'Allo Beirut': The Lebanese exhibition that embraces memory

Rivoli, an iconic hotel of Lebanon's golden age__ё Fabienne Akiki
5 min read
23 February, 2023

A hairdresser salon, a photographic studio, a nightclub, a café, a public office and a bank, all from the 1960s. 

Then images of a destroyed port, from two different eras, and footage of the revolution. What do these things have in common? They're all from the same building in Beirut. 

Welcome to the Allo Beirut? exhibition, a dive into Beirut's history, from the pre-civil war era to today. The exhibition is hosted by Beit Beirut, already an architectural symbol of the country’s troubled past.

"The building is a powerful statement about Lebanon and Beirut... because only a thin line connects us when we stay divided"

The 1924 Ottoman-style Barakat building stands in a corner of the Sodeco intersection which, during the civil war, served as a demarcation route – the "Green Line."

A strategic point for snipers, the building nonetheless survived the war, but numerous efforts to demolish and rebuild the city by Lebanese politicians and businessmen. 

At the time, the idea that the Barakat building would become a museum seemed a long shot. But not for Mona Hallak, an architect, heritage activist and director of the American University of Beirut’s Neighborhood Initiative. 

Mona first came across the building in 1994 after graduating and was determined to see the building survive.

Photos printed from the negatives of the Photo Mario studio, once downstairs at the Barakat Building_ё Fabienne Akiki
Artwork by Stephane Lagoute is based on overlays of photographs of Beirut and prints from the negatives found at Les Caves Du Roy [Photo credit: Fabienne Akiki]

Transfixed by the building's beauty and the stories of those that lived and worked there, Mona saw great promise in the architectural mix of division and connection. 

"The Barakat building is a powerful statement about Lebanon and Beirut," Mona told The New Arab, "because only a thin line holds us when we stay divided."

Mona has since made it her life's work to protect the building and make it a home for all Lebanese citizens to build a collective memory and challenge post-war amnesia.

Allo Beirut? named after the homonymous song by Sabah, the iconic Lebanese singer who passed away a few years ago, is helping make this dream a reality. 

Front side of Beit Beirut [photo credit: Yara Hamadeh]
The front side of Beit Beirut [photo credit: Yara Hamadeh]

The journey started in 2010 when Mona met with French-Lebanese photojournalist Delphine Darmency, who was investigating other abandoned buildings in the city. After Mona showed Delphine some negatives from the studio in the building, she was mesmerised. 

“While I continued to work on the Beit Beirut project, Delphine focused on the history of the former Excelsior hotel and its nightclub Les Caves du Roy, where she found some negatives too, so we immediately agreed that we had to do something.”

Over the course of 12 years, the two women, Delphine leading the research and Mona supporting the production, put together a group of artists, researchers and journalists to create an interactive experience that brings a sense of belonging, questioning the past and envisioning the future of Lebanon for all those that attend.

Arranged thematically, each room of the exhibition is immersive. You can have an actual haircut at Ephrem – the past hairdresser of the building. Or you can imagine new ways of organising the city's public spaces. 

According to Mona, who co-directs the exhibition, the aim of hosting it at Beit Beirut was threefold: "With Allo Beirut? we wanted to convey the spirit of Beirut as a site of abandonment. 

"Secondly, we wanted to show Beirut not only from an architectural and historical point of view but how there are many different ways to tell the story of this city.

"Finally, we wanted to show the building as a site of remembrance and to encourage Lebanese people to talk about the future and revisit perceived nostalgia, in particular, the so-called Lebanese 'golden age' of the 1960s.

"We want to prove that those years were not as good as people think. Much like today, 1960s politicians didn't care about the people, and their rule only benefitted a few."

"The building is an amazing metaphor for our history... despite all its devastation, the August 4 explosion led to greater awareness about preserving Lebanese heritage"

Such awareness can be found in room 18 of the exhibition, a reconstructed office of Gay Para, the owner of Les Caves du Roy, who championed social programmes against a political class described as "sick minds, obsessed with making money." There is also documentation of the nine banks that failed during the "golden age."

These references allow Lebanese citizens to understand that their history isn't black and white. Now, the country is dealing with a crippling economic crisis, and many things from the past are repeating themselves. 

Despite all this, the response to Allo Beirut? has shown popular curiosity and signs to learn, share and participate. "An average of 150 guests are coming to the exhibition every day. We want this to be accessible for everyone, that's why we've made the exhibition free," explains Mona.

Build the Beirut downtown you want at Allo Beirut [photo credit: Fabienne Akiki]
Build the Beirut downtown you want at Allo Beirut [photo credit: Fabienne Akiki]

“The building is an amazing metaphor for our history,” Mona adds. “For example, despite all its devastation, the August 4 explosion led brought greater impetus to preserve our heritage and brought about a database of our historical buildings that hadn't been done before.

"This isn't to mention all the civil society organisations that provided relief efforts and came up with creative solutions to the political void. Our resilience is a double-edged sword because whilst we continue to move on with our lives, it makes the authorities less responsible for their actions."

Live Story

Launched on September 15 last year, Allo Beirut? will be open until June 2023.

“It’ll be hard to continue during summertime as we are not able to afford the electricity fees to run the air conditioning,” sights a frustrated Mona, touching again on the harsh Lebanese reality of living through a multifaceted crisis.

Nevertheless, she does not show signs of giving up.

“We are not yet big enough to be an independently sustainable structure to be a proper museum, but with the exhibition, we are demonstrating that another narrative of the city is possible. We Lebanese are used to turning the page and moving ahead with our lives. This is just the beginning.”

Stefano Nanni and Yara Hamadeh are Italian/Lebanese freelance journalists with a background in the aid sector.