THE HELPER WHO KNOWS
WHAT IT'S LIKE
The war drove Mohammed Khamis from his Syrian homeland in 2012. In Beirut, he founded an NGO so he could help other refugees.
But how do you find meaning in a life that’s been turned upside down?
„You can achieve things
– Mohammed Khamis
no matter where you are”
The text messages remind Mohammed Khamis how his life could have unfolded. On his phone, he still has the numbers of some of his old friends from Ma’arrat al-Numan in Syria’s Idlib province. They write to one another regularly. Rashwan went to Sweden and became a professional soccer player. Ismail sends photos from northern Germany of shisha smoke against a sweeping sky. Abdul is still in Syria, living in hiding to escape the jaws of the regime. Faris was drafted into Bashar al-Assad’s army and now shoots his countrymen. The names of Mohammed’s friends have been altered because the fact that these connections exist could put any one of them in danger, anytime.
“You can achieve things no matter where you are,” says Mohammed Khamis, drumming the fingers of his left hand on a glass table in the center for refugees that he set up two years ago. The NGO Hemet Shabab is housed in a former clothing store in the Bourj Hammoud district. The walls have been propped up by wooden boards. From the ground floor of the center, a few steps lead down to a windowless basement lit by cold neon lights. Framed photographs of the various teams stand on a shelf: surrounded by laughing children, handing out boxes of food to families, and wielding brooms and dustpans at the big cleanup effort after August 4, 2020.
Mohammed Khamis is the head of the NGO Hemet Shabab. He packs bags with hygiene products for people in need - and is a hero for the children from the neighborhood
Today the NGO has 170 volunteers. No fewer than 80% of them are Syrian. The rest are mostly Palestinian, but more and more Lebanese are joining too. “We wanted to show that young Syrians can achieve something, even if they’re unable to find work in this country,” says Mohammed. Hemet means “eagerness” or “ambition” in Arabic, while Shabab means “youth.” The 26-year-old founder – lean build, tidy haircut, always in action – is the mainstay of the organization. The others call him “mudir,” which means “manager” or “chief.” The idea for setting up his own aid agency, offering services which would – naturally – be free, came to Mohammed after other Syrian refugees began approaching him more and more frequently to ask how they could get food or medicine, or contact one of the big aid organizations. Mohammed had been taking courses offered by various NGOs for more than five years, and word had spread that he had connections.
On September 10, 2012, Mohammed climbed out of a derelict vehicle at the Beirut bus station. The night before, Abd al Sitar, his father, had announced to his son that he was sending him away. “It was two days before my birthday, but he refused to change his mind. I had to leave right away,” Mohammed recalls. His home city, Ma’arrat al-Numan in northwestern Syria, was being bombed by the Assad regime and had been under attack for weeks. Mohammed, one of seven children and the eldest son, climbed into the shared taxi. Just for a few months, he thought, he would stay with his sister, whose family had moved to a Beirut suburb a few years earlier, and then return home.
Hemet Shabab's headquarters is located in the basement of a former clothing store. Yusra Nawasra (center) comes from Dara'a in Syria, and since the summer of 2020 has been active with the NGO, which has become an important point of contact for many refugees
„It helps me to feel that I’m
– Sozdar Ahmed
helping other people”
Talking about the years he lived in Syria and the beginning of his time in Lebanon, Mohammed says he has pushed many things to the back of his mind. But he remembers that life was good in Ma’arrat al-Numan before the war: “We had money, we had work and we were safe.” His father owned two buses and they had olive trees in the garden. He was 17 when he began his new life in Beirut, staying with his sister and sleeping on a couch. After a few days he found work in a furniture factory, where he sanded and polished kitchen cabinets for many months on end. With the $2,500 that he earned, he was able to rent a three-room apartment and furnish it too. In May 2013, after narrowly avoiding death, Mohammed’s parents and two younger siblings arrived in Beirut.
“The fact that Mohammed is helping other people makes it easier for me to keep going with my head held high,” says his father Abd al Sitar. Mohammed nods repeatedly, but says nothing, which is unusual for him. “We were happy in Syria,” their father continues, “I didn’t want to come here.” On his smartphone, he shows us a picture of his bus: a burnt-out shell. He doesn’t know who ordered the bomb attack, which killed the driver too. Later, his other bus was stolen. At 62, Abd al Sitar seems at a loss rather than bitter: “I built up the company for 40 years – what shall I do now?” Upon arriving in Lebanon and encouraged by Mohammed’s energy and drive, his father started over and opened up a dollar store. At first, the business thrived, so he opened a second one. But that’s all history now. Today, Abd al Sitar runs a small second-hand store, but it’s not making any money. Mohammed works part time for the aid organization Care. The $320 that he earns covers the rent for both apartments, the NGO center and his father’s store.
other people makes it easier for me to keep
– Abd al-Sitar Khamis
going with my head held high ”
„The fact that Mohammed is helping
Life was never easy, even before the crisis. Mohammed’s brother Ahmed, now 18, says he encountered racism on a daily basis in Beirut. Young people made fun of his Syrian accent, and the Lebanese would scornfully ask: “What are you doing here?” The family sometimes ask themselves that too. “If only we could all go back,” their father says with a sigh, only to name the main reason they can’t: “My sons would have to join the army.” This is the primary reason millions of other Syrian men can’t return to their homeland. By 2015, the U.N. Refugee Agency had registered approx. 860,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but they estimate that the figure is now nearly twice as high. Some 90% are living in extreme poverty, whereas in 2019 it was “only” 50%. The Lebanese government did give financial help to 238,000 Syrian refugee families in 2020, but the fear of being deported remains.
