'A building like no other'

A corridor in the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
The corridors connect to the staircase - the openness allowing neighbours to greet each other and fresh air to circulate [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]
The corridors connect to the staircase - the openness allowing neighbours to greet each other and fresh air to circulate [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

Beirut, Lebanon - In 1963, 19-year-old Salim Daouk climbed 10 flights of stairs to check out the skeleton of a luxury apartment in a building he had heard a lot about.

Smitten, he told his parents they had to buy it.

The Yacoubian Building has stolen hearts for more than 60 years since, Beirutis loving its place on their Corniche, and its tenants never wanting to leave.

Here are some of their odes to the Yacoubian.

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
An early rendering of the Yacoubian Building [Courtesy of Salim Daouk]

The pride of Caracas

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
The setting sun glows on Block A [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]
The setting sun glows on Block A [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

The elevators had not been installed yet in Block A of the Yacoubian Building, but Yacoub Yacoubian’s “building like no other” made it up with a breathtaking view of the Mediterranean from the balcony of Salim's future home.

Around the same time, Greek UN employee Eleftherios Nohos had Beirut, where his family was living, on his mind while working in western Pakistan.

On July 5, 1964, he wrote to Yacoub telling him he wanted to buy a one-bedroom apartment. Wintering in Beirut and summering in Greece was his dream.

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon, UN letter from Nohos who worked for the UN observers in India and Pakistan
Eleftherios Nohos wrote to Yacoub Yacoubian, arranging payment in full for his apartment and telling Yacoubian that Nuhad Kashshu would rent the apartment. His son John kept it as a memento [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

Designed by Rafiq Moheb, the Yacoubian Building rose from the top of a hill in Beirut’s Caracas neighbourhood as the 1960s dawned on a bustling Beirut, and from the imagination of its owner who wanted to give the city something it had never seen before.

Today, buildings have risen to block Salim’s view - he can see his beloved Mediterranean but doesn’t have a line of sight from Raouche down to Jounieh like he used to. The building is no longer surrounded by cactus and green allotment plots teeming with people's mini-crops.

But the Yacoubian still stands proud, hugging the corner of Kuwait and Venus streets, through wars, celebrations, crises, sadness and joy with its tenants for more than 60 years.

The Yacoubian

A corridor in the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
The hallway tiles are a mosaic. If one breaks, it's easy to replace, unlike modern large ceramic tiles [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]
The hallway tiles are a mosaic. If one breaks, it's easy to replace, unlike modern large ceramic tiles [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

Rafiq Moheb’s Yacoubian sits on its hill in an L, with Block A’s concave facade facing the sea along Venus Street, and Block B running perpendicular on Kuwait Street.

The sun glows on Block A’s curved facade as it sets behind the Mediterranean after spending the day shining gently into Block B’s north-facing windows.

The two arms of the building have one row of apartments each, balconies and windows facing the streets and front doors opening onto common walkways - the openness, shared space and likelihood that neighbours would cross paths coming and going - all key elements of the Le Corbusier architectural style.

Yacoubian buildings Beirut, Lebanon
The sun reflects on the curved facade of the Yacoubian's Block A. Some residents closed off their balconies with glass or curtains while others kept the original openness [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

Each block has its own entrance - Block B’s 11 storeys house 63 apartments while Block A has 75 apartments on its 12 storeys, the lowest of which is nestled into the hill’s sloping sides.

Each storey has different coloured tiles on its hallway floor and most have the original tiles, except for the fourth, seventh and 11th floors of Block B.

The roof was initially built with one large concrete water tank - leaving space for communal gardens and gathering spaces as the Corbusier ethos dictates.

Today, more than 100 private, plastic tanks crowd the rooftop, making the likelihood of the roof being a communal space slim.

Yacoubian buildings Beirut, Lebanon
A forest of individual water tanks has taken over the Yacoubian's roof [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

The degradation of the building’s communal space came over the years as its community changed and history ebbed and flowed around it. In many ways, the Yacoubian Building has been a microcosm of the capital city it adorns.

