Waste No Tears for Amin Maalouf’s Old Home

I have been reading Habib Battah’s admirable reporting on the demolition plans for Amin Maalouf’s old house in Badaro with great interest. I appreciate the work Habib is doing and his obvious passion for this cause, but I just can’t get myself to sympathise with it or carry its flag. There are many reasons why I don’t care and instead find that the demolition of Maalouf’s old home one of the more honest Lebanese things that can happen (more on that later).

A dubious cultural value

I have absolutely no doubt of the importance of Amine Maalouf and his work, but I don’t think that a house he once lived in carries equal cultural value. The best attempt at making that case was by Habib:

If preserved, the iconic century-old home could have played an interesting role in a possible rejuvenation of the historic Badaro area. See pictures of the neighborhood and the role it undoubtedly played in Maalouf’s writing

I’m sure that the house might have somehow shaped his thinking, and maybe it could play a cultural role in an enlightened Badaro’s future, but since when was that the standard for preservation? Preservation –a seriously disruptive act that requires a strong state interference against commercial activity– usually takes place if the Architecture is truly unique, ancient or significant, or if the house itself played a very prominent role in Mr. Maalouf’s writings. This doesn’t seem to be the case here.

The majority of Maalouf’s work took place in France, long after he left that Badaro home. If the house was really that important to Mr. Maalouf, wouldn’t he at least have mentioned it and made some sort of plea for it to be preserved? He’s French in addition to being Lebanese and the French Ministry of culture would have at least written a letter to our own Ministry of culture.

Honest

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance given to the Lebanese who achieve success outside of Lebanon. These people, the Gebran Khalil Gebrans, the Carlos Ghosns and Carlos Slims of the world are lionised in Lebanon regardless of whether they lived in Lebanon or produced their important work in Lebanon.

In fact, one can even argue that the Lebanese can only truly achieve greatness outside of Lebanon and that their stay in Lebanon does nothing but hold them back.

This is why in the beginning I wrote half jokingly that the most honest thing to do to Amin Maalouf is to destroy his home in Lebanon. For in that act lies a recognition and an understanding that one’s physical presence in the country can hold one back from greatness. Call the destruction of his ancient home what you want: A cutting of the umbilical cord or a killing of the overbearing father; Amin Maalouf can now be truly set free.

Related:

If you’re interested in the subject of Architectural preservation in Lebanon, I encourage you read this Beirut Spring post from last year: “We Need a Smarter Conversation About Preserving Lebanese Architecture”. I think it touches on a very important coversation that the Lebanese ought to be having. Here’s a choice paragraph from it:

imagine an effort to preserve the world’s music heritage because for some reason the world’s music is being threatened. How would you feel if that effort only included classical music of the great masters (Beethoven, Bach, Chopin..etc) and ignored every other genre? Rock, Reggae, Jazz, Pop, funk, World, Alternative, Country.. All these “contemporary” genres would be deemed unimportant and passed over, doomed to eternal oblivion. This is how it feels today in Lebanon with the preservation activism.

Read the rest here.


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  • Rana

    A demolition of any historical building is simply sad, whether it was Amin Maalouf’s or someone else’s. Especially since we do not have a proper urban planning, and its not like something better is going to come up in its place, just plain ugliness and chaos, no charm.

  • http://majnouna.com Joumana

    I lived in Badaro almost my whole life, and I disagree without really disagreeing: I don’t think this house should have been preserved because Maalouf occupied it for a time, but for its own sake. It belongs to a category of old houses that gave this neighborhood a cachet of its own, and it’s a disgrace (though one we’re too accustomed to) that they’re allowed to fall into disrepair and disappear when they can be make up a slice of our architectural history by themselves.

  • http://beirutspring.com Mustapha Hamoui

    If I understand correctly, both of you are against the destruction of the home, but not because of the fact that Maalouf lived in it, but simply because it’s a historic house in its own right..

    Sounds fair, and in a way I think this supports my point. Still, I think we need a different post about what warrants the preservation of a building.. I will post a link to an important previous post as an update

  • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Lebanese-Voices/328197809461?ref=ts racha

    One problem the we keep ignoring is the urban structure of Beirut. There is 0 urban planning for the city, demolish a building, erect a tower, die in traffic and then wonder why! the city is not made for towers, the streets, electricity supply, water supply, internet, all can’t handle the capacity of the people that are occupying Beirut. especially that the new commercial towers are just… blugh.

