious. “It’s none of your business who the owner is! Now go on, get out of here! Check the law, bring any police. It’s forbidden” he shouted, getting louder with every word.
          “Don’t people have a right to see the history of Beirut before its gone,” I asked.
          “KusUm Beirut (Fuck Beirut)” he said, before turning his back to me.
          Upon returning to my car a couple of blocks away, I noticed a uniformed police officer standing across the street and decided to get his opinion. “Who told you not to film,” he said, growing anxious himself. “Come with me.”
          I led the way and when we arrived the heavy-set parking attendant jumped up and faced the police officer, ready for a fight. “Filming is not allowed here,” he said, raising his voice. “The owner does not allow it.”
          “Excuse me habibi, calm down,” the officer said. “Filming of private property is only forbidden if you have a permit. Do you have a permit?”
          “No,” the man said, “but it doesn’t matter, it’s forbidden.”
          “If you don’t have a permit, he can film from the sidewalk,” the police officer said calmly.
          The man began shouting again. He then accused me of infiltrating the building. “He was inside the building!” Suddenly another man appeared, whom I’d never seen before, agreeing with the parking attendant and accusing me of entering the building. “I’m responsible if he is injured (by the demolition). I will be sued!” the attendant said.
          “That’s a lie,” I told the officer. “I was taking photos from the street. I never entered the building.”
          “I am liar!” the man screamed, throwing his hands in the air. “You are a liar! You’ve come here to cause trouble!”
          Naturally, the screaming drew a small crowd and soon a couple of men on scooters and Solidere private security guards showed up and began firing away questions, interrogation style: “Where are you from?”
          “Where in Beirut,” he added, looking suspicious.
          More questions: what do you do, who do you work for, etc.
          After a few minutes of back and forth, the men– apparently Solidere undercover police–explained that I could not photograph anywhere, any building in the downtown area without a permit.
          The police officer who accompanied me had remained silent the whole time. Then he turned to me: “Listen,” he said, “this is Solidere. Don’t cause problems, just go request a permit.”
          “But the building will be gone before I get one,” I countered.
          “What can you do,” he said. “They are in control here.”
          “But you should be in control,” I told the policeman. “This is the middle of Beirut.” He shrugged his shoulders.
          When the officer and I walked back toward my car, we encountered another officer, who had overheard our initial conversation. “What happened,” he asked.
          “Turns out Solidere owns the building,” I said.
          “Ahhh, Solidereeee,” he said, stretching the name for emphasis. “Don’t even think about taking pictures over there.”
          Here are some of shots I took before getting “caught”.

          It seems to be part of the Grand Theatre complex (adjacent un-destroyed bldg visible above on the same block) which I have written about here. The parking lot attendant/owner representative denied this however, saying “It’s just an old building, where people used to live.”
          Yet judging by the architecture, the building seems to be as old as the adjoining Grand Theatre. If anyone has any information on the use of this building or its connection to the Grand Theatre please let me know.
          On the subject of the Grand Theatre, I highly recommend Omar Naim’s documentary on it, available here.
          During the film, activists argue that the theatre should be preserved as a public space, a point that a Solidere representative seems to agree with during the film. Solidere even had murals painted over the construction walls, showing images that evoked memories of the theatre in its hey day.

          Then I noticed this numbering on the blocks, which also seems to indicate some planned restoration work:

          But a nearby worker said those plans have been abandoned as have those to create a public theatre space. The Grand Theatre, where legends like Oum Kultoum once sang, will reportedly now be turned into a boutique hotel. Somehow, I imagine the elite guests of said hotel will not appreciate photography either, and yet another part of Beirut’s history will become off limits to the public.

          Solidere Project Manager, Tamara Mae Napper, has promised that the building under demolition will be rebuilt. She said: “Solidere has carried out a detailed survey and even taken moulds of the facade features and salvaged some architectural elements in order to reconstruct it.” Responding to a Facebook thread, she added that the 1930s building was “in a poor state of repair” and “never had any functional or physical connection” to the Grand Theatre, though it seems to have been built around the same time. It is worth noting that the two buildings shared a continuous arched walkway which can be viewed in this picture I took a few years back. The two buildings also shared a common Solidere construction perimeter wall with similar artwork, as seen above.

          It remains unclear what function the new building will serve, what, if any, access the public will have to it and to what extent it be “reconstructed”. These basic questions can also be asked about the Grand Theatre. It is also unclear if Solidere will salvage any of the original building materials during its demolition such as the vintage 1930s glass sidewalk, colored glass ceiling and old signage–covered in this post— or the original iron dome with roof opening as seen in Omar Naim’s film.