Go to main navigation
Tom Young konst Beirut

"I am drawn to these places that have this emotional presence, so I wanted to depict it in my paintings", the artist Tom Young says.

Foto: Tom Young


Tom Young is painting the war wounds in Beirut

Do buildings embody emotions and perhaps lead to reconciliation? Tom Young, a British artist and architectural activist, believes they can. In painting the old war hotel Holiday Inn, he is trying to capture the cities memories and heal his own wounds.

In the middle of Beirut stands a skeleton of the grim Lebanese civil war, the Holiday Inn, once a luxury hotel and now a bullet-ridden war wound, surrounded by glittering skyscrapers overlooking the new marina packed with flashy yachts. It would be easy to take Beirut for any other city if it wasn't for those buildings that are still here. Abandoned memories of the brutal and elusive civil war (1975–1990) which took place on the streets of the city between different phalanges of Muslims and Christians, Druze, left-wing radicals, fascists and Palestinians, Israel, Syria, several Western powers and local warlords who benefited from the chaos of war. 

After more than a year of trying, Tom Young recently had the opportunity to paint inside the hotel which became the site of many clashes during the war. Today, it is a military base for the Lebanese army.

“It was an overwhelming feeling to stand inside the hotel, and very moving. There were signs of torture and suffering that had happened there, it was lots of mixed emotions, a sense of fear and great sadness. After leaving the building I got a sort of constricted throat, illness, and I could not swallow, but it also felt like the building in some ways had been cleansed, by the wind and the sea breeze that comes off the Mediterranean”, he says.

The 26-story high-rise hotel opened in 1974 and was to attract the world's jet set flooding into Beirut, with its revolving restaurant and stunning sea view. The hotel was only open for one year before it was taken over by combatants in what was to be called "The Battle of the Hotels".

A few blocks east of the hotel, in Hikme, Ashrafieh, Tom Young works in his studio; his paintings of the hotel are leaning against the walls. He is the only artist that has been allowed to enter the site which has been abandoned for more than 40 years.

“I just think it has incredible power and real emotional presence, as a building. As an architect, and an artist I am very interested in that. My work is not just about creating artwork, it is also about the reuse and transformation of architecture”, he says, and his ultimate vision is to create an exhibition inside the building, where the art can be displayed in context.

 A man stares out of from what was once the revolving restaurant made to attract the jet set that loved to party in Beirut. The restaurant only stayed open for a year before combattant groups took hold of the hotel. Foto: Tom Young

Identification with difficult memories

Tom Young has been working in Lebanon for more than ten years and feels drawn to the abandoned buildings. He has produced several exhibitions, art projects that often take years of planning, where his paintings have become a part of a larger installation that involves those that once were there, reclaiming its history, as well as the reuse and transformation of architecture, and maybe as a part of a healing process. Recently this happened in the autumn of 2018 with his exhibition of the abandoned Grand Sofar Hotel, on the old road to Damascus. The hotel, built in 1892, was once one of the most famous hotels in the region, but also fell victim to the war.

The casino at The Grand Sofar Hotel on the old Damascus road, or the road to ruin? Whatever the outcome it attracted a powerful and influential clientele during its heyday. Foto: Tom Young

“It is very difficult for a lot of people to see these places and I think many put up a sort of screen, which divide them from memory. I identify with that, I know what it is like to avoid difficult memory, it is a kind of amnesia”, he says.

Tom Young has his own painful memories that have affected him his whole life, his mother died very tragically when he was only ten years oldat the same time of the civil war in Lebanon.

“The war was on the news every night and those images from the civil war were ingrained in my imagination. I think something happened when my mother died under very tragic circumstances, possibly some sort of projection or transference went on”, he says.

The scars within him, from his mother´s death, made him able to relate to the scars of many Lebanese.

“I felt an identification and sympathy with the people and the city because it also experienced tragic event at the same time as I had, and I felt understood here, in a way I didn´t feel in my own country”, he says.