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
A photo of Salim Daouk and his son Haitham on a shelf in the Daouk's apartment [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]
A photo of Salim Daouk and his son Haitham on a shelf in the Daouk's apartment [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

The Daouks and the roaring 60s

Everyone fell into a comfortable silence, an album of photos of Salim’s parents, Aida and Sami Daouk, resting on a table.

The Daouks moved into their apartment by early 1964, part of the first wave of owners who bought on instalments from Yacoub, bypassing banks, Salim said, sitting on the breezy terrace with his wife Iman.

Once it was complete, Salim recalls, the Yacoubian filled up quickly, with fierce competition for sea-facing Block A apartments.

Attracted to “The” building, big names in Arabic cinema and entertainment started moving in, as Beirut began to draw more stars who were moving between it and Cairo, where they were trying to making their name in Egypt's massive cultural production.

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
Salim and Iman's terrace [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

Among them were famed cinema heartthrob Rushdy Abaza - who surprisingly only managed an apartment in Block B, according to current residents - singer Fayza Ahmed, actress Mariam Fakhr el-Din and comedian Abdel Salam al-Nabulsi.

On the sixth floor of Block A was Lebanese star Silvana Badrakhan who, embodying “cool”, rose to acting and modelling fame by the 1970s.

Adding to the Yacoubian’s reputation of “cool” was the Venus Club, which Yacoub Yacoubian had created in 1967 in the underground space that was built as a shelter, according to Salim.

The Venus quickly became the place to see and be seen, second in popularity only to Casino du Liban.

Not everybody in the Yacoubian was happy about the hotspot, families worrying about the noise, privacy and general tone of having a nightclub there.

But, by the end of 1968, there was another reason to object: People wanted a functioning shelter as the spectre of war loomed after an Israeli military raid on Beirut International Airport destroyed 12 passenger and two cargo planes.

Yacoub told the residents: "If there's a war, you come to the club," promising the Venus as shelter should any bombing happen.

This assuaged some fears, until the country descended into civil war seven years later and the Yacoubian found itself on the West Beirut side of a divided city.

The day a pedestrian narrowly escaped cake

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
Salim chose to keep Aida's balanko on the terrace in her memory [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]
Salim chose to keep Aida's balanko on the terrace in her memory [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

Aida, a well-known figure in the neighbourhood, was living alone by the time the war began, her husband, Sami Daouk had passed away in 1975 and Salim had moved into a building within walking distance.

A few years down the line in 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon and moved to surround West Beirut, targeting the Palestine Liberation Organization forces who were hiding there.

One day, she heard the Israeli army was demanding that everyone give up their arms. Worried about her son, who was a Middle East Airlines pilot by then, she walked over a beaten path cutting through vegetation that grew between buildings back then to Salim’s to take his handgun - which he had for home security.

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
Salim looking at family photos. His mother Aida was a force of nature, he says [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

“I’m a woman living alone, they wouldn’t dare enter my house. You’re a young man, they may harass and search you,” he recalls her saying. Then, cool as she had always been, Aida put the handgun in a paper bag, walked it past the Israelis and stashed it at home.

Aida used to own a boutique in Hamra, Beirut’s busiest district, that she shut down when things got too risky but she needed something to keep her busy. So, in 1984, she decided to start up a coffee shop on the ground floor of Block A.

At Home was a hit, featuring Aida’s high-end desserts as well as her charming presence as she chatted with young couples on dates and served brunches to groups of ladies.

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
Salim in the dining room of the Yacoubian apartment he still lives in [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

It was a mental break from the fighting and it became so successful that she was able to hire someone to help her. Kawsar was a friend’s childless and recently widowed aunt, who easily moved in with Aida.

She learned the fancy cakes that Aida made, taken from a treasured English recipe book passed down by her half-English mother.

Given the times, not everything was working as it should and the out-of-service elevators were a headache for the entrepreneurs who needed to get cakes from the 10th floor apartment to street level.

But they were also resourceful, so Aida had a “balanko” pulley system set up to transfer cakes from the terrace to the street.

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
Salim and Iman in the storied balcony [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

In 1990, when the war was arguably at its worst and heading closer to its end, Kawsar was getting ready to transfer a cake via balanko when it slipped.

Plummeting to the ground, the cake landed with an impressive splat near an unsuspecting pedestrian who screamed in horror at cream splattered on the sidewalk and walls.

