Lebanon News

The petty pasts of Beirut’s buildings

BEIRUT: An eye for an eye might make the whole world blind, but in Beirut, revenge comes in the form of a wall – built to block your apartment’s seaside view. Not far from Beirut’s iconic old lighthouse at the end of Bliss Street, an architectural oddity stands tall, measuring only 60 centimeters wide at its narrowest point.

Walking down the hill toward the sea, the unique shape of the building goes largely unnoticed as it narrows at its west end. Walking up the hill, however, the building’s thin width raises eyebrows.

Locally known as “al-B’asa” – meaning “the Grudge” – the former apartment building looks like a wall and, ultimately, that’s what it is.

“There is a local myth in Beirut that my father told me,” Sandra Rishani, a founding partner of Hatch Architects and Planners told The Daily Star.

“Two brothers owned adjacent plots here about the same size,” which at the time before the Lebanese Civil War were undeveloped, she said. “A road was eventually built cutting the plot of one of the brothers. They started to discuss the possibility of joining the two plots together, but couldn’t agree on finances. The brother with the larger plot seemed to have more power in negotiating the [plot’s value], so finally, the other brother decided to build a wall that prevented him from seeing the sea, significantly lowering the value of his brother’s plot.”

Rishani researched the Grudge for the book “Beirut, Re-Collected,” published by Mashallah News in 2014. After interviewing several people in the area, she was able to corroborate the urban tale.

“I think a nice part of the story is that the building was also built by two brothers – Salah and Fawzi Itani,” she said.

The Itanis had built the building quickly due to escalating tensions between the brothers. Following its completion, locals noted that they would come visit every once in a while to laugh about the creation.

In its heyday, the Grudge housed several families. Apartments were linear, and the thinnest points at the end were used as closets.

“They were actually quite beautiful,” Rishani said.

Following the Lebanese Civil War, the building fell into disrepair. One apartment was allegedly used as a brothel while the others were occupied by squatters.

Today, no one lives in the Grudge. The building shows all of the characteristic Beiruti signs of abandonment; the paint has long dulled, and a ripe scent of mildew, urine and garbage wafts from the broken windows.

Nonetheless, the Grudge still houses the business of one mechanic, who has continued to work out of the ground floor since the war.

Beirut’s facades are a testament to the city’s historic tensions, as many of the buildings are still riddled with Civil War bullet marks, so perhaps it is unsurprising that the Grudge is not the only wall in the city built out of resentment.

About 2 kilometers away, on May Ziadeh Street in Clemenceau, a yellow wall about half a meter thick in parts matches the height of the adjacent building to its north.

At its thickest, the three-story-high wall measures around 4 meters, leaving enough space to fit a car parked on the ground floor and a modest apartment.

The wall lies on the same property as the Kettaneh building, a beautifully preserved piece of Beirut architecture built in the 1920s. The wall and building match in aesthetic, vibrant in their yellow paint. Plants fall over the ornate balconies of the building.

Longtime residents of the neighborhood, who asked not to be identified, invited The Daily Star into their home eager to reveal the local tale about the neighborhood anomaly.

“The original owner of this building was a Jewish man by the name of Levy [who] had a beautiful wife, whom his cousin was in love with,” the man began. “Unfortunately for Levy, his cousin lived right next door. Every morning [the cousin] would come out and try to look at Levy’s wife. Finally, Mr. Levy became so jealous that he built this wall [in between the two houses] and blocked [the cousin’s] view.”

Overcome with laughter, the storyteller insisted that his tale was true.

“Ask my wife, I’m not lying. That wall is nonsense – it’s nothing. There’s only one room in it.”

Nodding, his wife also attested that the story of romantic dreams dashed was indeed the truth.

Prior to the Civil War, Clemenceau and the greater Wadi al-Jamil neighborhood housed much of Beirut’s Jewish community. They said that Levy, whose first name neither could recall, owned a rug store nearby. A longtime employee of Levy, according to the woman, was a man named Elias Salameh.

Given Levy and Salameh’s closeness, the employer apparently granted the latter a small apartment in the building after it was constructed.

Moving in with his family, Salameh later became the building’s concierge, overseeing the construction of the wall and tending to maintenance during times when Levy was away in the mountains.

“Elias had a few children. His daughter Linda was born in that building,” the wife told The Daily Star. “She never married or had children, but we became good friends when we moved into the neighborhood in the late 60s. She had so many interesting stories to tell.”

According to the couple, Levy sold the building and left Lebanon for Israel in 1958. Four brothers, Alfred, Charles, Desire and Francis Kettaneh became the new proprietors. Linda took over as caretaker after her father’s death, working for the new landlords.

According to public information, the Kettanehs established a transport and trade venture in 1922, working between Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran. Following World War II, the Kettaneh company became the sole distributor of a number of American cars in the region, the company’s contemporary website reports. Today, the Kettaneh dealership still exists, retailing cars in the Metn’s Dora.

The descendants who remained in Beirut inherited the building. According to a security guard across the street, Mr. Kettaneh’s driver occupies the modest apartment inside the wall.

Neither driver nor landlord could be reached for comment.

Both the Grudge and the Clemenceau Wall will likely be preserved for varying reasons. According to Rishani’s research, the Grudge’s plot is too small for construction to take place, according to Beirut’s building and zoning laws. Thus, the plot holds no real appeal for the capital’s land hungry developers.

As for the Clemenceau Wall, impressive preservation and recent renovations have rendered the complex a protected heritage site. The building is occupied by tenants as well as its landlord.

For the foreseeable future at least, it seems both walls will remain intact, serving as physical remnants of the family feuds of Beirut’s past.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 30, 2017, on page 3.

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