On Memory and Commemoration in Beirut: The Holiday Inn in Bloom

Dounia Salamé

The magic of ruins persists, a near mystical fascination with sites seemingly charged with the aura of past events, as if the molecules of the sites still vibrated with the memory of their history” – James Young, The Texture of Memory.

On the seashore of Beirut, at the start of a long road called the Corniche, a 26-floor high building stands in ruins. It is known by most Beirutis as the Holiday Inn, an old hotel whose activities stopped at the beginning of the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war. On the sunny day of October 3rd 2009, I gathered flowers in pots and placed them on the sidewalk in front of the imposing, locked gate of the Holiday Inn. I carefully chose colorful flowers to create a contrast between them and the brown building. I had flowering plants of different sizes, and arranged them so that they formed a more or less regular shape, in a half circle. I stayed there for approximately four hours.

The Holiday Inn was built between 1971 and 1974, and designed by French architect André Wogenscky and his Lebanese collaborator Maurice Hindié. It presents typical characteristics of a modernist building of the time: purified lines and regular shapes. Due to its height numerous militias, seeking out its strategic position, occupied the building during the war. It is still in ruins, unlike most other hotels, which were damaged by the war but later renovated. It belongs to a joint-stocks company called the St-Charles, the majority of which belongs to a Koweiti Cheikha. It has recently been decided that the building will be restored and turned into a hotel again.

I will refer to my actions onto the space of the city as an “intervention”1: an ephemeral action done according to the meaning of the space and architecture of that particular place – in this case the juxtaposition of the flowers with the building. This intervention took place during an agitated political climate, which has continued for years in Lebanon. In a country where the politicians’ names are equally present in both daily newspapers and historical recollections of the 1975-1990 civil war, one gets the sense that the conflicts have not yet ended. Additionally, the general amnesty law promulgated in 1990, although defensible and understandable, prevented the population from feeling a much-needed sense of justice after the war.

In general, there is a definite relation between the built environment and memory. My aim is to explore these relations, particularly concerning the memory of the civil war in Lebanon, and the urban environment that was transformed by that war.

I will begin by explaining the general context in which I decided to do my intervention, and then address the problematic issues of memory, history and reconstruction in Lebanon. I will describe the actions taken in order to accomplish my intervention, and their general significance for the building of the Holiday Inn. Finally, I will present a few conclusions I arrived at after the intervention.

In Lebanon, there are few memorials of the war. The ones that can be found in Beirut, for example, are devoted to one specific community or one specific party related to the war. One example is the monument to the memory of Bachir Gemayel in Sassine’s Square. The monument, bearing the image of the leader, also displays the names of martyrs of the Lebanese forces killed in the war. Another memorial is the site of the communal grave in Sabra and Chatila, where one sees an empty plain with pictures and plaques on the side. The memorial in Sabra and Chatila is interesting in that it uses a space heavy with pain and memory, to create a space of commemoration. In both cases, not only are the memorials meaningful to one community only, but they are also situated in a part of the city inhabited exclusively by that community. They are hardly accessible to the Other.

The treatment of the memorial of war mirrors the treatment of the memory of the war, and the consequently fragmented writing of its histories. Artistic creation in Lebanon, today, is often about the war and its experience. One can also find many writings about it: memoirs, novels, and even history books.2 Such a proliferation of accounts is certainly useful to building the memory of the war and offering many points of view to the reader. But personal stories, and even documented writings of its history, don’t add up to a unified history that is common to all Lebanese. Of course, I am not trying to argue for a fixed history, especially for such recent events; history, like memory, is always evolving and needs to be updated often. However, the absence of an official history of the war, and therefore of a taught history, enables multiple legacies to be communicated to a generation that has not lived through the war, but that still reproduces its paradigms. This generation learns the personal memories of its parents as history, and not as a subjective version.

