The sandstone building's architect was the famed Youssef Aftimos, born in the Chouf Mountains in the 19th century, when Lebanon was still part of the Ottoman Empire.

Aftimos worked in Lebanon — and elsewhere — through the dawn of the 20th century as it morphed from Ottoman province to French colony and finally, an independent state in 1943.

Many of the mansions built during the period he worked still lend central Beirut much of its charm, their shapes reimagining Ottoman and European styles: groups of three arches topping slender pillars and tall windows, red roofs, balconies overlooking the Mediterranean and airy salons where richly colored tiles glowed beneath crystal chandeliers.

For a wealthy family named Barakat, Aftimos dreamed up a mansion of ochre sandstone decorated with carvings made from another harder local stone known in Arabic as furne. It is really two houses, each with several apartments, joined together by an unusual central hall, straddling a corner that allowed light to pour into almost every room.

The Barakats lived on the second floor, on the side with the best view down the hill to the Mediterranean, and rented out the other apartments. "And they lived happily ever after," Hallak says. "Until 1975."

That was the year when simmering tensions in Lebanon bubbled up into a civil war that would seethe — multifactional and fueled by regional powers — for 15 years. The death toll is still highly contested, but tens or even hundreds of thousands are believed to have died. When it was over, Beirut was a shattered city, in some areas every building was damaged or destroyed. Many families left, although some of the Barakats stayed and still live in Lebanon. Paul Barakat runs a carpet business next to a Beirut museum. He welcomed this visitor, although he politely declined an interview.

A group of students visits the Beirut mansion that architect Mona El Hallak is working to transform into a museum making sense of Lebanon's civil war.
A group of students visits the Beirut mansion that architect Mona El Hallak is working to transform into a museum making sense of Lebanon's civil war. © ALICE FORDHAM / NPR



Today the Middle Eastern country of Lebanon is relatively peaceful, though a civil war raged there in the '70s and '80s. Often Lebanese people don't like to talk about what happened. NPR's Alice Fordham meets a woman trying to start that conversation with the story of a single building.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Lebanon isn't big on memory, especially not of its 15-year civil war which ended with a fractious truce rather than clear winners and losers. Lots of people fear that if the war is discussed it will stir up the tensions again. So it isn't taught in schools. There's no war memorial and no museum. But one woman, architecture professor Mona Hallak, is trying to change that via a 25-year obsession with a house that's an emblem of the capital Beirut's elegant distant past and its violent recent history.

I meet her taking a group of students around the extraordinary mansion, a vast elegant edifice four stories tall, whose yellow walls and fluted pillars are ravaged by thousands of bullet holes. It's nearly a century old.

MONA HALLAK: This building, it's 1924. You can still see the etching in the stone.

FORDHAM: It belonged to a rich Lebanese family.

HALLAK: Now in 1932, the building was finished. And they lived happily ever after until 1975.

FORDHAM: In '75, tensions in Lebanon boiled over into civil war. And the house was right on what became known as the Green Line, dividing East Beirut from the West.

HALLAK: The minute the war started, this became a real difficult spot. And everybody left the building. And militias went in.