Relief, elation and confusion took turns as he realised it was just a cake, he would be fine.

At Home remained open until 2000, shortly before Aida passed away.

Salim, now married to Iman, unable to let go, bought his sister Tamima’s share in the apartment - she lived in Paris with her husband - and moved into the home he once persuaded his parents to buy.

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
Iman at home on a gentle afternoon, having a cigarette and her afternoon tea [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

“We had a new apartment in Beir Hasan,” says Iman of a rental they were considering buying. “A beautiful view. But we had to buy one or the other.

“Salim says Yacoubian is not an option to sell. You don’t leave Yacoubian. You wake up and you see heaven, it’s paradise, it’s home.”

The nonfunctioning balanko still stands, attached to the balcony railing, in memory of Aida.

The sun setting on the waters of the Mediterranean is reflected in the windows of Block A much like the eyes of people watching from the Corniche.

A young couple, who may have stopped in At Home when it was open, walk passed the building to join the other sunset observers.

Seeing the Virgin Mary in ‘modern heritage’

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
Elie Kortobawi, one of the long-term tenants in the Yacoubian, at the entrance of Block B [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]
Elie Kortobawi, one of the long-term tenants in the Yacoubian, at the entrance of Block B [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

Elie Kortobawi, 72, has been in the Yacoubian since March or April of 1967, he is not entirely clear on the exact date.

At the time, he was 14 and his parents started renting a place on the seventh floor from Yacoub.

“It was a special time. Mariam Fakhr el-Din lived next to me,” he smiled. “I would see her in the elevator… she looked like the Virgin Mary. She was amazing.”

The building back then, Elie said, was pristine, with a phone switchboard by the entrances, doormen who announced visitors and children playing in a playground that stood where there is now a car park with a pharmacy, chocolatier, hairdresser, and the famous Red Bar, aka Abou Elie's communist bar, looking out on it.

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
A rusted door in the corridors. Elie Kortobawi laments the faded beauty of the Yacoubian often and compares it to what it was like when he first arrived [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

The Yacoubian Building was always rich in aesthetics, design, culture, innovation and eventually personal histories. But as people waged their day-to-day struggles in a Lebanon that evolved constantly, prioritising what the Yacoubian meant to cultural heritage was difficult.

The term “heritage” is often used to refer to homes and buildings built at the end of the 19th century or the earlier decades of 20th-century Lebanon.

That is not what the Yacoubian Building is.

Still, it is “modern heritage”, according to architect George Arbid, 62, former lecturer at the American University of Beirut and current president of the Arab Center for Architecture.

“If the building has features relating to the place and the time, then it’s part of our heritage,” he said when asked about the Yacoubian.

ad for the the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
A 1963 advertisement for apartments in the Yacoubian [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

Arbid, who also co-founded the Arab Center to archive Lebanese architecture and promote modern heritage and as such, rejects the idea that a building has to be built before a certain date or by a famous architect to be heritage.

Beirut is an open book, he says, and it tells its own story through its buildings - the materials used in specific eras, building regulations that had to be followed at the time, what the economy was like in certain epochs, etc.

Each era had its features, like the terracotta tile roofs of the late 19th century. They were put on homes to keep them cool and drain the rain away, not to make houses look romantic or whimsical.

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
A quirky addition of unknown vintage gives a pop of green in a hallway [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

The 1960s also had their architectural features that are alive and well in the Yacoubian as they are in other Beiruti buildings of the same era.

Like the open staircases that let light and the sea breeze in. Staircases back then were not dark tunnels plummeting to the underground level.

The open hallways in front of apartment doors are also beloved in countries like Lebanon because they allow the sea air in and neighbours to meet each other as they come and go.

“To see your neighbour near the entrance of your home was a good thing,” Arbid says. “There was a time when this was natural. Hopefully, those times return.”

A balcony in the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
Some tenants keep their apartment doors open while others have gates to protect their piece of hallway. Pet cats roam freely along with street cats who come in for food left for them by tenants [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

Beirut is looking outwards less and less, losing its balconies as families close them off - with glass in new developments or with curtains in older ones - to keep pollution and noise out. Another band-aid solution residents had to use rather than officials repairing the root of it.

