A few days after the August 4 Beirut port explosion that devastated Lebanon’s capital city, Lebanese photographer Joe Khoury walked through the neighborhoods of Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael, with 30 postcards bearing images of heritage homes in hand, trying to find their now-ravaged counterparts.
In 2016, Khoury began his “Bouyout Beirut” (Houses of Beirut) postcard series, focusing on the beautiful French-mandate and Ottoman era buildings of the Lebanese capital, intending to showcase a cultural treasure hidden in plain sight.
Now, four years on, the same buildings he photographed lie in ruins. Together with his wife and partner, Gabriela Cardozo, the pair left the corresponding postcards in the rubble of the houses, hoping to remind people of what these structures looked like before, and what might be lost if they are not restored.
“We were really shocked,” Khoury told Al Arabiya English. “Some of our friends were there and they let me go up on the building where it was destroyed. You could see the blood on the walls.
“Someone called and told me that these houses I had shot were all gone,” he added. “A couple of friends, and even some members of my family, told us: ‘You need to go and take pictures of them.’”
The port explosion has claimed at least 190 lives and caused thousands of injuries, along with billions in property damage. Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael – two of the city’s oldest and most popular neighborhoods – are situated near the port and were hard hit in the blast. Two months later, efforts to clear debris and repair damage are still ongoing.
Khoury has revived his series with a new set of photographs, contrasting the earlier snapshots by holding them up to the ruined facades of the buildings. Unlike his previous work, these images lay bare the brutal damage done to these beloved structures, many of which will have to be painstakingly restored, some already having endured decades of neglect and internecine conflict during the Lebanese Civil War.
“When we first started this project, we wanted to keep these [buildings] preserved in images,” Khoury said. “You tend to think that these houses are going to stay after we’re gone, because they’ve been there for a long time. We didn’t think they were going to fall down.”
The original series comprised 10 postcards documenting abandoned structures and 20 postcards that featured renovated and restored houses, some of which have been converted into businesses or restaurants, like Appetito Trattoria, which had its pastel blue façade torn open by the blast.
“We wanted to do something of a different approach from the common postcards that you see in museums that are usually the Raouche Rock or Baalbek’s temples,” Khoury said, referring to popular sites in Beirut and out in the country's eastern Beqaa Valley, respectively. “In Beirut, you can see these houses on an everyday basis when you’re walking there. You even see tourists taking pictures of them. We created this line because we wanted to shed light on this heritage.”
A recent survey by the Lebanese government’s Directorate General of Antiquities determined that the blast has caused damage to 640 heritage buildings, with 60 facing the risk of imminent collapse.
Khoury hopes that his project will help to raise awareness for the plight of these heritage buildings and prevent them being lost, or worse, demolished by developers eager to “modernize” Beirut. This was already seen in 1990s, in the aftermath of the Lebanese Civil War, when the joint-stock real estate company Solidere demolished much of the capital’s battered central district to build flashy towers and skyscrapers.
Opponents of the multi-billion dollar company accuse it of gentrifying the center of the capital, causing rent and property values to soar, and ultimately leading to the displacement of the native working class and poorer communities.
“We wanted to do something like a gesture of hope that these buildings can be rebuilt and preserved, rather than taken down and replaced by skyscrapers,” said Khoury. “It is really important to us. That’s why we took on this project in the first place.
“If you look out our collections, we even left the AC compressors sat on the balconies, with the mix of greenery and trees and wires passing in front of these houses,” he added. “It reflects the cultural mix of the city itself. It’s really important to preserve this, because they are part of our identity and, to the Beirutis and the people of Lebanon, they represent part of the city.”