The next day, in the Hemet Shabab center, a software course is underway. The class is intended to help volunteers apply for work with other NGOs or even help them find a paying job. Or leave the country and go someplace else. That’s what Sozdar Ahmed dreams of too. She’s Kurdish and comes from northern Syria. Her family had moved to Beirut to find work even before the war. Three of her brothers fled to Germany and now live in Bremen. Sozdar lives with her parents and two disabled brothers in a small apartment in Bourj Hammoud. “It all comes down to me,” she complains. She talks to the landlord, whom they already owe several months’ rent; she tries to find medication for her sick parents and brothers; and she’s the only one earning money, working for Caritas. “They could get help in Germany, we talk about that all the time,” says Sozdar. But for now, in Beirut, the Ahmeds depend on her small income and even more on the food they receive from the U.N. Refugee Agency – as well as small contributions from her brothers in Bremen. “It helps me to feel that I’m helping other people,” says the 26-year-old, referring to her work with Hemet Shabab. This is true for everyone here: Other people’s thanks give meaning to their lives.
At the reunion in the port district, one year after the clean-up operation by Hemet Shabab, cell phone pictures are used to compare what it looked like immediately after the disaster, and to debate with residents how to proceed. And to help everybody, computer courses are also held regularly at the headquarters of the small NGO
The cleanup effort after the August 4 explosion immediately benefited everyone, which is why it was so fulfilling. On the streets of Bourj Hammoud, car alarms shrieked and children screamed. “At first I thought a gas tank had exploded. Then, that we’d been attacked by a fighter jet,” says Mohammed. “It took a while for me to realize what had happened.” He found his parents unhurt, and his brother wasn’t injured either.
That night, the volunteers informed as many people in the neighborhood as they could about the whereabouts of their family members. The next morning, Mohammed posted a message on Facebook saying: “We’re going to go help those who need it most. Meet us at Martyrs’ Square.” Equipped with dustpans, brooms and garbage bags, the Hemet Shabab crew spent 20 days in the neighborhoods near the port before returning to Bourj Hammoud.
- Thore Schröder
NOW LOVE LIVES
From his small convenience store, Vasken Jebidelikian supplies his neighborhood with fruit and vegetables. His children, and then his wife, emigrated to Sydney. In the wake of August 4, 2020, why is he still in Beirut?
What keeps him there?
it would all be even worse”
– Vasken Jebidelikian
“If it wasn’t for God,
In the few hours that Vasken Jebidelikian is not in his store, he tries to relax watching television
Soon after the explosion, when the most urgent repairs and replacements had been made and his shop was open once again, Vasken Jebidelikian got himself a new television: a cathode-ray tube model, Panasonic. It now stands on top of the refrigerator next to the entrance. The picture is generally grainy; the sound is full of static. In the afternoon, when there isn’t much going on, he watches Egyptian black-and-white films from the 1950s.
Harmless slapstick and romance. Then Vasken seems completely relaxed. There haven’t been many such moments, not for years. And since August 4, 2020, they have become even rarer.
The small store is an important focal point in the Geitawi district; in the evenings, Jebidelikian often goes through the collection of old family photos
Vasken is Armenian. His grandfather Ohannes was a wealthy draper in Ottoman Adana. As part of the Armenian minority, his family was deported to the eastern Syrian desert in 1915, where Vasken’s grandmother and two of her children died of starvation. The rest of the family fled to Lebanon, at that time a French mandated territory. In 1945, his parents rented a flat on the second floor of a house that had just been built in the Beirut district of Geitawi. Their son still lives there; his convenience store is right across the street. It’s typical of those in the old Beirut neighborhoods: small shops that carry all kinds of items that people need on a daily basis. There are four such stores within 50 meters of one another in his neighborhood. Each one attracts custom with its specialty. In Vasken’s store, it’s the fruit and vegetables, which are fresh every day. Vasken keeps his blue-rimmed glasses on the tip of his nose and generally wears a shirt with a makeshift patch on it somewhere. His trousers are held up by suspenders. From morning to night, he sits on his office chair taking phone orders, jotting them down in the Armenian alphabet on tattered cigarette cartons, then calls out to Abdo, his assistant. “Abdo, take 10,000 lira of change to Madame Halabi.” “Abdo, clean out the refrigerator.” “Abdo, wash the lettuce.” It goes on like this all day.