“People turn their sofas to face the inside as if the outside is meaningless. Buildings like Yacoubian weren’t meant for that. It was made to welcome the outside in.

“If Yacoubian were to become a modern heritage building locally, rules would be in place to protect it - materials used ... Renovations would be done in a nondestructive way and the building would be worth more, not less,” Arbid said.

‘The country exhausted us’

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
Youmna Younis’ wheelchair, kept as a souvenir by her daughter Itaf [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]
Youmna Younis’ wheelchair, kept as a souvenir by her daughter Itaf [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

In 1967, the same year Elie’s family moved in, a middle-class family with 10 children moved into a two-bedroom apartment on the sixth floor.

Youmna Younes, the matriarch, had been married at the very young age of 13, widowed and remarried.

She had five children in her first marriage and five in her second, her daughter Itaf, now 68, recalls.

The paranoia of war that roiled the 1960s was sadly justified when the Lebanese Civil War started on April 13, 1975, and went on for 15 years.

During the war, one by one, Itaf’s siblings started to emigrate to places like Qatar, Sweden and Cyprus.

The family downsized and bought a one-bedroom apartment on the 10th floor where she still lives.

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
Itaf in years past, in a roaring Beirut [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

Itaf, tall with gorgeous bone structure, used to model in fashion shows organised by socialite Patti Chamoun for top designers like Papou Lahoud from the age of 16.

She travelled to places like Egypt and France for her modelling but as the war worsened, fashion shows were no longer regular and thoughts of travel not realistic.

Itaf, like many Lebanese, could not find work and her dreams became just that. She and her younger brother were eventually the only two left in Lebanon and became the primary caregivers to their mother. Youmna passed away in August of 2021 at the age of 86.

“She suffered for seven years. She had an aneurysm that affected her memory and mobility,” Itaf said.

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
Itaf keeps the memory of her mother alive [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

She keeps on to her mother’s wheelchair in her memory, the place she spent a lot of time in along with the sofa in the middle of the family home, where Itaf now sleeps.

Itaf survives on “fresh dollars” she receives from loved ones in Europe; her brother will go to Belarus soon to join his wife and son.

An apartment that was bursting at the seams with family will now only have Itaf.

“I'll stay here, this is my home. Where else would I go? The country exhausted us. The building got old ... I’ve gotten old.

“It was a beautiful building but it changed, like the country.”

Looking fondly through old photos of her mother, she recalls a younger time when neighbours sat together every morning.

‘Throw it in the sea’

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
A view of the sunset Mediterranean from the Yacoubian [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]
A view of the sunset Mediterranean from the Yacoubian [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

When the civil war started, Yacoub and his lawyer son stopped coming to the building but the Venus, along with its kitchen, became their shelter as promised.

During this time, the residents did what they could to survive and help each other. Still, the vacuum left by the foreigners who travelled and left their apartments unoccupied allowed displaced people to seek shelter in them. Some ended up squatting for longer than intended.

“People started to leave. There were occupations. There were thefts. They would steal the carpets from apartments with ropes from the balconies,” Elie said.

But that was not always the case. Houwaida el-Assi was a mere child when her family’s home in Chiyeh was struck and she, her mother and two sisters were injured.

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
Houwaida el-Assi’s apartment a few weeks after Christmas. She was too young to remember much of when they sought shelter in the Yacoubian [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

“I was injured near my heart and my lungs collapsed,” Houwaida recalls.

They came to the Yacoubian to an apartment on the 10th floor of Block B initially.

“I was so small so it’s not vivid in my memory who opened the apartment for us. It could’ve been a militia or the Lebanese Army trying to help a displaced family.

“But, for the record, my family has never been part of any militias,” Houwaida said.

The residents became tighter-knit, she said, spending “evenings at each others’ apartments playing cards because we couldn’t go out".

“Armed people were coming in and out of the building. The building wasn’t targeted but some people who were in charge... stayed here and used it,” Elie said.

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
The Yacoubian is full of delightful vignettes on every floor. On most floors, tenants have set up their own additions, like this birdcage and feeding station [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

One day, Elie said although he’s not sure when exactly, Syrian soldiers, under direct orders from their lieutenant, kept residents out of the building for hours until an older, unarmed resident fought his way in. Then the rest were able to follow him and get to their homes.

