Walid Raad. My neck is thinner than a hair: Engines. 1996–2001. One hundred pigmented inkjet prints, each 9 7/16 × 13 3/8" (24 × 34 cm). Fund for the Twenty-First Century. © 2020 The Atlas Group/Walid Raad

For the Houses of Beirut

A curator reflects on the lost houses of Beirut.
Sean Anderson Aug 28, 2020

In Arabic, بيت‎, or beit, signifies not only a house as a physical construct but also a measurement of time in the crafting of poetry. Scholars believe that the word was originally spoken among communities, including Bedouins, who still live in the Ras Baalbek and Syrian deserts. Each component of a beit, be it a tent pole or a tent peg, was associated with the structure of a nomadic house. Composed of two, three, or four feet, the beit is also an assembly of 16 to 32 syllables. And so houses are built as a measure of language and, by extension, language becomes the house in which one’s dreams are not only collected but also heard.

On August 4, the world was witness to the horrors not of war, not of retribution, but of recalcitrance in the face of political stalemates and corruption. In the moments following the blasts, much of the city of Beirut was devastated. Soon, many of its cultural institutions, markets, warehouses, and homes—the spaces in which a city maintains its past and future—lay in desolation. With every shockwave, one more layer of Beirut’s history was extinguished. Immediately following these events, images and stories of individuals helping each other down dark stairways onto sidewalks, of neighborhood brigades clearing the streets of glass and metal to make way for ambulances, testified to the residents’ unspoken reliance on each other to survive, to preserve even a glimpse of the poetic in the face of utter misery.

To be sure, the violent emptying of Beirut has a long trajectory, as the city is one of the world’s earliest crossroads. Beirut is a confluence not only of Iron Age and Roman imperialism, but of internal strife, regional one-upmanship, and the ever-present danger of violence from inside and outside its borders. Cities are repositories. As the ongoing efforts to save the art objects found in the Sursock Museum, the Arab Image Foundation, and the National Library demonstrate, there remains perseverance in the wake of trauma.

Where can one find the beit of Beirut today? Is it in the azaan that once resounded from the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, otherwise known as the Blue Mosque, now damaged? Is it in the detailed arabesques incised within the walls and surfaces of arcades, hammams, and mansions, now derelict due to war? Is it in the smell of fresh khubz along Bliss Street? Can one find even a tent pole under which to seek safety amid the wrecked porches and windows of the French-mandate bespoke façades and interiors of the Foch-Allenby District? Even outside the walls of the ancient city, neighborhoods such as Gemmayze and Mar Mikhaël—which have survived civil war and, more recently, the destruction of historic buildings due to uncontrolled development—reverberate with sounds of collapse. Beirut had been evolving into a thriving, if not altogether inequitable, contemporary city, but its downtown areas were not spared from the furies of the explosion. Each neighborhood’s precarity remains.

The process of recovery is unfathomable. As the fatigue of rebuilding once more sets in for Beirut’s residents, including the city’s large refugee population, the making of shelter is a priority. While refugees are not allowed to use concrete, they too must find temporary spaces. The beit of Beirut is composed of these histories, these narratives of love and loss, of buildings fashioned as vulnerable sentinels of society. And yet this archiving of the city and its houses can never be lost altogether.

“On Houses” is one of 26 fables found in The Prophet, the beloved philosophical poetic text written by the Lebanese-American author Khalil Gibran in 1923. Speaking of exile and return, Gibran writes, “Your house is your larger body…. Your house shall not be an anchor but a mast.” For Gibran—as for many of those who remain in Beirut, as well as those seeking solace from afar—the beit of Beirut can be found within all of us.

Download an Arabic translation of this article in PDF format.