In consequence, seldom did it happen that a site in the city was conserved for its historical value from the war, and used as a national memorial. One example would be the Martyr’s Statue and its site in the center of the city, a missed chance for the creation of a collective realm of memory.3 Most likely, the main reason for such a lack of collective memorial is that it could be seen as recalling the war’s pain, but it is also because commemoration opens conflicts in the writing of history. The rebuilding of a city after a war is always problematic. The disappearance of the built environment is the occasion for planners to create a new city, rational and ordered, but at the same time, it evokes problems of identities that disappear along with the buildings.4 The highly controversial rebuilding of Beirut’s city center by Solidere is meaningful because of these issues. Solidere, the “Société Libanaise pour le Développement et la Reconstruction” took on the project of rebuilding the center of Beirut after the war. The destruction of the center of the city revealed archeological sites from different periods of the history of Beirut: Phoenician, Persian, Roman, and others.5 Solidere defines its undertaking as a mission for the reconstruction and the conservation of the historical center of Beirut. However, between 1991 and 1994, conflicts with Solidere were numerous. Expropriated owners, historians, urban planners and architects disapproved of the action of Solidere, who rebuilt some buildings exactly as they had been before the war, but used an apparently arbitrary selection of buildings and archeological sites to destroy others. Unfortunately, the numerous writings of critical scholars at the time were ignored due to the lack of an alternative amidst a striking economical crisis caused by the war. The result of Solidere’s actions is the opposite to a place of memory: in Beirut, a City Without History?, Saree Makdisi evokes the “restoration of the feeling of the old.”6 The reconstruction of the city center erases the part between the pre- and post-war to create an aesthetic effect on the pedestrian. What Saree Makdidi denounces most in the project is that it “erases the last traces even of that messy, uneven, discordant lived life that the war itself has destroyed.”7 Thus downtown Beirut is today empty, and occupied only by tourists, while its rich memory could have been used for commemoration and the creation of a collective realm of memory.

Solidere, as the area is today called, was such a vast project that it monopolized the writings on reconstruction and the presence of memory in the city. Even today, most of the writings about the memory of Beirut are concentrated around the same area. The Holiday Inn is in the periphery of this district and received little attention in the domain of urban planning and architecture. My aim in this essay is to show that it is a site of memory in Beirut that has a great potential to become a site of collective commemoration. In my intervention, by emphasizing its historical importance, I was already giving it the function of a memorial.

The Holiday Inn was planned between 1965 and the early 1970’s. At the time, architecture in Lebanon was experiencing a new turn in its styles and techniques. In this regard, Jad Tabet names the 1960’s as the “golden age of modern architecture in Lebanon”.8 Lebanese architects who had learned their skills in the West introduced a style that mixed modernist ideals of purified forms with local needs.9Even if the Holiday Inn was built later than this period, it can be said that it corresponds to this spirit, especially in the sense that its imposing size dominated the nearby seashore.

The Holiday Inn was situated at the limit of the famous Green Line that separated the city in two: “West Beirut” was Muslim in majority, and “East Beirut”, Christian. The war touched the zone of the Green Line the most in terms of physical destruction, and the district around the Holiday Inn was not an exception. In October 1975, the Holiday Inn fell into the hands of the “Phalangists” who were exclusively Christian.10 What followed during the next year was a raging battle between the Phalangists and the “United Forces”, a union of numerous pan-Arab militias with the objective of defending the Palestinian presence in Lebanon. Both groups were fighting for the occupation of the highest building in the Hotels District. This zone and the center of the city were the locations of the first battles in the war.11 Both sides successively occupied the Holiday Inn, and the national army who took control of the district before losing it again periodically interrupted the occupation. Many hotels, including the Phoenicia Hotel, the Hilton, the Normandie, the St-George, and the Holiday Inn, were the scenes of battles between both sides.12

Some of these hotels were completely destroyed, while others remained damaged until their renovation in the early 2000’s, but the ruins of the Holiday Inn stand alone in their imposing architecture and size. The building that was once a symbol of the Golden Age now stands as a reminder of the damages of the war in the city, contrasting with the Phoenicia Hotel which looks exactly as it did in 1974. In his essay about Beirut’s memory, Saree Makdisi writes about the postcards representing Beirut in its former pre-war glory.13When comparing the sights of today’s and yesterday’s views of the area around the Holiday Inn, one can immediately notice the difference between the Phoenicia, standing as it was, and the Holiday Inn, noticeably in ruins. It seems that there is a general desire to reproduce this Golden Age today, in the renovation of certain buildings, and in the construction of new modernist buildings in many areas of the city.

