Beirut became a unique line of fire […] it started in Kantari until it reached the Holiday Inn and the Starco building where the confrontation line was completed […] and it became a stable line.The battle of the hotels was fundamental, because it would complete the [Green] Line, as it had yet remained uncompleted. […] (National Movement former militia fighter, Interview with Sara Fregonese, Beirut 15 November 2005)
The Holiday Inn hotel had been open for only 1 year when the civil war broke out on 13 April 1975. It would last until early 1991. In the first two years of war, as militias fought a territorial war for the possession of Beirut. The new high-rise buildings in Beirut’s historic city centre, business district and hotel district became invaluably strategic for dominating the battleground. The city centre was also located in what was then known as “Fourth sector” (qita’ al rub’). Although nothing much is written about it, this was one of the military subdivisions devised by the Lebanese Phalanges militia (back then one of the most organised). It went roughly – east to west – from the port to the hotels, and – north to south – from the sea to the Clemenceau area.
On 21 March 1976, the Holiday Inn was the last hotel to be ‘conquered’ by the National Movement which reclaimed it from the militias of the Lebanese Front.
The Holiday Inn was not only a strategic target, but also a symbolic one. The building acquired different meanings for different militias. These extracts from Sara Fregonese’s interviews with former militiamen in Beirut describe their experience, personal and political feelings about the building.
Before the war, the best cinema was the Saint Charles, and we used to attend it; but we used to do that seeing it in an anti-class logic […], as this cinema was in fact the celebration of the capitalist system. During the war, this symbolism was also joined by the value of the Holiday Inn as a fortification whose seizing was important to hit the moral of the enemy. The moral defeat was on two sides: on the moral of the enemy and on the capitalist, bourgeois system, which we associated with the opposing part. (National Movement former fighter, 15 November 2005)
[The Holiday Inn] was a new Lebanon for the rich, not for us. However, everytime that this tower fell in the hands of our enemy, we [...] the Christians of Beirut, felt that they get closer, that they want to kill us, that now they are closer and closer to us. (Lebanese Front former fighter, 31 October 2005)
After it fell in the hands of the National Movement, the space Holiday Inn became part of the Movement’s political statement. Militias used to pose in front of the hotel and inside the hotel’s lobby to pose for press photographs and release press statements:
The building became an icon: it was drawn and redrawn in propaganda posters produced by the al-Mourabitun militia (part of the National Movement) and hung around the city after the hotel fell. The following are conserved in the special collections section of the American University of Beirut:
Holiday Inn poster 1 commemorating the martyrs fallen in the conquest of the Holiday Inn in March 1976
Holiday Inn poster 2 released in 1977 for the first anniversary of the hotel battle.
Both posters report Murabitun leader Ibrahim Koleilat’s statement at the end of the hotels battle:
On 21 March 1976, the Murabitun crashed the symbol of the fascist treachery, and swore that they will continue the fight whatever its price is.
Another poster, by the Arab Socialist Union in Lebanon, portrays a tall building on fire – what seems to be the Holiday Inn – in the background, and the slogan:
Indeed our people are determined to celebrate the work of their life on their land through freedom and truth, through equality and righteousness, through love and peace.
Through the materiality of the Holiday Inn and its reproduction on posters, the National Movement conveyed its particular geopolitical notion of Lebanon as a country with Arab identity, porous borders and strong ties with its Arab hinterland, as this statement by the leader of the Socialist Arab Union Kamal Younis confirms:
[The Holiday Inn has fallen] for the safeguard of the Arab belonging of Lebanon […] The martyrs have fallen for the national cause […] We affirm once again that Lebanon will remain Arab and that all its children, its institutions, its army and its culture will play their role by serving the Arab causes […] We are building the Lebanon of the future as all the martyrs that have fallen in the last months wanted it, a democratic Lebanon, where all the citizens will be treated equally, and where social justice will be created especially for the forces of the working classes. […] The army of Arab Lebanon [is the] image of the Lebanese army of the future, of national and non sectarian Lebanon. (L’Orient le Jour 1976 Le “Holiday Inn » est tombé 22 March, p. 1-4)
Soon afterwards, the Holiday Inn and the surrounding hotel area became a no man’s land for the rest of the war. Systematic looting reduced the hotel to the skeleton that is visible nowadays:
They started to empty the Holiday Inn of everything except concrete: tiling, toilets [...], carpets, minibars, furniture and so on. They left nothing (Journalist interviews by Sara Fregonese, Beirut 4 October 2005)
The website Al Mashriq has a thorough photo essay about the hotel area that includes many shots of the interior of the Holiday Inn, completely stripped to its concrete skeleton.
Nowadays the St. Charles Center/Holiday Inn serves an out post for the Lebanese army. There are conflicting rumours about its future development and its shape continues to dominate the urban skyline.
All images ©Sara Fregonese 2012