Beirut's Holiday Inn: Once Chic, Then Battered, Still Contested

May 27, 2014
Originally published on May 27, 2014 3:13 pm

To check into Beirut's Holiday Inn these days, you need a permit from the army and the stamina to climb 26 flights of decaying stairs to the concrete carcass of a restaurant at the top that used to rotate.

This towering edifice may not look it today, but it was once the toast of Beirut, the most glamorous city in the Middle East before the 1975-'90 civil war turned the Lebanese capital into a byword for urban dystopia.

Unlike the U.S., where the Holiday Inn chain has a reputation for value, the one that opened in Beirut in the early 1970s quickly joined other upscale landmarks in the city, which lured the rich and powerful from throughout the Middle East and Europe.

Millionaires would sail their yachts through the shimmering Mediterranean waters and dock at the St. Georges Yacht Club. At the hotel, they would sip fine wines in a luxurious French restaurant. The chandeliers sparkled in the wedding hall. There were velvet seats in the cinema next door.

Now, standing at the bottom and craning your neck up, you're confronted with a ravaged, pockmarked shell of a building.

Everyone still calls it the Holiday Inn, but it hasn't been a hotel since Beirut's brittle elegance sputtered into a civil war four decades ago. The hotel served as an ideal snipers' nest and was conquered by alternating militias during the 15-year conflict.

"When I come here, I am reliving my experience that I had back in '75," says Ibrahim Abu Darwish. He's a former fighter I've brought along with me to tell me about his days here as an ally of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

"They were bombarding us from downtown to here," he says. "You can see from the face of the building."

Abu Darwish tells blood-curdling stories of storming the building with tanks and bombs, his fellow fighters rushing up to the roof and throwing the Christian militias off the top.

"From the to-o-o-o-op to the very bottom," he crows, pointing. "That's it. From the top to the bottom." The sun glints off his mirrored sunglasses. There's no regret in his voice.

Lt. Badeeh Karam is one of a handful of soldiers keeping an eye on the place these days. He doesn't look impressed by the reminiscence. He's Christian, and his father's generation remembers this place, too.

"My friend's father, he fought in this building," he says. "And he was, like, thrown from the upper floor. Yeah, he died here."

Karam says there are a lot of bad memories. And Beirut is haunted by the war. The sectarian rivalries that fueled it never really went away, despite the fact that a sprinkling of the glitz of those old days is back. Close by the shattered tower is the stylish Phoenicia Hotel; down the road are the bohemian bars of the Hamra area.

But the Holiday Inn still stands empty. Its owners, a Lebanese company and a Kuwaiti group, could never agree whether to tear it down or renovate it. Now they're set to auction off the complex that includes the building, and its new owners will decide its fate.

Plenty of people, like Karam, want to see it demolished, to erase those bad memories. But others want it to stay. Roland Abdeni, a Lebanese architect whose Compagnie Immobiliere Libanaise part-owns the building, thinks it's a shame to see it go.

"It's a very massive and present building," he says, adding that it was created by an assistant to legendary designer Le Corbusier. "The proper solution in my opinion is to keep it for aesthetic, historical and financial reasons."

And for others, it's exactly because of those memories — the good and the bad — that they want it to stay. Mustafa Hamdan fought in the building with the Mourabitoun militia, and later became a general in the Lebanese army.

He took his girlfriend on their first date in the rotating restaurant in the early 1970s, all of Beirut glittering beneath them. The next time he entered the restaurant, he was spraying bullets and taking cover from tank fire.

He wants it renovated, turned into a beautiful hotel again.

"It's a landmark. Yes, that's right," Hamdan says. "It is a landmark of our nostalgia also. Not only the stone. There are memories, there are feelings, there is everything."

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene, good morning. Lebanon is currently home to over a million refugees. These are Syrians who have fled the brutal civil war that's been raging in their country for the past three years. But decades ago, it was Lebanon that was home to a protracted civil war. And in the capital, Beirut, one hotel, a Holiday Inn, has stood as a bombed-out emblem of a violent time most people would like to forget.

When it opened in the 1970s, it was a disco era gem. Now the hotel could be demolished. NPR's Alice Fordham checked in and sent us this postcard.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: All around Beirut, you can look up to the top of a towering building absolutely spattered and covered in bullet holes, which everyone still calls the Holiday Inn.

IBRAHIM ABU DARWISH: (Through translator) When I come here, I'm reliving my experience I had back in '75. They were bombarding us from downtown to here, you can see from the face of the building.

FORDHAM: I'm with Ibrahim Abu Darwish. He fought here alongside the Palestinian Liberation Organization when they took it from Christian militias.

DARWISH: (Through translator) When they got to the top, they saw the snipers. They picked up the snipers and they threw them from the top to the very bottom.

FORDHAM: You might not think it, but Beirut wasn't always a byword for violence. In the early 1970s when the Holiday Inn open, the big hotel was fitting for a glamorous city that hosted millionaires - their yachts slicing through the shimmering Mediterranean. But as Lebanon's glamour sputtered into a bloody civil war, the hotel became a sniper's nest that changed hands over and over. As we walk up stairs that once led to a stylish French restaurant, even the stairwell has bullet holes with a story.

DARWISH: One, two, three - (through translator) - this was a friend of ours, he wanted to go upstairs. They shot him from behind and fell down to the ground here.

FORDHAM: But not everyone relishes talking about the past here.

LT. BADEEH KARAM: It's bad history. It's not good to be in this building, 'cause all we know about it is like killing people, throwing people - people dying here.

FORDHAM: That's first Lt. Badeeh Karam - he's Christian. One of a handful of soldiers I speak with as they stand guard down at the base of the building.

KARAM: My friend's father, he fought in this building and he was, like, thrown from the upper floor. Yeah, he died here.

FORDHAM: Almost 25 years after the war ended, the owners plan to sell the Holiday Inn and it might be demolished. Karam is all for knocking it down and building something new.

KARAM: Something beautiful so they make people forget what happened here.

FORDHAM: Nearby, cranes heave blocks for Beirut's ever-growing forest of high-rises. Another one could go here, but some want the hotel to stay.

MUSTAFA HAMDAN: The people of Beirut, the Holiday Inn - and their nostalgia is not only of the sniper's location. Also, I told you, there were good memories there.

FORDHAM: Mustafa Hamdan, who was a militia commander in the war - but before that, he was a young soldier. In his office, he recalls taking his girl on their first date in the rotating restaurant. And still feels nostalgic about watching a movie called, "The Great Waltz" in velvet seats at the cinema next-door.

HAMDAN: It is a landmark of our nostalgia, also. Not only the stone. There is memories, there is feeling, history.

FORDHAM: The Holiday Inn may be the closest thing to a war memorial in a country bigger on forgetting than remembering. Hamdan says the hotel should be renovated, that way it wouldn't bring back memories of the civil war but of the golden years before that and maybe even usher in a few more. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.