Another Yacoubian building

Another Yacoubian building

The Yacoubian building in Beirut, LebanonBy John Ehab


Beirut's real-life version of 'The Yacoubian Building'


Longtime residents of Beirut could be forgiven for reacting to the popularity of “The Yacoubian Building” – the bestselling novel written by Alaa al-Aswany and the blockbuster film adaptation directed by Marwan Hamed – with some confusion. Aswany's book and Hamed's movie concern the iconic status of a 70-year-old neoclassical building on Talaat Harb Street in Downtown Cairo. Erected by Armenian-Egyptian businessman Nichan Yacoubian in the 1930s, the once-grand building fell on harder and harder times in the 1960s, when it was left in the charge of numerous superintendends after a wave of nationalizations under then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser. In “The Yacoubian Building,” the structure is the setting for an unfolding drama narrating Egypt's modern sociopolitical history.


There is, however, another Yacoubian Building, equally storied and symbolic, spread across two blocs and located in the Caracas neighborhood of Ras Beirut. Like it's namesake in Cairo, Beirut's Yacoubian has been witness to turbulent times.


At the time Cairo's Yacoubian was being built, a vacant plot of land populated primarily by some fruits, cacti and vegetable bushes was sold to an Armenian-Lebanese man named Yacoub Yacoubian. A fruit seller named Umm Mahmoud once lived on those lands and remembers the place before the huge buildings went up.


“We used to live on this land, tending the garden for the Mezhers,” recalls Mahmoud. “After the Mezhers sold the land … we moved.”


Not long after, Mahmoud adds, foundations were laid for an enormous 10-story, double-bloc building with 140 flats. Unlike the colonial style of Cairo's Yacoubian, Beirut's counterpart came shaped like a U-turn, copping the style of Le Corbusier.


Samia al-Assi moved into the Yacoubian in 1974 and never left. In the days before Lebanon's 1975-1990 Civil War, Assi recalls, the building was famous for the artists who lived there. Singer Faiza Ahmad and comedian Abdel-Salam al-Nabulsi were among the celebrity residents. Back in the day, recalls Elie Qartabawi, who resides in the Yacoubian still and has lived there longer than anyone else, “it was the biggest, most famous, most expensive building in Lebanon.”


The Yacoubian used to boast a famous nightclub – the Venus – situated one floor below ground. A legend in its time, the Venus welcomed Cabinet ministers, MPs and army commanders alike. It was also a favored destination for wealthy tourists from the Gulf. Shortly after the Civil War broke out, the Venus closed its doors.


In the years that followed, the internally displaced sought shelter in the building. Among them was Mohammad Sweidan, otherwise known as Abu Ali. During the war he became the Yacoubian's natour, or concierge.


“I [saw] terrifying days during that war, and often received death threats,” sighs Abu Ali.


All the local militias passed through the Yacoubian, and therefore past his post.


Abu Ali says he was twice kidnapped by militiamen who were inquiring after arms. With the Israeli invasion in 1982, he adds, an officer pulled up to the building and called on all inside to surrender their weapons.


Around 60 pistols came tumbling down into the courtyard, says Abu Ali, who was ordered to collect them for the officer. The next day he found one pistol left behind. He sold it to a banker for LL500.


“Like anything else in Lebanon,” says Qartabawi, “the Yacoubian declined during the war. One day a lady asked me: 'Where is the Yacoubian refugee camp?'”


These days, the Yacoubian is known as the home of Abu Elie, the bar that occupies the lower back corner of the building.


“The people who come here are mostly intellectuals, mostly leftist and always progressive,” says Nina Jamal, a customer.


Posters of Che Guevara dominate the walls, along with pictures of Marx, Lenin, Nasser, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Samir Kassir and George Hawi.


Abu Elie himself once lived in the Yacoubian and ran a sandwich shop in the neighborhood. In the early 1990s, he moved back to Bourj Hammoud and opened the bar.


Still, confusion abounds. Since the “The Yacoubian Building” has been screening in Beirut's movie theaters, Assi says, “many people ask me if they shot the film here.”


Source: The Daily Star, 11 November 2006


Read Azad-Hye report on the Egyptian Yacoubian Building (a movie nominated for Oscar 2006):