Inside the store, which measures about 70 square meters, there’s controlled chaos. Buckets full of flour, sugar and olives. Large refrigerators with dairy products, beer and soft drinks. Hygiene articles, cleaning products, freshly ground coffee, canned foods: a broad range of items in narrow aisles, with holy icons keeping watch over it all. Vasken pasted his price lists on a refrigerator. He has to keep changing them because of inflation. Since the explosion, two of the big shutters are permanently pulled up. It would cost $400 that he doesn’t have to repair them. Vasken takes medicine for high blood pressure and diabetes. His back has been damaged for years. After only a few minutes on his feet, he has to sit down again. “I’m not in good shape,” he says. Recently he fell from a ladder and ripped two tendons in his shoulder, so now he also needs an operation. Nevertheless, he gets up every morning at half past four and drives his white Subaru station wagon to the wholesale vegetable market in the Beirut district of Sin el Fil to get the freshest produce before the masses turn up.
“I also have
– Vasken Jebidelikian
to act as psychologist here.”
Vasken only got as far as fifth grade at school. There was the civil war, and he had to help his father in the shop. Soon he went out delivering fruit and vegetables – with a pistol. He carried it in the waistband of his trousers, “like in Texas,” he says and laughs. “There were a lot of gangsters around, and we had to protect ourselves.” Vasken recalls the Syrian siege and the shelling in 1978. “It was like Stalingrad. We slept, played and ate in the bunker.” A missile hit the family’s 1968 Plymouth Valiant – every generation in Beirut has had their explosions. In 1986, his parents died within a few weeks of each other. In 1992, Vasken married Baydzar, two years his senior. “Those were good years. There was money and stability,” he remembers.
Vasken and his wife raised two children. Emmanuel is 24, Shake – named after her deceased grandmother – 28 years old. Both have been living in Sydney for years. The son went over there first to attend university, then his sister followed him. When the pandemic arrived early in 2020, their mother had just gone Down Under for a visit – and stayed there. All three of them are determined to emigrate permanently. And Vasken wants to join them. “I hope God will also take me to Sydney,” he says, but so softly that it sounds as though he doesn’t really believe it himself.
Vasken Jebidelikian is the sole ruler of his small shop; his pride and joy are his two children, who have been living in Australia for years
all that bad here,
– Vasken Jebidelikian
at least then
„And it wasn’t
On August 4, 2020 the entire five-story building was damaged and in danger of collapse. The explosion had blasted away doors and windows along with their frames and weakened load-bearing walls; cracks opened up across the walls of the living room and kitchen. “The sun was even shining in through them,” he says. Thanks to donations from the neighborhood and friends, his apartment has now been restored. Although much has gone missing since the catastrophe, he was nevertheless able to find the framed pictures of his children. They’re standing on the wardrobe next to his bed: his daughter and son at their university graduation ceremonies – his pride and joy. Then he burrows in a chocolate tin where he keeps black and white pictures from earlier days: his grandfather with a massive moustache, fez and gaiters. His father in a double-breasted suit and pocket handkerchief, as a citizen of the Ottoman Empire. His parents at their wedding, the bride with white ribbons in her hair. He himself at first communion, still with all his hair.
Vasken regrets that he, too, didn’t go away. Of all the boys in the group photo of his first communion, “half of them, definitely” were no longer in the country. “Los Angeles, Lyon, Milan,” he says, listing locations: In the meantime, he has relatives living everywhere. His sister Maria, now 68 years old, moved with her three children to Glendale in California in the early 1990s. He couldn’t leave, though: first there were his infirm parents, his father in a wheelchair. Then he got married; then they had kids. “And it wasn’t all that bad here, at least then.” He still thanks God every morning for another day. “If it wasn’t for God, it would all be even worse,” he says. “Then I would have fallen on my head from the ladder, and not just on my shoulder. Then maybe I would be dead.” Now, though, he can and must continue working, keep working, as long as he can. “Today the cucumbers are very fresh,” he says.
- Thore Schröder
THE TEARS, THE RAGE
AND THE STRENGTH
Yasmine and Fadlo Dagher, two generations of architects from the same family, founded the Beirut Heritage Initiative. Their mission is to rebuild the city’s magnificent old houses, the stone witnesses to its multicultural history
“A house has a soul”
– Yasmine Dagher
When Yasmine Dagher was unable to sleep as a young girl, she used to sneak through the family mansion at night. She crept past her father’s library, beneath the chandelier in the entrance hall and into the kitchen. Sometimes she snuck past the room where the piano that had once belonged to her great-grandmother stood. Pausing to listen to the music coming from the room, she was certain it was her great-grandmother’s spirit playing. Yasmine now knows that it was really her father playing his records. But even today, she still feels her ancestors’ presence. A house has a soul, of that she’s convinced.
