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

Postcards

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

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

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

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.

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