Open letter in defense of our heritage

Dear Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Culture Minister Gaby Layoun, Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud, President Michel Sleiman, and Nabil Kettaneh, the head of the Kettaneh Group,

If you don’t mind me asking, where were you last week when the home of Amin Maalouf, one of our nation’s greatest writers, was being bulldozed?

Prime Minister Mikati: when Maalouf was inducted into the 40-member Academie Francaise last year, you said his writing was “a source of national pride.” How then did you approve the demolition? Your culture minister, Gaby Layoun, reportedly signed off on it. What message does it send to our authors, intellectuals and artists? That we appreciate them, but will also sell their homes if the price is right?

Dear Minister Layoun, last year you also sang the praises of Maalouf’s work while attending his induction ceremony, calling it “a great pride to raise high the name of Lebanon and change the conflict and war image that has stained our country.”

But doesn’t the violence done by the postwar bulldozers, which have probably claimed as many if not more historic Beirut buildings than our conflict, also stain our country? Everyday in Beirut, we are tearing down the stories of our past in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

What if school students were assigned to read Maalouf’s books? They could visit the place where the words were conceived, sit in the garden where the author daydreamed, breathe in the air of the neighborhood that informed his imagination. What if the words jumped off the page, and the students could be inspired themselves?

Minister Layoun, how can we nurture our culture if we do not celebrate those responsible for our culture? If you were culture minister back in 1940s, would you have approved the demolition of the Khalil Gibran home as well? Perhaps it was not made of sandstone, or whatever technicality was used to rule out the preservation of Maalouf’s building.

Dear Tourism Minister Abboud, what do you make of all this? We know how important the Gibran home and museum are to tourism in the town of Bsharri. So why is the Maalouf home so insignificant to Badaro?

What if we kept it, created a small exhibition space there? Don’t you think tourists might visit? They could take a stroll after visiting the nearby national museum, walking down the tree-lined streets and admire Badaro’s iconic architecture? Perhaps those tourists might stop at a shop, have lunch, buy souvenirs. First the national museum, then the Maalouf home, then a stroll down historic streets. A day in Badaro? Could you sell that Minister Abboud? It sells itself. But did we even consider it?

Dear President Sleiman, could the state not have helped pay for such a project? Last month, Parliament was considering an additional $10 million to be spent on a giant swimming pool in Dbayyeh. Even Minister Abboud said it was a ridiculous idea. “Who is going to swim in a pool built by the government. Will they change the filters?” he asked during an interview with LBC.

We also know that hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into building stadiums across the country. But some are rusting now and how often are they used anyway? Millions more will be spent on raising the salaries of members of Parliament, who often earn their keep by fighting like juveniles.

President Sleiman, what money do we have left to spend on our great thinkers? Heritage is priceless, yet restoring it will cost less than the decadent projects that sit empty today.

Finally, dear Kettaneh Group chairman Nabil Kettaneh: you head one of Lebanon’s oldest companies. You sell Volkswagens and dishwashers and everything in between. You build power plants across the region. Your company’s assets are probably worth hundreds of millions of dollars, with an annual turnover of over a quarter billion dollars, according to your website. Would it have been so damaging to your trading empire to spare the Maalouf home?

Kettaneh Group was built on a “history of excellence” and seeks “sustainable growth” to “[serve the] community,” according to your website. But what service are you providing to the people of Badaro by ordering the demolition of one of their most storied structures? What service are you providing to the people of Lebanon by replacing priceless heritage with another overpriced skyscraper? Perhaps a car dealership on the bottom floor? We could definitely use more cars on our over-congested streets.

For the many concerned Lebanese who mourn the loss of yet another piece of history, the only service being done here is to the well-padded pockets of those who already have plenty of money. The saddest part of all this is that this apathy toward nationalism and heritage, this prioritization of personal wealth over the greater good is the real lesson we will be teaching the next generation.

Habib Battah is a Lebanon-based journalist and author of the blog He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 08, 2013, on page 7.




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