The house that the Daghers have lived in for six generations is far more than just a dwelling. To its inhabitants, admirers and visitors, it stands as a reminder of their homeland’s history and forges an emotional connection with a country where society struggles so hard to find a common identity. The pale blue palace lies in the Gemmayzeh district. Three large arches adorn both the lower and the upper stories, and the windows are embellished with swirling ornaments. Hidden behind tall trees and a wall, the house itself is in a small garden – a peaceful oasis beside the busy main street thronged with cars. Looking up at the arched windows as you pass, you can’t help wondering what secrets they conceal. It’s that kind of house.
Then, in the summer of 2020, the port explosion sent a powerful shock wave hurtling through the neighborhood. It struck the house, shaking it to its foundations. It tore off the wooden ornaments, shattered the windows and devastated the interior, exposing the building’s insides like a gaping wound. The Beirut blast destroyed hundreds of houses just like this one. Many of the wounds still haven’t closed.
Yasmine Dagher, 27, is an architect like her father. Fadlallah Dagher, 61, who everyone calls Fadlo, is one of Lebanon’s leading architects. With his firm Dagher & Hanna, he has completed dozens of projects in recent decades. The explosion didn’t just hit his house with full force, it shook him to the core as well. “I didn’t know what was happening to me,” he says. The first day, he somehow managed to function and look after his mother, who had been injured in the blast. The second day, he and Yasmine went through the house to assess the damage. Then they had a look at the rest of the neighborhood. That’s when he realized the enormity of the catastrophe. “I sat and wept for three whole days,” says Fadlo.
Fadlo is a serious, sensitive man. His fingers glide across the paper almost delicately as he studies his designs, making changes here and there with a red pen. When he talks about that day, which for many people in Beirut was the worst of their entire lives, his voice deepens, becomes husky, and his eyes cloud with sorrow. Sitting on the sofa with his daughter beside him, he is surrounded by antique furniture that is part of his history, part of Lebanon’s history. Then Fadlo pulls himself together, just like he did in August 2020.
helps you understand
your own history”
– Fadlo Dagher
On day four, after shaking the shock from his limbs, Fadlo thought to himself: That’s enough. We can’t go on like this, we have to do something. So he and his daughter, along with other like-minded people, many of them from the same neighborhood, founded the Beirut Heritage Initiative. Their aim was to rebuild the houses that represent Lebanon’s rich cultural past – collect donations, assess the damage and organize their restoration.
The buildings in need of rescue were built in the latter years of the Ottoman Empire, during the time when Lebanon was part of the French Mandate, and in the modernist period that began after the country’s independence in 1943. According to the Beirut Heritage Initiative, a total of some 1,000 buildings were damaged by the blast, 670 of them heritage buildings. Of these, 200 were severely damaged. Only a small number of buildings have been restored to date because the Lebanese people have been left to do it on their own. The government, plagued as it is by corruption, has contributed nothing toward their reconstruction, abandoning its citizens to their fate once again.
The Daghers are the ideal candidates for this task. They know every stone, every corner of the neighborhood, and have for generations. Their ancestors settled in Gemmayzeh when the crowded houses and narrow streets were still just open fields. The Daghers’ house dates back to 1820, when a forefather erected a chapel on the site. Back then, the area abounded with mulberry trees hosting silk worms, and the silk they harvested was exported to France. Toward the end of the 19th century, Fadlo’s great-grandfather converted the building into a residence and added a second story. The house grew room by room – and the family history grew with it.
More than anything else, it is the story of a never-ending battle to save the house. Ironically, it is none other than Fadlo Dagher, a man and architect passionate about creating things, who has witnessed its destruction time and time again:
Syrian army bullets pierced the facade. Fadlo plastered over the holes.
a missile set the upper floor on fire. Fadlo extinguished it.
a mortar shell struck the house.
Fadlo removed the rubble.
five shells hit the house within several seconds of each other. Fadlo sat tight, fearing for his life.
the house was caught in the crossfire between
rival militias. So Fadlo did what he always did:
He tried to eradicate the traces of war.
“We were exposed to everything and repaired the damage every time,” says Fadlo. But nothing compared with the blast in the summer of 2020. “That one second equaled more than 15 years of war.” He can’t explain why, but it never crossed Fadlo’s mind to leave. Not that he didn’t have opportunities to do so. In 1978, for instance, during a particularly bloody phase of the Lebanese civil war, Fadlo’s parents decided to leave the country and take the whole family with them. His four siblings went to Europe and never returned. Today, his three sisters live in Paris, his brother in New York. But Fadlo wouldn’t go. His father was furious, but his mother relented and stayed in Beirut. Today Fadlo can no longer recall why he was so adamant about staying. Perhaps it was just down to “youthful stubbornness,” he says.
But listening to him talk about his work, his life and the old houses in his neighborhood, you realize there was more to it than that. The bond Fadlo has with his country is stronger than any fear for his own survival, it outweighs any concern for his own wel-lbeing. “Architecture helps you understand your own history,” he says. “In Lebanon, houses are built from the stone that they stand on. Together, they create a whole.” It’s not so different where Fadlo is concerned. He can’t imagine living and working anywhere but Lebanon: He fits in here, warts and all. He’d feel like a fish out of water anywhere else. But Fadlo’s bond with his country didn’t form overnight. His father was an architect as well, and as a child, Fadlo loved playing with Lego. Later, after developing an interest in the history of the family home, he decided to study architecture. “But not because of my father,” he admits, “but because my best friend wanted to – and I didn’t have any better ideas.”
