Dima El Hassan| The Daily Star
On the eve of April 13, 2017, 42 years on from the start of the Lebanese Civil War, the situation may seem ridiculously unchanged. We are witnessing the same contradictions that are forever unsolved, religiously, politically and socially. Divisions still exist between the different co-existing communities and sects. There is still no consensus over the social contract, the role and authority of the state, the issue of uncontrolled weapons and other uncontainable escalations. There seems no room for national dialogue, despite some timid attempts to find a common ground to start from.
April 13, 1975, is no doubt a black day for all the Lebanese people – for those who enacted it, lived it and even who were born afterward. We are all bearing its unresolved implications and spillovers.
April 13, 1975, brings back to many a memory of 15 years of Civil War that is not manifested in any public platform: It’s not present in our history textbooks, it’s not exhibited in our museums, it’s not marked by a public commemorative day. Lebanese people agreed to share a culture of silence around it. The “demarcation line” that once divided west Beirut from east Beirut has been eliminated in practice to erase all traces of segregation, and thus limiting its existence within the minds of people.
However, one testimonial to this history decided to come out of the dark silence: “Beit Beirut” or “The House of Beirut,” a historical landmark that marks the first public museum to document the Lebanese Civil War. Located at the former demarcation line, the building, previously known as the “Barakat Building” or the “Yellow House,” is an architectural piece of innovative design.
Its structure and location at the Sodeco crossroad made it a prime spot for snipers at the time of conflict. By the end of the war in 1990, the yellow house was severely damaged and ready to be completely demolished before the intervention of activists who called for its restoration.
Now it has become a museum and an urban cultural center, symbolizing the resurgence of the prestigious cultural and pedagogical heritage that Beirut has gained across its history and beyond its borders.
Beit Beirut, a project now owned by the Municipality of Beirut, in collaboration with the City of Paris, has different functions, making it a space for memory, debates and exhibitions.
It displays the history of the city, notably the Civil War era.
It also exhibits the city’s 7,000-year history through its museum.
While its original structure is kept intact, the building is being restored and expanded to embrace a museum, a cultural and artistic meeting place and an urban research facility with a public library and archives.
Talking to architect Mona El-Hallak, the leading activist who was behind preventing the demolition of the building, Middle East Eye said: “The center should offer a way of beginning the process which will end in the Lebanese being able to remember, to understand, to process and then to say ‘never more.’”
Beit Beirut constitutes the tomb of a brutal era of Lebanon’s history, but also the dismissal of a deeply rooted legacy of muteness, blindness, shadowiness and fear from a disgraceful past. It is the bridge that transfers the mortal borderline of yesterday into a blossoming road for tomorrow.
From the “house of death” to the “house of hope,” Beit Beirut is making April 13 take another course – building the way for a common future while learning from our crucial past.
Dima El Hassan is director of programs at the Hariri Foundation for Sustainable Human Development.