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.
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.
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.