In 1985, after graduating, Fadlo was asked to illustrate a book about the history of Lebanon – the full history of Lebanon. It was a project that changed everything. To understand why, it’s important to realize that, the way history is taught in Lebanon, you never learn about the civil war. Nobody wants to confront what the Lebanese did to each during that period, it’s just too painful. Coming to terms with the full history of his country played a big part in forging Fadlo’s identity. “It opened my eyes and made me feel that I belonged. I realized the importance of this country’s cultural diversity. Every world empire has left its traces here – on us as well.”
Even those who prefer to gloss over the uglier parts of Lebanese history evoke Lebanon’s cultural heritage. They nostalgically recall the glory days when Lebanon’s middle classes built symbols of prosperity and progress, the very buildings Fadlo is fighting so hard to protect. “The port of Beirut was once the bridge between East and West,” he says. “Beirut was Arab, but with Western influences.” The buildings testify to this too. For Fadlo, they hark back to a time when the country was open to influences from elsewhere: When Christians and Muslims traded with the West together; when women could be seen taking part in public life for the first time; when a highly educated middle class spoke several languages as a matter of course.
to the next generation”
“It’s up to me on
to pass our cultural heritage
– Fadlo Dagher
Much of this society was destroyed by the civil war, but you can still catch a glimpse of the different cultures coming together: when women flirt with their hips like oriental belly dancers but have surgery to reduce the size of their nose; or when people greet you on the street in a mix of English, French and Arabic: “Hi, keefik, ça va?” They don’t want to decide, and they’ve never had to. They could live in two worlds at once up until now, where the call to prayer from the local mosques is closely followed by the tolling of bells from nearby churches.
But images of shared realities like these are often shattered by discrepancies that seem impossible to reconcile. Ferraris drive down streets riddled with potholes; huge luxury apartments perch high above wretched refugee camps. Many Lebanese don’t like to visit areas that are home to people who were their enemies during the civil war. The gulf between rich and poor, between people of different faiths, between those who are educated and those who are not, is just as deep as the rifts created when the civil war ripped Lebanese society apart.
Fadlo’s family home is only about 100 meters from the former front that still marks an invisible dividing line between east and west Beirut. During the war, many of his friends joined a militia. Some were killed before ever coming of age. Fadlo himself never wanted to pick sides. Once, only once, a group of fighters forced him to join their artillery unit. His job was to man the bunker every night for months on end. He says he was lucky he was never asked to shoot at anyone. “Except for the time they told me to prepare for an ambush. I asked my comrade what we would be shooting at and he said: ‘The street near the parliament.’ I said: ‘We can’t do that, it’s the most beautiful street in all of Beirut!’, to which he replied: ‘So what, the enemy is coming!’” Fadlo’s stomach clenched with fear, but his luck held and nobody came that night.
By the time the war had ended, part of the city’s soul had been destroyed. Fadlo often thinks about the days before the conflict, about his childhood: “I used to accompany my mother to the bazaar in the center of the city, a chaotic, wonderful place. It might have been dirty, but I still remember the smells, the spirit of the place. All the city’s social components used to come together there, communities. The war destroyed that in the very first year. Then the social fabric was systematically destroyed.” First the places, then the memory of them. Then finally, perfidiously, little by little, their identity.
Solidere, the company tasked with rebuilding the city center (and part of former prime minister Rafik Hariri’s empire), destroyed almost every last bit of the city’s vitality in the process. Magnificent buildings went up, intended to evoke the city’s heyday, but nobody lives in them. Expensive cafes opened, but nobody eats there; fashion stores appeared selling luxury brands like Chanel and Hermès, which barely anyone can afford. Downtown Beirut has been a ghost town ever since. There are no fascinating smells, no market vendors hawking their wares, no Beirutis of all stripes strolling the streets. Nothing embodies the consumption-oriented, soulless nature of the city center better than the clock tower on the main square, the Place de l’Étoile: Its large face sports a Rolex logo. This all took place before the country plunged into a major economic crisis – before masses of people took to the streets in 2019 to protest against the country’s corrupt leadership and the military closed the roads because of rioting.
Fadlo Dagher wants to prevent another “reconstruction” of this kind at all costs. He has been involved with drafting laws to impose stricter building codes on buyers and builders, not one of which has come into force so far. “I’ve lost every single battle,” he sighs. But he refuses to give up. “It’s up to me to pass our cultural heritage on to the next generation,” he says, “and up to them to decide what to do with it.” As far as Fadlo is concerned, the war took away his generation’s innocence and the knowledge that he couldn’t shoot at people or at buildings.
