I have walked by the Sanayeh Gardens almost every day for the past 5 years, watching the old building across the street slowly modernize with glass facades and landscaping.
I am told that it used to be Lebanon’s Law school and when I get closer to its gates, the sign reads “Lebanese National Library” in Arabic and French.
Could this be? Could my city, notoriously victim to greedy developers that tear down its character in favor of ugly high-rises too expensive for the common National, could my city, my country, really be opening a public library?
The answer is yes.
The Qatar-funded project led by the heroic efforts of The Lebanese Foundation for the National Library, has opened its Reading Room doors for a fundraising exhibition “Bitassarof” that displays the works of 55 local artists.
I had to see it for myself.
On Sunday 13 November, I enter its arched doorway and gasp. I literally gasp. Some organizers must have sensed my hyper-excitement because the next thing I know, Maiya Hershey, Social Media Strategist for the Library, approaches me and offers a tour of the exhibition.
I might have squeaked with joy at that moment, but luckily, she doesn’t hear me.
Instead, she leads me to the hallway just outside the Reading Room, where we browse prints of 100+ years of newspaper manuscripts in the Library’s archives, dating from the rule of the Ottomans in the late 1800s to the independence of Lebanon in 1948.
Like an eager kid ready for the next thrill ride at the Luna Park, I am then led through another archway and into the spacious Reading Room, designed with a wall of windows to let in plenty of light and wooden tables in the center, which at this moment are used to display sculptures and small installations from the exhibition.
Maiya explains to me that a few years ago, the Foundation printed a reference book entitled “100 years of Lebanese Press” but could not distribute it because of an error in the layout. Years, and many political and economic obstacles later, they would give this book to 55 Lebanese Artists as the inspiration to create works to fundraise and finish the National Public Library.
The pieces are spectacular. Some are mixed media hanging on the walls, splattered with themes of censorship and war, a morbid tribute to our tumultuous history while others have used the book as a sculpture, carving it into objects (a gun and a camera) or using the book itself to spell out “read” in Arabic.
I look around the Reading Room, and notice the empty bookshelves. Maiya explains that Beirut was once home to the biggest and rarest collection of books in the Middle East and that people would travel from as far as China just to visit, to read and to collect. She tells me that right now, there are 25 specialized technicians working on restoring the books as the Foundation continues to raise funds to renovate the building.
How many books? I ask.
Two hundred thousand books.
And, she tells me there will be a Research Center, Archives & Manuscripts sections, even a cinema that will project old films in the Library’s collection.
This will seem like an exaggeration, but I well up with tears, as if somehow nostalgic for a past that I have never known; a time before the war, before I was born, when a grand importance was placed on our collective culture and our collective narrative.
This is a dream and an inspiration.
What’s the hold up? I wonder. I realize now how naïve I must have sounded.
Nobody answers this question for me, but after a bit of digging, I realize that, like so many things in our tiny country, a treasure like the National Library is entangled in politics. Even the next round of funding is stalled due to political agreements, whatever that means. Sigh.
The next day, I open a FADE IN: Facebook event to encourage people to visit the art exhibit and share with them what I have experienced. I figure, maybe we could gather a group of about 15 or 20 people in hopes that the more people show up, the faster we can push the various political entities to open the doors to our Library.
The event went viral and in 24 hours, we have already received over 100 RSVPs. The response is overwhelming and The Foundation is now splitting everyone into several tour groups.
It looks like the people have spoken.
Let’s take back our right to public spaces, to our culture and to our stories.
Special thanks to the Lebanese Foundation for the National Library, who didn’t shy away from my excitement, but embraced it.