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In A Bullet-Riddled Mansion, A Beirut Architect Envisions A Museum Of Memory

A group of students visits the Beirut mansion that architect Mona El Hallak is working to transform into a museum making sense of Lebanon's civil war.
Alice Fordham
A group of students visits the Beirut mansion that architect Mona El Hallak is working to transform into a museum making sense of Lebanon's civil war.

In the heart of Beirut, architect Mona El Hallak herds a group of students together outside a monumental mansion — a vast, elegant building whose yellow walls and graceful pillars are ravaged by thousands of bullet holes.

"We are," she shouts over the cacophonous traffic, "at the intersection of Damascus Road and Independence Avenue."

Once upon a time, nearly a century ago, this spot lay not at the center of today's energetic if dysfunctional city, but on the breezy outskirts of a much smaller Beirut — just the place where a wealthy family with exquisite taste might commission a fabulous home.

So a building that would eventually become symbolic of all Beirut's elegance, wealth and violence was begun in 1924, says Hallak as she points to a chipped inscription over the door. "You can still see the etching in the stone."

The sandstone building's architect was the famed Youssef Aftimos, born in the Chouf Mountains in the 19th century, when Lebanon was still part of the Ottoman Empire.

Aftimos worked in Lebanon — and elsewhere — through the dawn of the 20th century as it morphed from Ottoman province to French colony and finally, an independent state in 1943.

Many of the mansions built during the period he worked still lend central Beirut much of its charm, their shapes reimagining Ottoman and European styles: groups of three arches topping slender pillars and tall windows, red roofs, balconies overlooking the Mediterranean and airy salons where richly colored tiles glowed beneath crystal chandeliers.

For a wealthy family named Barakat, Aftimos dreamed up a mansion of ochre sandstone decorated with carvings made from another harder local stone known in Arabic as furne. It is really two houses, each with several apartments, joined together by an unusual central hall, straddling a corner that allowed light to pour into almost every room.

The Barakats lived on the second floor, on the side with the best view down the hill to the Mediterranean, and rented out the other apartments. "And they lived happily ever after," Hallak says. "Until 1975."

That was the year when simmering tensions in Lebanon bubbled up into a civil war that would seethe — multifactional and fueled by regional powers — for 15 years. The death toll is still highly contested, but tens or even hundreds of thousands are believed to have died. When it was over, Beirut was a shattered city, in some areas every building was damaged or destroyed. Many families left, although some of the Barakats stayed and still live in Lebanon. Paul Barakat runs a carpet business next to a Beirut museum. He welcomed this visitor, although he politely declined an interview.

There was no clear winner or loser. Trials for crimes committed during the war have been few: Senior commanders of some of the factions are politically influential today, including President Michel Aoun and Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri.

Hallak and many other Lebanese people say there is a pervasive fear that public discussion of the war could rekindle tensions — so much is contentious that trying to tell the story could result in contradictions, denials, even violence. The country has no war memorial, and the details of the war are not taught in schools.

But with great, great care, Hallak is trying to start the conversation. For two decades, she has headed a campaign to conserve the Barakats' old house and make it into a museum. To raise awareness of her campaign and of the building, she has guided hundreds of groups around it.

The students she is addressing are mainly Lebanese, who learn about the war through the lens of their parents' own experiences.

Architect Mona El Hallak says the building was "demolished." But, she adds, "I looked, and I saw suddenly the sky, the blue sky, through this building. There was this amazing hope in this building."
Alice Fordham / NPR
Architect Mona El Hallak says the building was "demolished." But, she adds, "I looked, and I saw suddenly the sky, the blue sky, through this building. There was this amazing hope in this building."

"As we all know, Damascus Road became a demarcation line which divided the city in two," she says. The building struck her because it was divided in two by its central hall, and was located on the Green Line, which divided the city during the war.

The Green Line, so called for the plants that sprang up during the war in the untended strip of city, split the factions of West Beirut from the east. The Barakat family fled to a safer area of Lebanon north of Beirut as soon as the war began. Militias moved into their house: A building designed so that sunshine could stream into thés dansants, tea dances, also offered ideal sight lines for snipers.

The building was notorious during Hallak's frightening childhood, when she and her family lived nearby.

After the war sputtered out in 1990, she came across it again as a young architect — a destroyed building among many others.

"This building was equally demolished, equally war-torn, there was a bullet in every square centimeter," she says. "But to me, I looked, and I saw suddenly the sky, the blue sky, through this building. There was this amazing hope in this building."

As she walked through the house, memories of hiding in her own home under a table with her mother, as fighting raged outside, came flooding back.

"If I have all these memories," she realized, "then somebody else will have all these memories — so this is a place of memory."

In 2003, Hallak persuaded the Beirut authorities to confiscate the house from its owners the Barakats, who planned to demolish it, and compensate them.

She wanted to turn it into a museum of memory — including of the civil war — called the House of Beirut.

For the parts of the museum that do touch on the war, she plans not to include facts, timelines, dates — but rather, she says, "the human experience of war — what happens to you and to your city during war?" She hopes personal stories will play a role in the exhibits.

Gradually, the Beirut municipality allocated $19.8 million to renovate the building, preserving some of the old features and traces of the fighting. It now stands ready for exhibits and visitors to arrive. But final paperwork from Beirut authorities that would enable it to open has not materialized.

Hallak thinks the delay stems from the fear of touching on sensitive issues.

"I think that there will always be fear within the government, within the municipality, that: What have we done?" she says. "We really started talking about the war in an officially owned building."

Beirut's governor, Ziad Chebib, said there are no such sensitivities, just bureaucratic hurdles. He thinks a museum covering the civil war now is a good idea, especially as a cautionary tale as the Middle East is consumed by conflict.

"I cannot give you an exact date for it," he said. "But I can promise, I can promise you that it will be very, very, very soon."

Hallak finishes her tour in the charred remains of what was once a vaulted hall. She tells the students to fight for what they believe in, and they applaud and thank her.

Afterward, one of them, Nancy Hawat, says she was inspired by Hallak and fascinated by the house. She is too young to remember the war. But she isn't sure her parents, who lived through the war, would visit the museum.

"I felt so weird, actually. I am young and it felt so weird for me, so for my parents and their generation, they will remember the war," she says. "And I don't think they will be happy to remember."

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Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.