In 1980, a displaced family sought shelter with Elie. “They lived with me until the Israeli invasion of 1982,” he said.

That family eventually bought an apartment in the Yacoubian and Elie would host their relatives for many years following.

He never saw this as something exceptional or significant, it was simply part of his life at the Yacoubian.

“I had a three-bedroom apartment and was working most days in Hamra, so it’s just something I did. If you do something, throw it in the sea.”

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
Houwaida keeps a record of the Yacoubian’s history and the changes made since she became board president [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

Elie’s youngest brother sadly died of natural causes at the age of 13, his sister eventually moved to Germany, and his other brother to the United States.

He remained, the sole heir of the “old rent” apartment - an act passed in 1992 allowed children living with their parents to take over their parents’ old rental agreements if they passed away.

That was a struggle though, the landlord claimed the family was squatting which would make them ineligible for the “old rent” status, so Elie had to go to court.

“I won because I had all the paperwork,” he said.

Eventually, Elie went to Jordan where the landlord lived and they came to a verbal agreement that Elie could buy the apartment. The owner fell ill shortly after and passed away before making it official.

Elie still rents at Yacoubian. He got married in 2001 at the age of 48, he likes to refer to himself as a late bloomer.

A fire, a worry and a seat on the board

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
Photo of a deteriorating Yacoubian that Houwaida keeps in her records [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]
Photo of a deteriorating Yacoubian that Houwaida keeps in her records [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

Eventually, Houwaida’s parents moved one floor down to rent a two-bedroom apartment, which they bought from the landlord in 2008. She still lives there.

The injury and displacement that brought her to the Yacoubian would not be the last traumatic event Houwaida would go through.

In 2007, she was startled by the smell of smoke and took refuge on her balcony with her mother and her brother’s children.

The fire was outside their apartment and short-lived, but the experience left her anxious and sleeping on the sofa for months, so she would be more aware of anything happening outside the apartment.

She suspected that the fire was started by the haphazard electrical connections residents set up throughout the building and into their apartments.

coffee making in the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
Houwaida el-Assi makes morning coffee in her apartment. She sleeps better at night knowing that her years of hard work to keep the building safe paid off [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

So she joined the board of Block B while still a tenant, starting as the treasurer - she is an accountant - and worked her way up to president.

Beirut’s electricity situation has only gotten worse since then, with the 2019 economic crisis that has Lebanon in a tailspin making it deteriorate further.

Houwaida had a long and challenging task list, including assessing and restoring the foundation, fixing water damage, and setting up rules about the facade - which were all eventually accomplished. But her first order of business was to move all external electrical cables into electrical closets.

“It might have been a cigarette that started the fire, we don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. You can’t have electrical wires outside, close to metal water pipes. What happens if a cable breaks during a storm?” she said.

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
Houwaida doesn't see the Yacoubian as 'heritage' but she put years into protecting it [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

With her decade-plus on the board now coming to an end, Houwaida hopes to focus on her own business and co-authoring a book, knowing that she has taken care of the problems that kept her awake at night.

“The important things for me weren’t so much the aesthetics. They’re the generator, elevator safety, the electricity… so people aren't in danger in their own homes.

“For me ‘heritage’ is what our grandfathers’ homes looked like, not our building.”

Abou Elie, the communist

Abou Elie communist bar in the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
Photos on the walls of Abou Elie's bar [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]
Photos on the walls of Abou Elie's bar [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

In 1976, a very young couple -  Therese Saade, later known as Em Elie and her husband, Abou Elie - moved into Yacoubian Block A.

“My kids were born here. We fixed the place and made it look nice,” Em Elie said.

Ten years later, Abou Elie opened the now-famous communist bar named after himself on the ground floor of Block B.

“He opened it for his friends to meet up,” Therese said. “It was more of a cultural project than a business. There were only two wooden tables.

“He had contacts, so many people came. Poets, doctors, teachers, students.”

The couple never went to the Venus, they were too young and Therese was focused more on her family and school - her mother, a professor at the Lebanese University, ensured that she finished school and college while raising her two sons.