  • http://sakalaki.wordpress.com Ismail Sakalaki

    I agree with the opinions stated above. It’s not really about the house itself; it’s about changing the entire characteristics of the Lebanese neighborhoods and wiping out their identity by replacing buildings with architectural values with new ugly ones. The building doesn’t have to be an architectural masterpiece to be considered valuable; it can be simple and minimalistic but perfectly blended with its surroundings thus giving the neighborhood a sort of individuality. Achrafieh for example was beautiful, now it’s ugly.

    Of course some of the old houses need to be destroyed and replaced, but this has to be done following a coherent plan. We don’t really have good urban planning in Lebanon because as I said, there’s no continuity. On the contrary, the cities are growing chaotically and Beirut’s skyline is now among the worst in the world. And no I don’t think ‘activists are focusing uniquely on very old architecture and ignoring the gems produced by more contemporary movements’. I think the point is, the destruction of old houses is happening extensively now and entire neighborhoods are wiped out (because of the current Real Estate situation) and that created a sense of urgency which explains the hype.

  • http://lebanonspring.com Zak

    Just a thought. Stratford-upon-Avon in England is famous for being the hometown of Shakespeare. It receives lots of visitors all-year round to see anything related to the man. The town lives from tourism, which is generated by keeping the old places intact (and refurbished). His birth home has been turned into a museum of his life and career. You pay to enter, although most of what’s in there is not necessarily genuine; the only significance is that it’s the house were Shakespeare was born and raised.

  • http://gravatar.com/gkaram gkaram

    It is very unrealistic to expect urban planning in a state that has no planning for anything.

  • http://boredatworkentertainme.blogspot.com/ MNS

    I am glad that Amin Maalouf’s house is being demolished. In my opinion, it is a very logical decision. To turn the house into the next Shakespear or Charles Dickens museum would require tourists that are patient enough to go through Beirut’s lack of urban planning that is evident in its non-stop traffic. And frankly, patient tourists like that are hard to find, a vacation package is usually stress-free, and Beirut (or Badaro) does not offer that. Most tourists would rather spend their stress-free time in Baalbek or Arz, depending on the season. So bye, bye, Amin Maalouf’s-house-that-you-barely-spent-time-in.

  • http://www.tasteofbeirut.com tasteofbeirut

    I was told by a friend who is (very) high up in the financial world in Lebanon and also a founder of NGO’s that the Beirut municipality has deep pockets (over 800 million dollars). Well, according to him, there was a count of the remaining historic homes in Beirut 10 years ago and it was 2000. Now, only 200 of these homes remain. My friend proposed that the Beirut city hall buy up a handful of these homes with the idea that it was a secure investment and would also preserve some of these homes. To his chagrin they were not interested. We can then expect than in less than 5 years, there will NOT be a remaining historic home left standing in Beirut.

  • http://www.beirutreport.com Habib Battah

    The idea that greatness can only be achieved outside Lebanon seems to indicate there is no one doing great things here. I disagree. Despite the challenges and the cynics, I’m actually very inspired by many people’s work in Lebanon. Unfortunately, they don’t always make it on the evening news–but that’s another story. In addition, those great thinkers and writers that have emigrated abroad, particularly Gibran, were often very inspired by their life here and that is apparent in any close reading of their work.

    Amin Maalouf lived in the Badaro home from the age of 12 until 22, and returned frequently to the home in the subsequent years, where he kept an extensive library, according to an interview I did with his son, linked in my original post. During those years, he began his career in writing, working as a journalist with his father. His 12th and latest book, “The Disoriented” takes place during “those important years of his life” his son told me.

    Now how do we decide what is “important” what is a “landmark”? Is it duration lived in the home? Earnest Hemingway lived in his Key West home for less than 9 years and it was designated a national landmark by the US government 30 years later. Is Amin Maalouf less significant to Lebanon than Hemingway was to the US? These are important questions. My coverage of this story was done in the hopes of sparking a debate on that and on how we classify heritage in general. We know that the number of heritage designations has drastically dropped over the last decade or so as “Taste of Beirut” points out and lobbying from developers seems to have played a role in that. Many, myself included, find this disturbing, so there is a broader context to consider here.

    After I first posted news of a possible demolition, I was heartened to learn that a school teacher brought her literature students to the building before it was destroyed. I’d like to think many took something away from the experience and I’m grateful for it. But even if we don’t see any merit in such school trips–if we believe the state should take a back seat to market activity, I wonder does such activity really benefit the market? And whose market does it benefit? As pointed out by Zak, artists’ homes can draw significant tourist activity and we’ve seen that in Bsharri with the Gibran house and museum. Would that have been possible for Badaro? I think these are debates worth having–and my personal view is that informed debates and questions of accountability can do more to strengthen our society than cynicism and unchecked bulldozing.

    • Mustapha

      Great comment, thanks…