For Fadlo’s daughter Yasmine, the August 4th explosion only exacerbated an excruciatingly slow but inevitable process that had already been making itself felt. The country is still ruled by warlords from the civil war who have been divvying up the cushy jobs among themselves for decades. The indifference of those in power to the population’s misery knows no bounds, and rather than just flirting with the term “failed state,” they’re embracing it wholeheartedly. Fadlo watched Yasmine develop from a self-conscious girl into an enterprising young woman within the space of a year. The sorrowful air that surrounds her seems unsuited to such a young face. And as we walk through Beirut, she starts to sound like her father. “The protests of October 2019 and the solidarity I witnessed after August 4 make me hopeful that we will be able to overcome our problems and the social segregation of our parents’ generation,” says Yasmine. In 2019 people took to the streets together, regardless of their faith or background. And after the blast too, a wave of solidarity swept through Lebanon.
and remembered their own history again”
“People looked at them
– Yasmine Dagher
with new eyes
Yasmine remarks on an aftereffect of the catastrophe that surprised her: Houses like her family’s that had been hidden away behind high walls for years were suddenly perceived as part of Lebanon’s cultural heritage. “People looked at them with new eyes and remembered their own history again,” she says. But this spontaneous solidarity won’t be enough to save them, and money is tight. “We’re an initiative, not an NGO,” explains Yasmine. “Our staff are compensated, but they don’t receive a salary.” She thinks the project has a lot to teach the younger generation, mostly about what it means to take responsibility. “Civil society’s commitment is the only positive thing to emerge from the explosion.”
But hope is dwindling again. The economic crisis has robbed people of their strength. The currency has collapsed, prices have skyrocketed. Electricity, fuel and medications are in short supply. The government – if you can call a conglomeration of warlords a government – refuses to implement reforms. Impotent rage and the daily struggle to survive are strangling people like an invisible noose. The quiet assertiveness the Lebanese have been practicing for so many decades, their stoic perseverance that guarantees despair isn’t all that endures – this survival tactic is crumbling as despair gnaws away at resilience.
When you ask friends and acquaintances in Lebanon about their plans, you hear a lot of talk about leaving the country, and a growing number of people are actually doing so. Yasmine says that only three of her 15 friends are still in Lebanon. “The houses are part of our identity,” she says. “That’s why we have to save them.” Her father hopes that, by preserving them, it might be possible to restore some of the ties weakened by hopelessness and hardship. “Some of the houses we’re restoring have been inhabited by the same family for generations. That forges a connection between the people and the place. The street we’re on can testify to 150 years of Beirut history,” he says. “A deserted house is an unhappy house. We’re seeing a curious phenomenon: The buildings most severely damaged by the blast were houses that were already standing empty. A house is a living thing, it breathes. And when it doesn’t have anybody, when nobody lives there, it slowly dies – just like a human being.”
Fadlo doesn’t want even more houses to die. “It’s not the house itself that matters, but in terms of what it stands for, it’s irreplaceable,” he explains. “It serves as the framework for a system of values, a social structure, an attitude to life and a national identity.” Houses allow us to go back in time, Faldo believes, to ask questions and be curious about who lived there before. “It connects you to a place and automatically teaches you respect – for the place, for your ancestors and for your neighbors.” So Fadlo keeps fighting. For the soul of the houses, for the soul of the city. He quotes the famous architect Kevin Roche: “To build well is an act of peace.” You can’t help wondering: Is Fadlo restoring the houses or are they restoring him?
- Theresa Breuer
Sursock Palace, a Beirut landmark, was badly damaged by the blast on August 4, 2020. Since then, Beirut’s most famous family has been fighting for its legacy,
a symbol of the city’s glorious past
Every generation brings something to it”
“This house is a living thing,
it lives with inhabitants of the house.
– Roderick Sursock Cochrane
Fighting the chaos: Mary Cochrane surrounded by boxes in Sursock Palace, her once elegant 19th century home. The disastrous port explosion hit the magnificent Beirut building hard
Mary Cochrane drags a cardboard box across the floor, past a wall of empty picture frames and along the ground floor of three-story Sursock Palace. She’s trying to bring order to the chaos, one box at a time. The U.S. native has the enormous task of reconstructing the 19th-century mansion – a historical showpiece and the family home. Mary is married to Roderick Sursock Cochrane, the dynasty’s current representative. The history of the Sursocks is closely entwined with Beirut. In the 19th century, the Greek-Orthodox family from Constantinople gained immense wealth and far-reaching influence through lucrative business deals and strategic marriages. They built a manufacturing and distribution empire that extended across the Mediterranean region.
But then, as it says on their website: “With the advent of nationalist regimes in Turkey & Egypt and the creation of the state of Israel, the Sursocks lost both their lands and manufacturing facilities and the palace in Beirut is one of the few remaining symbols of their former glory.” The palace is on a hill overlooking the port in one of the city’s most elegant areas. When the blast went off in the port area less than a kilometer away, the shock wave hit Sursock Palace with full force. Not a painting, not a piece of furniture was spared; the cost of the damage climbed into the millions.
