I will be the first to admit that before I moved here, I didn’t know much..if anything..about Lebanon’s war torn past. A fact that has made me the brunt of much criticism when I first moved here, and even through to today! So, whatever chance I get, I try to read as much as possible to get a sense of what happened then, and what is happening now.
In the process of some research I was doing on Beirut’s Golden Age, I came across an essay written by Dounia Salame which appeared in the Concordia Undergraduate Journal of Art History. The essay titled, “On Memory and Commemoration in Beirut: The Holiday Inn in Bloom,” goes onto suggest that the Holiday Inn be turned into a Center for Memory and Arts – where the first two floors would house a “Museum for the Memory of the War,” the upper floors be used as offices for associations that work on memory and history in Lebanon, and the rest of the building turned into low-cost dwelling and studios for artists, as well as for contemporary art exhibition spaces.
The essay was fascinating to read and presented such a noble use for the building that serves as a glaring reminder of the ravages of the Civil War. I have included parts of the essay here for you to read, and am interested to know if you share her (and now my) same sentiments or if you would rather see the Holiday Inn turned into a functioning hotel, demolished, or remain as is.
On Memory and Commemoration in Beirut: The Holiday Inn in Bloom
By Dounia Salame
“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.” 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. 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 and the evolving nature of memory. My intervention was an attempt to enable memory in its space and to briefly turn it into a memorial. 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.
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.
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. Therefore, I had to be very careful about relating the building and its space to issues of memory, since its owners considered it only an engineer’s challenge. 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.
The process for my intervention and research was driven by a question: if restoring the Holiday Inn to the way it was in 1974 would 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. It can also bear the illusion of embodying common memory, and hide the reality of plural memory.
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, and 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. 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.
Young writes: “as I leave the space and others enter, memory in the monument changes accordingly.” 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.
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.
Read the entire essay, “On Memory and Commemoration in Beirut: The Holiday Inn in Bloom,” by Dounia Salame here.
So, there you have it. She definitely has my vote. Does she have yours? What would you do with the Holiday Inn?