Village life: Beirut's newest attraction

BEIRUT: Lying just off a busy Beirut highway on the airport road, tucked away where it is not immediately visible, is one of the capital's newest and most peculiar architectural wonders.

In the midst of the urban concrete jungle is a traditional Lebanese village with a restaurant (already open), a cultural center and a hotel, still under construction, scheduled to open at the end of this year.

Considering it's location in the very urban city that is Beirut, the Al-Saha compound is a rare enclave of serenity, built at the capital's entrance to welcome visitors longing to have a taste of daily life from the past, who want to eat, drink and smoke nargileh.

What is particularly fascinating about Al-Saha is both the nature of the project, a traditional village in the centre of the city, and the organization behind it, the Mabarrat Association - a religious charity run by Lebanon's leading Shiite cleric, Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.

The entire project is funded by the Mabarrat Association, a group made up of five orphanages and 16 academic and vocational schools, aimed at generating revenue for the charity.

Jamal Makke, chief architect of Al-Saha, explains the idea of building a hotel and cultural centre like a traditional village:

"As cities are distorting our villages, which are becoming increasingly urbanized with small buildings springing up here and there, we thought of this project ... of bringing the village into the city," Makke says.

Inspired by the description of village life in Anis Freiha's book, "The Lebanese Village: A Civilization on the Road to Extinction," Makke set out to recreate the village experience basing his design on the historical importance of al-saha, the center square of any village.

"Those who built the Lebanese villages with (houses) pressed tightly together, for defensive purposes and for other reasons such as the lack of security, made sure to keep in the middle of the village a large round or squared or rectangular area of space to serve as a place for meetings, a market for exchanging (products) ... and a place for weddings and mourning. This place is known as al-saha," wrote Freiha almost half a century ago.

Makke took Freiha's literary work and brought it to life in an area of 6,000 square meters last year by using discarded artifacts, including old stones and tiles.

At the heart of Makke's project was the idea to reuse items, remnants of old village houses, to recreate the past.

"Many of the things you see here were ready to be thrown away, but we turned them into constructive design tools. This is destruction of our heritage. Why do these stones and tiles and other material have to go to waste? We can use them in different ways," Makke says.

One way was to use the nawraj, a rectangular piece of wood used in the past to separate two different kinds of grains, for different purposes.

At one corner of the restaurant, the nawraj serves as a table, and in a different hall, several nawraj pieces are decorated as chandeliers.

"This project was the result of recycling in architecture," Makke explains.

Al-Saha, which has cost $3 million excluding the hotel, aims at making profits to cover part of the expenses for orphans sheltered by the Mabarrat Association.

Farouq Rizk, the association's press officer, said earnings from this project and others such as bookstores and a gasoline station named Al-Aytam (the orphanage) owned by the charity cover up to 20 percent of the expenses of Mabarrat, and go to benefit 17,000 needy students, including 3,500 orphans and 350 handicapped people.

Makke, who heads Al-Sanabel Group, an office for urban studies and architectural design belonging to the Mabarrat charities, said the association began to seriously think of revenue-generating projects after Islamic charitable organizations came under US scrutiny following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Since then, the United States has stepped up its campaign to track down what US authorities regard as "terror financing" scaring off donors living there of being accused of supporting what the US calls terrorism.

"Since the Mabarrat association is growing, we felt the need to come up with projects that would generate revenue to cover some of its costs, because we cannot rely solely on donations, especially as some donors living abroad became hesitant to send money to an Islamic institution like ours," Makke said.

With more than 3,500 restaurants and hotels in the country, Mabarrat Association officials began thinking of how to establish a restaurant that would be different from the others, to attract customers from all walks of life.

"I thought of an idea: nostalgia," Makke said. "This is a common sentiment among all people here from different sects and professions."

Indeed, the restaurant is filled with families, businessmen, young people and couples, some women wear headscarves while others are in tight pants, full make-up and have elegantly combed hair.

Another important aspect present in villages is al-ain, or the well, which was mainly frequented by women filling their jars with water or to wash the clothes of their families.

"Many of the arguments in the village were started at the spring between a woman and another or a shephard and another ... or between children playing in the spring field," wrote Freiha in his 366-page book detailing the aspects, items, and habits that used to exist among villagers in the past.

"The news about the argument would later reach (residents of) the village with some exaggeration," Freiha added.

Makke constructed an artificial spring facing small houses pressed tightly together just like those one can find in old traditional villages.

Nearby, large wheels for old carriages are re-used and nicely built for two-seat benches.

To the right of the spring stands the 34-room hotel under construction and is scheduled to open at the end of this year.

Adjacent to the hotel is the qalaa, or fort, which was used by the villagers and the police to guard the village, and is currently under construction. The qalaa will house administrative offices.

Old rifles and swords of different shapes adorn the walls of the hall closest to the spring, which used to be called qabu in the past and was used to store flour, wheat and barley.

In the compound, this hall is used for traditional Lebanese music. Sitting at a table there, a visitor can enjoy looking at old swords and rifles  hung on the walls, one of which was made by Arabs during the 17th century, according to Makke.

"The entire project is a museum for Arab and Islamic heritage," Makke said.

"This place takes you to a totally different place and time," says Gilar, smiling as she had dinner last week for the first time in Al-Saha. "It has nothing to do with the surroundings," she says about the neighboring area of the Hizbullah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut.

"I myself am from a village and I found it nostalgic to work on something like that," says Widad Bouteen, a 24-year-old architect, who worked with Makke on the project.

"All of our team members are young, because we wanted this generation to go back to their culture," says Makke.

Among the houses pressed tightly together, there is a hall for cultural seminars, exhibitions and poetry, topped with a white dome with small glass windows in its curved sides.

"For the first time, we have a traditional village in which our grandparents lived 100 years ago."

For more information on Al-Saha call 00 961 1 450 909 or 00 961 3 451 239.





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