The palace walls and façade are shored up with steel girders. Mary Cochrane documents the damage as she walks through the deserted rooms
Last fall, three months after the explosion, she had to race against time to beat the heavy rain that usually starts to fall in Beirut at this time of year. If water had seeped into the masonry, the structure of the building would have been damaged beyond repair. The northern wall had to be stabilized and the roof, which was ripped off in places, had to be removed entirely. Mary is surrounded by chaos. Balancing on planks close to the ceiling in the library, three roofers attempt to close a hole measuring five by three meters. Mary shows NGO representatives through the house, speaks with a group of Italian architects, gives new orders to the workers boarding up the windows.
She describes the catastrophe as matter-of-factly as if she hadn’t barely survived; as if the blast hadn’t hurled her backwards over a sofa, its armrest breaking where her arm hit it; as if she hadn’t fractured an elbow and several ribs or had to have fluid drained from her lungs. “OK? You should really see the rest,” she says, turning abruptly and walking away.
the financial means
to restore the entire house”
“We don’t have
– Mary Cochrane
Months later, almost a year after the blast, the palace is quiet and dark. The windows are covered, the artworks have been packed away, the workers are gone. What’s left of the furniture has been wrapped in plastic sheeting that already shows a thick layer of dust. The family is still in the first phase of reconstruction: cleaning up, organizing, taking inventory. After that, the structure of the building will have to be strengthened and the roof properly fixed. Phase three will entail renovating the rooms, one after the next. “By year five after the explosion, finally, there’ll be nothing left of the damage,” says Mary hopefully. Only then will the finishing touches be added: curtains, pictures, interior decoration. If all goes well, Sursock Palace may even reopen for private tours. “We’re hoping to find someone to sponsor a room, or at least a ceiling,” says Mary. “We don’t have the financial means to restore the entire house.”
A photograph of Roderick Sursock Cochrane, taken several days after the explosion, made its way around the world. It shows him standing in his devastated living room with a piano covered in a layer of ash, shattered timber beams in the background and wooden chairs toppled over in the foreground. At the time, Mary and Roderick’s mother, Lady Yvonne Cochrane Sursock, were both in the intensive care unit at the hospital. His mother, 98, died of her injuries 17 days later. The matriarch had been a well-known personality, a philanthropist and art collector. She held British, Italian and Lebanese citizenship, but Beirut became her greatest passion toward the end of her life. What she wanted most was to preserve the city’s cultural legacy, the unique buildings with their blend of Venetian and Ottoman motifs, which dated back to the first half of the 20th century, one of the best periods in the history of Beirut.
Roderick Sursock Cochrane hopes his health will allow him to complete the extensive restoration of his family home; he and his wife Mary refuse to part with a single painting from their valuable collection
we just need to keep going”
“It’s a marathon. We don’t need to run very fast to start with,
– Roderick Sursock Cochrane
Across from the family mansion lies the Sursock Museum, which Lady Cochrane’s uncle Nicolas Ibrahim Sursock had built, and bequeathed to the city after his death. The magnificent building, which houses a permanent exhibition of contemporary Lebanese and international artists, was extensively refurbished from 2008 to 2015. It was destroyed in a matter of seconds too. Love of art is a family tradition. Roderick’s great-grandfather Moussa Sursock began building the family palace in 1869. His son Alfred, Roderick’s grandfather, was an artist and fascinated with Italy. He married an Italian aristocrat and increased the family fortune by acquiring a significant collection of Baroque art, to which each following generation added. “This house is a living thing, it lives with the inhabitants of the house,” says Roderick. “But most of all,” he continues, his voice growing softer, “It’s a family home. Among the ruins of the palace there are pictures showing the couple living a more carefree life. They’re attending a party, she with her arm draped over his shoulders, both wearing a hat, sunglasses and elegant summer clothes.
Memories of happier times are not the only things that keep Roderick going. It’s also the sense of duty instilled by a prominent Lebanese dynasty. Lady Cochrane embodied old Beirut in its heyday as the region’s glamorous center of culture. This is the world Roderick was born into. “There’s a biblical core to the house and my husband has a great sense of responsibility”, says Mary. The Sursocks are part of a vanishing world – old, elegant and sophisticated, a world that revolved around art treasures and gallery openings. Many educated people with dual passports no longer go to Italy or France just for vacation, they leave the country for good. Roderick wants to save his world from extinction. “Our struggle, our existence here, is purely a cultural one. I believe that no matter what happens, Lebanon will continue to exist as a country. But the face of Lebanon may change, and that’s what’s dangerous for us. We want to keep Lebanon open to the West, open to everyone.”
None of the rooms in Sursock Palace are intact. In some of them, the holes where something is most painfully missing look almost like part of a satirical art installation
and that of the country”
“If we decide to start selling these pieces of art
that are part of the history of the house,
we’ll dilute the history of the house
– Mary Cochrane
It wouldn’t be difficult for the Sursocks to leave. During the cleanup, an art historian discovered two virtually unknown works by the Italian baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, which are now worth several million dollars. “It would be easy for us to sell a few things and live abroad, but we’re not moving,” says Roderick. “We feel very attached to the place.” The events that take place in the Sursock Palace Gardens currently provide their main income. There’s a wedding almost every weekend, despite the economic crisis.