The first thing I learned in the process of doing my intervention was that the building was not left in ruins purposely. Since it is so massive, it would be very expensive to renovate it, but even more to destroy it without damaging the buildings around it. I therefore had to be very careful about relating the building and its space to issues of memory, since its owners considered it only as an engineer’s challenge.14 And indeed, enabling a certain memory of the space was the first step of my intervention. One of my first encounters during the process of my intervention was with the director of the St-Charles Society. She recounted the story of her visit to the Hotel during her early childhood, in December 1974, and how she precisely remembered the Christmas decorations, the purple velvet curtain and the imposing ceiling light.

As it may have appeared in this second part of my essay, I chose the Holiday Inn for my intervention because it is positioned as a historically iconic building, as much for the Golden Age of Beirut as for the “hotels war”. It is also situated between the post-war Beirut in ruins and the frenzy for reconstruction that lacks a consideration for the in-between period of the war. In the spirit of commemorating all who died in the war, the Holiday Inn was also appropriate since it saw fighters from many parties die. The gesture of laying flowers in front of the building recalled, for me, the gesture of laying flowers on a tomb, although I chose live flowers to suggest the evolving nature of memory. This approach was inspired by that of American historian James Young, whose works on Holocaust memorials insist on the importance of monuments to represent this evolving nature of memory.15

The path to realizing my intervention was not without obstacles. I originally had planned to put flowers in pots on some of the balconies, high enough for people to see them from afar. Unfortunately, after meeting with the director of the Lebanese office of the St-Charles to explain my project to her, I was not granted access to the building (according to the required formalities). The reason given to me by the St-Charles Society was that the Phoenicia Hotel, situated behind the Holiday Inn, didn’t want someone using the view from the Holiday Inn to plan an attack on it. The only people allowed entrance into the Holiday Inn, I was told, are the engineers and architecture firms that are competing for the contract to renovate the building. Although my first idea was virtually unworkable, my attempts to accomplish it helped me to develop my ideas on memory in Lebanon. As I intuitively sensed from the beginning, the Holiday Inn embodied the dysfunction of memory in Lebanon. The fear that the Phoenicia would be attacked from the Holiday Inn was almost anachronistic. Today, of course, the political scene is still unstable, and the concern over security is legitimate, but the supposition of an attack corresponds to the battle of ‘75-‘76. Memory, when kept as such (in the sense that the facts are still alive in people’s memory, and not processed and transformed into history), becomes a part of the present, and its bearers project it into the built environment.

The notion of “collective memory” first appears as being a contradictory one. Maurice Halbwacks, a French philosopher, develops the concept in his posthumous work: La mémoire collective.16 For him, the mechanisms of individual memory are experienced through society and its collective domain.17 This is what gives birth to plural memories in a society, in particular in the Lebanese society in which every community built its own memory of the war.

This brings us to the notion of the lieu de mémoire in Pierre Nora’s founding oeuvre, Realms of Memory.18 What is interesting in this notion is that, according to Nora, the lieu doesn’t embody memory in itself. The personal and collective memory has to enable the space (in this case) as a lieu de mémoire.19 In Nora’s theory, this concept appears as a fragile notion that can disappear if not taken care of with commemoration, anniversaries, and archives. As Nora’s lieu de mémoire does not only include actual places but also ideas and events, one can say, for example, that the “hotels war” is a lieu demémoire because it evokes a whole part of history that becomes symbolic: its beginnings in the streets. The Holiday Inn is not a lieu de mémoire as such, but as I mentioned earlier, my intervention was an attempt to enable memory in its space and to briefly turn it into a memorial.