Em Elia in Abou Elie communist bar the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
Therese Saade in the Abou Elie bar at opening time [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

Abou Elie’s Bar, far from the main Hamra nightlife, still attracts locals and foreigners through word of mouth as a bar one has to seek.

Several of the patrons are Yacoubian residents, whom Therese treats like family.

In 2013, after living in the Yacoubian for 37 years, the couple had to move out when the owner sold their apartment to a third party.

Abou Elie passed away five years later and Therese moved back into a rental that opened up in Block B. She is, once again, living upstairs from the bar her husband opened many years ago where she keeps his legacy alive.

Mosaic

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
[Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]
Yacoubian building [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

In 1990, Rami and Nada el-Zein decided to merge their computer company Interface with another. They rented space in the first and second floor of Yacoubian Block A. The first floor was for maintenance and support while the second floor was their offices.

They kept their offices there until 1998. When they moved out, they didn’t dream that years later, in 2010, they would buy their family home, a beautiful three-bedroom apartment, in Block B.

The family had lived in Hamra in a 1950s apartment but had to start looking for another place when their building was set to be demolished, ending up in the Yacoubian.

Their 29-year-old son Chafic is very attached to the home.

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
Chafic, on the balcony of the family's apartment, loves Beirut and the Yacoubian, choosing to stay instead of moving to Portugal with his parents [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

“There's something special about this place. It's not just the view or the location. Something more than my eyes can see. There’s a lot of history - I’m not sure how many people have lived in my family’s home, for example.”

Chafic used to work at his family business, cloud hosting and development. Initially had plans to move to Portugal with his parents but decided to stay in Lebanon and open a cafe, The Bake Atelier, instead.

He is still quite positive about living in Beirut compared to his peers and his attachment to the family home is unwavering, despite frustrations.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen car windshields broken from things landing on them [from windows]. I’ve also seen everything from cigarette butts to dirty diapers.”

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
Nahida's known for playing music as she walks up 10 flights of stairs to her place [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

He started parking on the street only to get his gas siphoned off. “Always when I have a full tank,” he jokes.

But he values the investment his parents put into the apartment, nearly all the money they had at the time, and his favourite parts of the building: “The tiles - I love the fifth floor’s black tile,” he exclaims.

The tiles in the open corridors of the Yacoubian are a different colour on each floor - a visual way to tell residents and visitors which floor they are on. It comes in handy with elevator outages when tenants have to climb one floor after another.

Sometimes, it is possible to hear music as someone makes their way up the stairs, and residents usually know then that Nahida Khalil is on her way to her 10th-floor apartment.

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
Neighbours still hear each other coming and going sometimes [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

She is especially partial to songs by the Egyptian singer Layla Mourad.

The landscape architect and activist, who took on politics later on in her career, is OK with the climb, focusing more on the beauty of the stairs and the light in the building she has lived in since she and her husband bought an apartment there in April 2008.

“Hello Nahida,” neighbours will say to her as they open their doors when they hear her music.

“We have great neighbours. Families, artists, poets, teachers. A lot of diversity. That’s what we want in politics - social inclusion, integration.”

Each floor of the Yacoubian has six apartments; a four-bedroom, a three-bedroom, two two-bedrooms, and two one-bedrooms. This means a mix of families can live there, small or large middle-class families, single people, and foreigners living in Lebanon.

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
Three elevators in the entranceway. They lack the elements that many people think of when defining 'heritage', but it tells the stories of its time and place in history [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

Nahida wants the building to be protected by having it recognised as a “modern heritage building”.

Changes, such as to the corridor tiles - which has already happened on some floors - would be prohibited because the mosaics are there for more than aesthetic reasons.

“If one tile breaks, you replace it with another small tile. It doesn’t require the work and the waste that it does in larger tiles in newer buildings,” Nahida said.

Her passion for conservation started before the Yacoubian.

While working as a landscape architect, she found out that 85 percent of public spaces had already been lost and privatised, including Dalieh of Raouche, a landmark on the main coastal highway, and Ramlet el-Bayda, the last remaining public beach.

The Yacoubian, she said, is a microcosm of what she sees happening to Lebanon - loss of heritage.