People who rent Sursock Palace as a wedding location tend to put on a big show: sushi pyramids, huge drones and a professional film crew to record everything for posterity. This isn’t the Cochranes’ world, but they’re happy about every event that takes place. “Everything that happens here,” Mary says, nodding toward the garden, “goes there,” she continues, pointing to the palace. Then she grabs another box. There’s work to be done.
- Vanessa Schlesier
WHERE HER DREAMS
CAN COME HOME
Annie Vartivarian lost her daughter in the catastrophic explosion. Since then, she has been doing everything she can to fulfil her daugher’s biggest dream: a combination of gallery and art fair.
“Gaïa decided to leave”
– Annie Vartivarian
What remains is emptiness: Annie Vartivarian, 62, in the Beirut high-rise apartment where her daughter was fatally injured in the explosion disaster. Ground zero of the detonation is only 900 meters away
The view from the apartment on the 10th floor of the tower block Rmeil 449, at the southern border of the Achrafieh district, is fantastic. Only a very few other tall buildings block the view to the Mediterranean, to the ships in the bay of Beirut and, to the right, over to the mountains – the peaks of which are covered with snow in winter.
From up here, there is also a good view to the port with its bridge cranes. You can identify the place where, on August 4, 2020, the ammonium nitrate exploded. It’s only about 900 meters to the remains of hangar 12.
Memories of a life far too short: Annie Vartivarian amidst memorabilia.
Daughter Gaïa is omnipresent in the daily life of the grieving mother
We did many things together”
– Annie Vartivarian
“She was like a friend.
Annie is 62 years old, petite, maybe 1.60 meters tall. She wears her hair short, speaks quickly and smokes a lot. She recapitulates the events of August 4, 2020 like a factual report, almost without gesticulation. If you enquire about how she’s coping, she says curtly: “Don’t ask me about my feelings.” Mother and daughter had just returned home that Tuesday evening, shortly after 6 pm. “Gaïa wanted to take a shower, she had already taken off her T-shirt,” Annie remembers.
“But then she heard the first explosion and ran over to me in the living room.” Mother and daughter stood at the eight-meter-wide window and saw the smoke rising over the port. While the chemicals exploded in hangar 12, the two women heard the first windows bursting – the shock wave was speeding towards them. “Run, Gaïa!” Annie screamed and fled into the hall in front of the kitchen. Her daughter didn’t follow. Seconds later there was nothing but devastation. The living room was full of shards, debris and dust.
Rituals give structure to a life that has fallen apart at the seams: Annie Vartivarian visits her daughter's grave almost daily
“I’m not a religious person at all.
But I am quite spiritual.
I think she went into another dimension,
I’m sure of that.
And I respect that”
– Annie Vartivarian
Gaïa Fodoulian was born in 1991 as the younger sister of two older twins: Mariana and Leon. She attended school in Beirut, then studied product design in Geneva and Milan. After her studies, Gaïa worked at the Letitia Gallery in western Beirut for three years. Annie is the co-founder and director of this Beirut cultural institution. Her daughter looked after the artists – international as well as local exponents of the avant-garde – and attended to their online presence and social media channels.
When all of Lebanon plummeted into an economic crisis, and the gallery went into a tailspin, Gaïa decided to initiate her own project in early 2020, just before the start of the pandemic. She wanted to create not only furniture from her own designs but also a larger framework for local artists. She called her concept Art Design Lebanon: not an actual gallery building, nor a white cube, but a forum for events held at various special areas of the city.
Most probably I could
“If I think in a way, that everybody thinks,
that they killed
– Annie Vartivarian
As Annie bent over her seriously injured daughter in her demolished apartment, her telephone began to ring. Constantly. Without interruption. Relatives and friends all over the world wanted to know what was happening. Then Gaïa’s older sister Mariana arrived with two helpers from the gallery. One of the men lifted Gaïa onto his shoulders and carried her to the door. Because none of the drivers would pull up with their cars, he kept carrying her – all the way to Saint George Hospital. It had also been devasted by the blast and was hopelessly overloaded. After an hour, the women were able to organize an ambulance. Two further damaged clinics declined to accept the patient.
While the vehicle pushed desperately through the traffic, emergency lights flashing and siren howling, mother Annie held her daughter’s hand, and Mariana kept an oxygen mask pressed to her sister’s face. Only when they reached a clinic in the suburb Jal el Dib did the doctors relent and take Gaïa on. Two days later, Gaïa was laid to rest. Her mother had chosen a red dress for her final journey. “Gaïa would definitely not have wanted a boring outfit,” Annie says. An autopsy had not been performed amid all the chaos, so the cause of death was never determined. The mother suspects that her daughter died of internal hemorrhaging. The shock wave had hit her with all its might.