The process for my intervention and my research was driven by a question: if restoring the Holiday Inn to the way it was in 1974 would, as Nora presents it, make it disappear as such in the Lebanese collective memory, then what can we ideally do with the imposing building? I will be mainly drawing from Young’s theories around the monument and the “countermonument” to defend my position for a Holiday Inn used as a memorial for the war. Young details the ambiguities of the memorial. As I am not looking for an exhaustive analysis of his theories, I will take one element that he develops as being paradoxical with its function. As memory is a construction that evolves with its society a monument can appear to be immobilizing it in stone and “[inviting] viewers to mistake material presence and weight for immutable permanence.”20 It can also bear the illusion of embodying common memory, and hide the reality of plural memory.21

The monument I imagine for the Holiday Inn would be a Center for Memory and Arts. As it is a very large building, it could contain on the first two floors a “Museum for the Memory of the War”. The upper floors would be used as offices for associations that work on memory and history in Lebanon. The rest of the building could be used as low-cost dwelling and studios for artists, as well as for contemporary art exhibition spaces. The museum would gather accounts of the experience of the war from individuals, maybe even accounts from the war in the Holiday Inn only. Gathering these individual memories would transform the actual violent events at the Holiday Inn during the war into legible knowledge, accessible to the Lebanese who currently have access to only a single version of suffering from the war. On the other hand, the reason I chose to associate artists and scholars in the same space is that artists often work on memory and archives while scholars and researchers organize art shows and film screenings. These two groups have a close relationship in Lebanon when it comes to the memory of the war. They both are often turned toward the articulation of common suffering and the search for civil peace, and towards exchanges between communities. In this scenario, the building would be restored to allow for use, but the facade would be left wounded so that the memory has a physical counterpart in the city, to be preserved in stone like a “traditional” monument, to resurface.

Young writes: “as I leave the space and others enter, memory in the monument changes accordingly.”22 This idea is the main functioning concept in my utopian memorial. The constant presence of people who work on memory inside the Holiday Inn would enable and embody the complex interrelations between memory and history, suffering and oblivion, present and past. As those artists and researchers evolve in their reflections on memory, memory itself evolves; and the building that has seen many layers of history settle on its rocks would be the perfect frame and setting for this constant fermentation.

My idea for the building to frame the work of researchers and artists working on memory is in line with the concept of the “noisy complicity” of architecture with social order, which Kim Dovey develops in his analysis of Pierre Bourdieu’s theories. “As a form of discourse,” he writes, “architecture constructs the representational frameworks, the narratives of place.”23 It takes a whole new meaning when thinking about the Holiday Inn: not only would the building as a memorial be enabled by the presence of the people in it, as demonstrated by James Young, but the dialogue between those people and the meaning of the architecture of the building (both itsmonumentality and its facade) would be obvious and “noisy”. Architecture itself would put the work on memory in place.

In Lebanon, a monument to remember is needed for people to feel that their dead are honoured, and to teach a unified history: a nation’s history. The Holiday Inn is a special building, because its ruined monumentality makes it visible in the city. The building’s size made it symbolic in its first function as a luxurious modernist hotel, then in its use during the war, and it is that same size that allowed it to stay in ruins while the rest of the city was being rebuilt without consideration of the past.

The flowers I laid in front of the Holiday Inn were an acknowledgement to the layers of history the building created by means of its own design. It was a declaration of the death of the prosperous Beirut of the 1960’s and a silent homage to the dead of the war. And, in the end, it was perhaps also an homage to the building itself, still standing.

Acknowlegments

Thank you to: Ramzi, Rita, Naya, Farid, Marwan and Jad, for their involvement in the project with me.
Fatek Mahfouz, for his generous loan of the flowers, and Abd, for his help in the installation.
Samer Dadanian.
From the Holiday Inn: Katia Merheb, director of the Lebanese branch of the St-Charles and the anonymous security guard.
The team from UMAM who helped in the research.