‘An old pair of jeans’

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
A stuffed puppy hangs out to greet passers-by at an apartment entrance [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]
A stuffed puppy hangs out to greet passers-by at an apartment entrance [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

John Nohos, a teacher at an American school, likes to sit on his balcony to watch planes fly by.

“When friends come visit, they don’t have to call to let me know they arrived. I see their planes landing and head to the airport,” John, Eleftherios’s son, said.

“When I fly, I always choose a seat on the left side of the plane to see my home.”

Eleftherios had bought an apartment as planned in 1964 and rented it - temporarily, he thought - to Nuhad Kashshu.

Instead of leaving after a few years, Nuhad stayed, protected by Lebanon’s tenancy laws, until she died in 2009.

It was only then that John, who was naturalised in 1994 and stayed in Beirut, was able to see Eleftherios’s apartment.

As the only remaining Nohos in Lebanon, he decided to move in and renovate.

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
A plane flies by on its way to Beirut International Airport. Watching them is a Nohos family tradition [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

Eleftherios, delighted to hear the apartment would stay in the family, bought two plastic chairs and started the tradition of watching planes fly by - a common view on Beirut’s Corniche.

John was in Lebanon throughout the civil war, he felt safest there and was most at home in Ras Beirut.

He likes the people in the Yacoubian with their varied backgrounds and ways of life. He does worry about structural changes - like changed windows and closed-up balconies - ruining the facade and that the rubbish chutes are gone.

"It’s like an old pair of jeans. If you keep patching it, you won’t see the original any more," John said.

Like his father, he hopes to winter in Beirut and summer in Greece, something he wishes Eleftherios had been able to do before he passed away in 2012.

‘It resembles Lebanon’

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
Ahmad Khalaf on the very edge of the Yacoubian roof [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]
Ahmad Khalaf on the very edge of the Yacoubian roof [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

Ahmad Khalaf, 47, lives on the ground floor of Block B with his wife Naamat and sons, Mohamad (17) and Wael (16) who are still in school.

He is the natour, or doorman, of Block B, a job he has had since 2013, taking over from the beloved Abu Ali who had held the natour’s job for decades, witnessing so much of the Yacoubian’s history.

He used to have a growing business selling ladies’ slippers, importing raw materials from Aleppo, Syria, to manufacture in Lebanon and sell across the country. By 2013, the war raging in Syria meant he lost access to his raw materials, then he lost the business and came to the Yacoubian, a move he never regretted.

“I felt a connection to this building, it’s home. It also resembles Lebanon.

the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
The roof is his favourite place in the entire building, Ahmad says [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

“I’ve been everywhere in this country, and this building has people with roots from all over, every sect and every town. You don’t feel any sectarianism,” he says.

Ahmad likes to go up on the roof for his morning coffee. During COVID lockdowns, the residents started to head up there too to share a cup and socialise in safety.

“They didn’t know what a beautiful view we have,” he smiled. “I know more about the building than the residents do.”

He seems most impressed with the building’s strength. “I’ve seen people removing metal windows because they had rusted, but even then, they were so difficult to get out.”

He compares it to the strength of the Yacoubian residents who withstood so much of Lebanon’s history and compares the hallway mosaics to the community’s diversity.

Salim and Iman's dining room in Yacoubian building Beirut Lebanon
The Daouk's dining room is decorated with hand-carved panels Salim salvaged from his parents' wardrobe [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]

The building’s birthday, 1963, is shared with many Lebanese who came of age during the civil war. Many joined or were conscripted to different militias, many were displaced, emigrated or killed.

Many never even came to "West Beirut" to see this once-avant-garde building made to resemble the Lebanon they dreamt of.

The building’s deterioration echoes their bodies growing older, and some renovations clumsily bandaged much like Lebanon’s social and political issues.

Perhaps the Yacoubian being acknowledged as modern heritage will reflect the way the country needs to heal.

“When I came here I thought it would be temporary. Good for a year or two to pay my loans. Now it’s [more than] 10 years later.” Ahmad says with a smile.

Abu Eli communist Bar in the Yacoubian building, Beirut Lebanon
Chafic at Abou Elie bar, where he is always made welcome by Em Elie [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]
Chafic at Abou Elie bar, where he is always made welcome by Em Elie [Rita Kabalan/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera