‘Allo, Beirut?’ exhibition reconnects to forgotten past of Lebanon’s capital

Collection brings together a diverse group of creatives, exploring the story of the city from its 1960s golden era to its troubled present

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Few buildings in Beirut represent the complexity of Lebanon’s recent history better than Beit Beirut, a former residential building that today is a museum and cultural space in the heart of the Lebanese capital.

Now, the venue is hosting Allo, Beirut?, a multi-faceted, year-long artistic and culture exhibition over a decade in the making, which brings together a diverse collection of artists, creatives, journalists, researchers and collectors, exploring the story of Beirut from the golden era of the 1960s to its troubled present.

“I started to write about places of memory in Beirut in 2010,” journalist and curator Delphine Darmency tells The National. “I started with Beit Beirut. My grandmother lived in Monot, and I was always impressed by this building because it's beautiful, but at the same time sad.

“I didn't know much about the memory of the war and what happened before the war,” she says. “In Beirut, a lot of places are kind of stopped [in time]. It's a strange feeling to enter buildings like that. It's a privilege.”

Allo, Beirut? features many genuine photographs and documents donated by private collectors. Photo: Robert McKelvey for The National

Originally constructed in 1924, the Barakat Building ― as it was originally known – was home to local middle-class families and a thriving photography business, until the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. The building then became a snipers’ nest overlooking the nearby Sodeco crossroad, located on the now infamous Green Line that separated the different armed factions.

After the war ended, the abandoned building was condemned in 1997 because of the damage and repeated acts of vandalism, but was saved by Lebanese heritage activists. In 2003, the municipality of Beirut issued a decree of expropriation for public interest, beginning the process of creating the Beit Beirut cultural centre.

“[This is] a public museum,” Darmency says. “We need more access to culture in Lebanon for the general public, so there are two sides of this exhibition. One is to talk about us and our past, but the other part of it is to open Beirut.

“During this crisis, I’ve seen on social media that people are [saying that] it was better before,” Darmency says. “A lot of people are talking without having the information. There is something broken, in terms of transmission and information. Each time we are trying to build the country, something happens and we start from the beginning.”

Allo, Beirut? sets out to evoke a lost era of Lebanon's past. Photo: Robert McKelvey for The National

Theatre writer, director and performer Chrystele Khodr’s connection to the Barakat building is especially personal. During the Civil War, her mother was nearly killed by a gunman hiding in the same room where her installation, Her Road To Damascus, now stands.

“When my mother was pregnant with me [in 1983], she lost her way while she was visiting the hospital,” she tells The National. “She arrived on Damascus Road and people were telling her: ‘Get away! Get away! There's a sniper!’

“I wanted to talk about what happened to my mother, today and 39 years ago,” she adds. “She raised three daughters by herself [working as] a post office employee. Now, with the devaluation [of Lebanon’s currency], her pension is around €20.”

This immersive piece places visitors in a dimly lit space filled with deliberately familiar and kitsch objects, intended to be experienced alone. While the space is meant to be comforting and uterine, the experience is also designed to be unsettling, reflecting the building’s nature as a monument to Lebanon’s past conflicts.

At the same time, Khodr invokes the country’s current morass of widespread political corruption and systemic injustice.

“Crimes were committed in this building,” she says. “For me, it's impossible not to talk about [this because] crimes are still being committed. I hope that the people will take a moment to reflect on what happened in this building, what the city was turned into [and] how we are repeating it. We cannot continue this way.”

Lily Abichahine's installation called I Was Destroyed By A Mall Thrice. Photo: Robert McKelvey for The National

For performance artist Lily Abichahine, the exhibition is an opportunity to explore her own experiences of Beirut’s constantly shifting urban landscape. As a child, she was forced to leave her first school, Carmel Saint Joseph, when it was destroyed to make way for a commercial centre.

“My school had a huge sandpit [made of] elegant concrete with beautiful refined sand,” she says. “It’s my first [memory, from] when I was three years old. That sandpit was like this new sea, welcoming me.”

A few years later, she saw parts of her second school replaced as the same commercial centre continued to expand. Then, as an adult and practising lawyer, she was shocked to discover that she had worked on that same commercial centre’s legal contract in a law firm when she was an intern.

Her installation, I Was Destroyed By A Mall Thrice, Or The Three Stages of Demolition, represents this endless restructuring, with common construction elements ― such as concrete, steel reinforcements and glass ― emerging and receding into a bed of sand.

The piece also incorporates audio recordings of interviews Abichahine conducted with dozens of local residents who remember the area before the demolitions, because few photographic or visual records exist.

“I was left with the sentiment that nobody asked me if I wanted to leave my school,” she says. “When I talk to people who went to that same school, or who knew the neighbourhood, what [was] striking is that [they] all had that same kind of feeling.”

Many of the installations and recreations in Allo, Beirut? feature real, physical, historical documents where possible. Lebanese institutions have only recently begun to take the historical preservation of documents seriously. Most of those on display have been donated by private collectors, who have spent years gathering these materials for posterity.

What is unusual is that many of these items are not kept behind glass, but are deliberately left for visitors to interact with, in an attempt to bridge the past and present.

“Here, you can come [and] no one will tell you [that you] cannot touch something,” Darmency says. “We know that ― even if it's not on purpose ― things [being handled through] the year will be totally destroyed, but it was important for [visitors] to be able to touch [them] because, if you can't, you forget that you are part of the picture.”

Updated: November 25, 2022, 6:02 PM
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