It still stands there after all these years. Never inhabited by anyone but ghosts and snipers. The Burj el Murr. I remember it going up just before the war amidst a frenzy of high-rise blocks. At the end of my street going towards downtown, you just turn to the right and there it is. For something like forty years now, it’s been there — perched above Hamra and the bay. During the civil war, this was the green line, dividing East and West Beirut. Soon, it became too dangerous to venture near it. A kind of malevolent fairytale tower from which the only rapunzels letting down their hair were militiamen undoing their headbands and shaking out their seventies manes. There are stories of savagery associated with the building — bodies flung from the top floors. For so many of us from Beirut, it is one of the most powerful and unavoidable reminders of the past. Now, as a war rages next door in Syria, there are similar — if not worse — stories coming out every day. So, I wonder if the tower still exerts its baleful influence. Well, this spring if you went down to a gallery right in the heart of the new Dubai-like district where wildly ostentatious descendants of the Murr tower are rising by the sea, you might have done a double take as you found yourself surrounded by a little huddle of sculptures mimicking the building in rough metal.
As well-heeled artists, critics, businessmen and politicians circulated, the artist Ginane Makki Bacho described how she had never shaken off her fascination with the Burj el Murr and the brutal clarity with which it has embodied for so many decades the blindness and futility of the civil war. With her sculptures displayed around her, she said she did version after version of the tower as if in the grip of a compulsion. She also remembered vividly when the building went up — how one floor seemed to be added every day in a dizzying rush that in the end led nowhere at all. Magpie-like, she has been gathering fragments from the many conflicts she’s survived in Beirut in the flat she’s turned into a studio that lies several kilometres deeper into the city along the same road that was once the green line.
She pulls out huge paintings that document the decades just as the pockmarked outside walls of the building bear witness to a series of isolated battles that form part of the civil war and its aftermath. Her face from when she was a child to a mother of several boys stares out from collages of shelled apartments, blown up cars and broken roads.
She collects munitions from all the different conflicts — able to date each by the shape and colour. A number of them are arranged on a chess board that dominates the main room. Through these shards and shreds, she’s trying to hold onto what has gone — the best and the worst. Twisted metal from shells has been transformed into a small forest of cedars — the symbol of Lebanon.
I think we Beirutis who lived through the war have a kind of pride in what we experienced that we are unwilling to let go. I still have in my home in London some of the tortured art works I produced when I was an adolescent to try to express what I had experienced. Not as well as Ginane — not even close — but I am as loath to let go of those fragments as she is…
But of course there is a different Beirut out there. And several generations now to whom all this may be as distant as the Second World War seemed to baby boomers in the West. Go down on the extended Corniche at sunset and a different kind of art — playful and light-hearted — is silhouetted against the sky.
The sculpture is the work of Nadim Karam, whose Beirut studio is a little further along the old green line next to the national museum. It was part of a temporary exhibition that was much bigger. Just two sculptures now stand along the walkway beside the sea, which is thronged with thousands every evening. Nadim’s work may be very different from Ginane, but he acknowledges the hold that the Burj el Murr still exerts on present day Beirut. His vision, too, looks up towards the sky, but it is very different from the funereal junkyard that Ginane is still trying to piece together. His most ambitious idea — which might still come to fruition — is to build a pleasure ground high above the city that has long outstripped Beirut as the modern heart of the Middle East, Dubai.
It’s called The Cloud. It would be a multi-billion dollar project drawing on the latest technical developments in steel to raise a garden into the sky in Dubai on the thinnest, most elegant of platforms. It’s a dream that mixes commerce and artistic caprice — as a way of continuing to invent an identity for a city that has almost no history.
In Beirut, an artist like Ginane is endeavouring to do almost exactly the opposite — trying to keep hold of a history, both private and public, that is being overshadowed, superseded and finally lost to a Gulf-like imperative of growth at any cost. That means clinging to the most painful and grotesque of the detritus of the city’s past as much as the few buffed up and prettified old churches and mosques that have been preserved for the tourists.
It may bring me nightmares, but I think I too still want the Burj el Murr to stay there, glowering blind and mute at the city — whose golden future it was once meant to herald…