“This was an area of everyone, not just of one side”

An interview with the editor of the satirical magazine ad-Dabbour and landlord of forumZFD in Beirut

Joseph Moukarzel is an architect and Dean of the Faculty of Information & Communication, Antonine University. He also is the editor of the ad-Dabbour satirical magazine. Ad-Dabbour means wasp or hornet in Arabic. Moreover, Joseph Moukarzel is the landlord of forumZFD office in Beirut. The building is close to the National Museum, a contested area during the civil war (1975-1990).  Given that forumZFD works, among others, on Dealing with the Past, we were interested in learning more about the building and the surrounding area from Joseph Moukarzel. He was interviewed by Christiane Gerstetter, forumZFD staff, on the occasion of the commemoration of the outbreak of the civil, which takes place each year on 13 April. The interview took place in one of the office rooms of forumZFD, which had previously been the editing room of the magazine.

The building with our office has an interesting history. It was close to the Green Line during the Lebanese civil war, which divided Beirut in two parts. It also has been home to the satirical magazine Ad-Dabbour for a long time. What is the history of the building?

My father, who was born in 1914 and passed away in1980, wanted to build it as a home for his family and to be the office of the magazine, with a space for the machines used for printing the magazine. I lived here during my childhood and my mother still lives here.
It was in the 1950ies that he built the place. He had a lot of offers in other places, but thought it was better to be here. The Museum was at the border of the city centre at that time. There were a lot of green fields and it was an important area. Very few years later, the area became the hub of the city.
The magazine was the only satirical magazine and very well known. Printed magazines were very important back then, not only in the country, but also for the many Lebanese living abroad. We sent Ad-Dabbour to various countries. People said that the first place to see in the country when an emigrant came back was the office of the magazine, because it was an important link between the emigrés and the country.

So ad-Dabbour was a lively place, with a lot of people coming and going?

Yes, it was a place where people liked to be. Politicians came here to discuss politics. All the great poets used to come here, because Ad-Dabbour was the only journal to publish popular poems. Musicians came, for example Abdel Halim Hafiz, one of the big poets and musicians in earlier times, and also poets and writers like Michael Naimi and Amin Maalouf, who lived across the street. It was a place where everybody came to discuss and to communicate ideas.
When I was young, it was a playground for me, under the big table of the editorial committee. The table was enormous, when I was small, and as I grew up, the table grew smaller for me.
So I grew up smelling ink and in the middle of political discussions. Yet not everyone was allowed to come here. It was an open place, but not open to those politicians about whom my father and uncle thought they were not working to build a great Lebanon. Those who had the privilege to come here tell me every time I see them that there used to be a magical atmosphere here.

How about during the years of the civil war?

During the first years of the war, in 1975, 76, 77, Museum Square was a very tough and dangerous place. A lot of snipers, a lot of bombs. It was a place of passage from one Beirut to another, from the “Christian” Eastern side to the “Muslim” Western side. During the war, when Beirut was divided along the Green Line, a lot of people were living in one part of Beirut and their work was in another. Or they were living in one part of the city and their family was in another. So they had to go through Museum Square. There were only two or three crossings in Beirut, where people could go from one side to the other. The most famous was at the Museum.

And it was very very dangerous to cross. People were risking their lives each time they were going to work and come back and each time they were going to see their family and come back and each time they had to take care of some official matters in a ministry for example. People were very courageous at the time. I do not know whether we would do the same today, crossing a dangerous place just to go to university.
So the atmosphere here was bad. But at the same time, it was a magical place, because it was a place where you could still connect and communicate. There were only two or three places where people from one Beirut and the other Beirut could connect. Otherwise the Lebanese people were separated from each other; it was dramatic.

Where exactly were the checkpoints located?

There were many checkpoints on each side. So everyone crossed a checkpoint coming from their side, but in the middle there was an area that belonged to neither side and everyone could come here. Because a lot of people were afraid to go to the other side of Beirut, they would meet here in the square and in Ad-Dabbour, from West Beirut or East Beirut.
In the first years of the war, we had a lot of meetings. Politicians from Beirut and other parts of the country met here and journalists from other publications wrote their articles here. What is now your office, was a hub for intellectuals and politicians, a place where they came to connect. Journalists, politicians, Christians, Muslims could come here, from right-wing or left-wing parties.  
At that time, the Lebanese Parliament was also here in the area. It was the only place where everyone could come - this is also why we have a lot of ministries in the area. It was the area of everyone, not of Muslims, Christians. The new building you can see across from your office was built as a new seat for the parliament. But after the war, they were able to use the old parliament building in the city centre and they gave the building to a university.
The frontiers are still in the minds of the people. They still say East Beirut and West Beirut. Museum Square is the only place where they cannot say whether it is East or West. It is still the centre of Beirut, the only place in Beirut that is not Muslim, Christian, East, West.

Did your magazine appear all through the war?

In 1977, we faced a lot of pressure from all the parties, because a satirical magazine in a time of war is not easy. Everyone wanted us to talk the way they talked. But we were not able to do that. So the editors decided to stop the magazine. The printing was also not done here anymore, but in the building of the newspaper An-Nahar and the guy who took the films to the printing was shot by a sniper. And we had a lot of threats. So they decided to stop, thinking that the war would be over in one or two years, but it took 15 years.
My dream was to re-start the magazine. This is what I did in 2000 when I came back from Paris, after working there for 10 years. My dream became true.

How did the area look after the war?

The museum was almost destroyed. The building that used to be the children’s hospital was badly damaged. Our building was not that much damaged, because the destruction was caused by snipers. They were targeting places where they wanted to stop people from passing, so they did not target this building that much. People used to live in this area, even in the bad times of the war.

You are an architect by profession. forumZFD is working on commemoration sites, on how war is remembered in public spaces etc. What is your view, is that being done in a good way in Lebanon currently?

Personally, I think we have to make sure that the current generation and the future ones will always remember the war and hate it. Yet we used to deny the war, deny what we did. And this is the best way to make another war.  
Building places of memory is very important. But they must be non-political - there are already political places - and areligious. Remembering the war is very important, but we must remember it in a good way. Not accusing anyone specifically, but accusing everyone for the war we made.
And I am sure we have to fear war, not just know that it existed. We need books or films that make us fear the war. We have some films that make us fear the war, but it’s not enough. West Beirut is a great film, for example, talking about the war. Sometimes, the war is shown as being funny. We had funny times, of course. But if we take the war as it was, it is not funny at all. It destroys people and architecture.
Germany is a place you can take as an example. In Germany, you remember now. We don’t have enough awareness of the war here. Here, we have a generation who wants to start another war. That is very bad.

On 13 April, the outbreak of the civil war is remembered. An event will also take place here at Museum Square …

Everything is done here. It is a place that everyone remembers, as a good place or bad place.  It was a place where people could come and go and which represents the war.

Is your magazine going to do anything specific on 13 April?

No, we are a satirical magazine. We do publish a caricature each year on 13 April, which criticises the war, but the topic is not very interesting to us. Now the politicians have to do something, we have to do something in universities. And people like you can help us think about it.