Culture Minister Gaby Layoun has signed a decree (Decree 133/2011) stating that the city’s landmark Masrah Beirut is part of the country’s artistic heritage and henceforward a protected structure. The announcement marks a reprieve for the historic building in the wake of concerns that it would be razed to make way for development in Ain al-Mreisseh.
Addressing protesters who had gathered in front of the Culture Ministry Wednesday to protest the building’s destruction, Layoun said: “You are the ministry’s guests and not protesters. What you ask for is what we ask for.”
“Through Masrah Beirut you see the true face of our culture and unfortunately it is withering away. You are looking at one particular aspect, but what we’re looking at are the traditional and educational aspects in Beirut. The core of the ministry’s agenda is to preserve the historical, artistic and educational aspects. The steps we can undertake are limited to what the law allows.”
The minister reiterated the government’s regret at the theater’s closure.
“What we have heard is that there is a court case between the owner and the tenant, which went in favor of the tenant,” he continued. “This led to the closure. The closure is temporary in order to carry out [the theater’s] reconstruction and reinvestment.
“We do want to preserve it.
“We will announce tomorrow that our program is cancelled,” said Issam Bou Khaled by telephone. “We no longer have the right to do anything in the theater.” Bou Khaled is among the group of actors and other artists who re-launched Masrah Beirut in 2009.
“We had an agreement with the tenant, who gave us the theater almost two years ago. It was a friendly agreement. We don’t know the intentions of the theater’s new owner. Until now, we are still waiting. There is still no definitive and clear decision.
“Directors and actors started this protest movement to ask the Culture Ministry to protect the theater and its cultural identity. We would like the space to remain a theater, and also we want the people who created and worked for it not to be forgotten. They have been active since 1964. They made the theater what it is today.
“Everyone who participated in any theatrical event feels concerned about this situation. We are trying to find a solution. It is now a transition period.
“The Culture Ministry promised they would do everything they can in order to keep the cultural identity of the place,” Bou Khaled said.
“We attended the sit-in at the Culture Ministry,” said Pascale Ingea, founder and president of the Association for the Protection of the Lebanese Heritage. “The theater is closed for the time being. It is now on the list of the historical monuments of the country.
“But how do we know that the next culture minister [who has yet to be appointed] will not rescind the decree that was signed?”
“We have to keep fighting for these cultural spaces,” said Giorgio Tarraf, a spokesperson for Save Beirut Heritage. “The file [concerning Masrah Beirut] will be transferred to the Directorate-General of Antiquities.
“The owner of the theater needs to realize how much potential the theater has. A compromise may be found between the ministry and the owner, but the most important thing is to keep the theater functioning.”