Endnotes

1 As formulated by professor Hammond for ARTH 450F Course Lecture, Concordia University, Montreal.
2 Saree Makdisi. “Beirut, a City without History?” in Memory and Violence in the Middle East and North Africa, dirs. Makdisi and Silverstein (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP), 2006.
3 About the Martyr’s Statue, see Makdisi, “Beirut, a City without History?”, 204; and about the Martyr’s Square, see Sawsan Awada-Jalu, “De l’usage de la mémoire dans la reconstruction” in Questions sur le patrimoine architectural et urbain au Liban, dirs. Akl and Davie, (Beyrouth, Tours: Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts, Urbanisation dans le Monde Arabe, 1999), 86-87.
4 Awada-Jalu. “De l’usage de la mémoire”, 77-79.
5 Ziad Akl and Michael F. Davie, dirs. Questions sur le patrimoine architectural et urbain au Liban.
6 Makdisi. “Beirut, a City without History?” 211.
7 Ibid. 212.
8 Jad Tabet. “From Colonial Style to Regional Revivalism: Modern Architecture in Lebanon and the Problem of Cultural Identity” inProjecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City, eds. Rowe and Sarkis, (Munich and New York: Prestel, 1998), 93.
9 Ibid. 94-98
10 Samir Kassir. La guerre du Liban: De la dissension nationale au conflit régional, (Paris and Beirut: Karthala-Cermoc, 1994), 132.
11 Ibid. 130-135.
12 For historical details see publications by Antoine Khoweiry, “The Armed Escalade” in The Lebanese Events: The War in Lebanon, (Beirut: published by the author, 1972), 400; the Palestinian Liberation Association, Journal of the Lebanese War, Part 1 and 2, (Beirut: Palestinian Liberation Association, Planification Center, 1977) 280-327 passim; 15-35; 140-149; Al Maktaba al-Haditha,“The Fall of the Holiday Inn” in The Lebanese War: The Siege of Beirut… The Mountain War, (Beirut: Al Maktaba al Haditha, Lil Tab’ wal Nashir, n.d., ca. 1983), 212; and Al Jazeera, “The Lebanese War”, Part 3 (“The break out”)http://aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/633FAE68-B0F4-4AB3-800A-B66BA76EC5E1.htm, and Part 4 (“Fire and smoke”)http://aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/294092DA-B0B1-4209-B9AD-AEDBA3E850CF.htm, Al Jazeera; and Joseph Saadé’s testimonial about the battles in the Holiday Inn (“Au heures calmes, nous profitions des charmes surréalistes du grand hôtel. Vautrés sur les lits, nous regardions la télévision. […] Dans la cave, il restait quelques bonnes bouteilles de vins fins et champagnes.” in “La guerre des hôtels,” In Victime et Bourreau, Une vie raccontée par Frederic Brunnquell et Fréderic Couderc, (Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1989), 118.
13 Makdisi. “Beirut, a City without History?”, 202-203.
14 From my discussions with the director and the security guard, September 25th – October 3rd 2009.
15 James Young. At Memory’s Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture, (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2000); The Art of Memory: Holocaust Memorials in History, (Munich and New York: Prestel; New York: The Jewish Museum, 1994); The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993).
16 Maurice Halbwacks, La mémoire collective, 2nd ed, (Paris: Les Presses universitaires de France, 1967).
17 Ibid. 6.
18 Pierre Nora, dir. Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past,Translated by Arthur Goldhammer, (New York: Columbia UP, 1996).
19 Ibid. 7.
20 Young. The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. 14.
21 Ibid. 6.
22 Young. The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning. “preface”, xii.
23 Kim Dovey. “The Silent Complicity of Architecture,” in Habitus: A Sense of Place, 2nd ed, Jean Hillier and Emma Rooksby, eds., (Aldershot, UK, Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005), 291.

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