“This goes beyond national identity or stereotypes. Because I am trained as an architect I perceive this history, this trauma, in the buildings, in the fabric of the architecture. The sense of neglect and abandonment and dysfunctional protection of the heritage in Lebanon is a problem”, he says, but then points the resilience people have to recover.

Strong emotions and feelings when Tom Young, after a year of trying, finally managed to come inside the infamous hotel.

Unhealthy to forget

However, Tom Young believes the amnesia of Beirut, in the long run, is unhealthy. Children are not taught about the civil war in schools, luxury apartments can be built on top of archaeological sites and a parking lot be placed on top of a mass grave.

“I believe in the therapeutic power of art and that it can play a role in the healing processes. I am not saying that we can ever heal Lebanon, but I think we could try. Public places in the city are important, places where people can come and gather”, he says and adds that there are very few such places, that are noncommercial, in the city.

Besides his own art projects, Tom Young also uses his art in his work with children.

“I use my art as a tool to help children. I did workshops for orphans and school children and in the Palestinian refugee camps. There is clear evidence of them being traumatized and art is a good way to express that. Painting is emotional and expressive. The children work individually and at the end, we join together on a big collective piece”, he says and adds that it is also a way to overcome boundaries and differences amongst gender and the different backgrounds of the children.

Tom Young in his studio in Hikme, Beirut, in front of different angles of the old war hotel Holiday Inn, a place of many tragic events, Foto: Ylva J Bergman

A strategic position

Holiday Inn played a strategic role during the civil war in a similar way to that ancient castles used to play when historically placed on high hills.

“It was occupied first by the Christian militias, the Phalange, who were fighting the Palestinian militia, who were supported by Muslim, Lebanese and the leftist movement, and it was essentially a socialist revolution intended to overthrow the Christian dominating commercial elite”, explains Tom Young.

The hotel was the scene for many tragic events and several photographs from this time were taken by the legendary British war photographer Don McCullin; a picture of a young Christian woman throwing a hand grenade from the hotel, another one with a Phalange gunman waiting with his automatic rifle, stiff in suspense, under one of the hotel's chandeliers.

Tate Britain recently presented a comprehensive retrospective of Don McCullin, see some of the pictures here:

“My paintings work on several levels, some of it concerns the horror and violence of what happened here, some are about what the place is now and others what it could become in the future. An expression of a vision of perhaps a garden of forgiveness, symbolic of the new life that springs up”, he says.

Tom Young envisions that all of these memories, our human ability to adapt and reconcile and the remembrance of those that died could form an art installation in the middle of the city.

He is also interested in that one year when the hotel was up and running, and has met a couple that married there, a Christian and a Muslim, who still holds the menu from their wedding dinner at the hotel.

“Tom Jones actually performed there, and I have also met the woman throwing the hand grenade in the photo that Don McCullin took”, he says.

If his dream will come true: an exhibition, that could include objects from the hotel, as well as Don McCullins photos, which he has used as a starting point for some paintings, is unsure. The hotel is to be sold, he says and then laughs:

“So this could be the exhibition that never was”.

A garden of forgiveness, an art installation, a new functional building or torn down and forgotten? What is to become of the old hotel remains to be seen,

Have you healed your own wounds now?

"I´m trying. I think that if you start with yourself then it is genuine, I still have a long way to go, but I’ve certainly been able to transform my own pain and trauma into something really beneficial for myself and others, and that is the is the message; that this pain and this trauma is not entirely a bad thing, actually you can use it”, says Tom Young.

See more of Tom Young's artwork here

Ylva Bergman

Many people in Beirut are upset about the neglect and respectlessness for their history, old buildings are being replaced with new high-rise luxury apartments, sometimes build over historical sites or even mass graves. Here some activist were painting "Old Beirut Matters", on a wall. Foto:Ylva J Bergman


* OmVärlden is a Swedish online magazine on foreign policy and global development that occasionally publish content in English, articles and podcast.