In the drumming heat and humidity, Elie approached the building in central Beirut. More than a decade after the end of Lebanon's civil war, the stone structure's outside walls were diaphanous, hit by countless artillery shells. Some of those shells had been aimed at Elie.
From inside the building, Elie commanded Christian militiamen from 1989 to the last days of the war, during the last gasps of the war. Now he makes specialty chocolates and directs the Ashrafieh neighborhood office of his political party. And until this hot day in late summer, he had never gone back to the building.
As he stepped over the threshold, he chewed his little finger nervously.
"Life takes you back, and you forget the time of war," Elie said.
In the 80 years since it was built, the elaborately designed Barakat building has been a symbol of Beirut's culture and tolerance and of its hellish urban warfare. Now, a group of preservationists wants to restore the building as a museum of Beirut but cannot agree on whether to pay tribute to the good times or the bad.
About 13 years after the war's end, Lebanon still does not know how to deal with its memories of a 15-year period of devastation in which about 7 percent of the population was killed, 10 percent seriously injured and up to 25 percent forced to move.
The war is still too tender a topic for politicians, many of them former factional fighters given positions of power under a makeshift political settlement. In Lebanese schools, most history books make no mention of the civil war. Architecture that aims to erase the past is one of the few professions to boom in a crippled postwar economy, and a city of high-rise glitz has risen from the ashes.
The Barakat building stands as a ravaged, gaunt memorial in a rebuilt commercial district known as Sodeco Square. Its owners say they want to tear it down, sell the land and leave what happened there behind.
It was constructed in 1924, in what was then the outskirts of Beirut, by Nicolas and Victoria Barakat. "It was a jewel of a building," said their son Victor Barakat, now 83, who lived in the building from age 5 until his mid-fifties.
Marble tiles in art deco patterns, hand-painted ceilings and fantastic ironwork gave it a style equaled by only a few buildings in Lebanon. It was designed by Yousef Bay Aftinos, the architect who created Beirut's city hall.
The war that the Barakat family calls "the events" began on April 13, 1975, with the killing of four members of the Phalange, a Maronite Christian group, during an attempt to assassinate their leader, Pierre Gemayel, and the retaliatory killing of 26 Palestinians on a bus. "All night in our neighborhood, there were firefights everywhere," Victor Barakat said. "My nephew Paul got married the next day. We walked down the street under rockets to reach the church."
Barakat and his wife, Agni, decided to wait out the violence at their summer house in the mountain village of Beit Mery. Soon after they left, members of a Christian militia phoned them. Agni Barakat, 75, recalled a man's voice: "Madame Barakat, the militia is in your apartment. If you want to retrieve anything, go to militia headquarters."
The fighters exploited the very architectural feature that made the Barakat building so special: Every room has a view of the street. As a result, snipers could hit their targets from back rooms, according to fighters once stationed in the building.
Killing spread up and down the street, which soon became part of the Green Line dividing Beirut's Christian east and Muslim west. A succession of Christian militias made the Barakat building their heavily fortified base of operations, maintaining what militia members recall as a few dozen fighters inside and snipers and rocket launchers positioned on buildings nearby.
"Nobody will talk about it," said Jihad Pakradouni, whose father, Karim, helped lead the Phalange militia during the war. The father is now a minister in parliament and the son is his aide, driving an Alfa Romeo with a pistol tucked under a tissue box between the front seats. Indeed, some fighters refused to talk, saying they were afraid of liability for war crimes.
Elie, for example, was not convinced that he wanted to remember or discuss this particular building and would do so only without giving his full name.
After the war ended, Elie sometimes drove by the gutted, blasted Barakat building, but he never stopped. War rules were off. New, uncertain rules were on. Were people angry? Elie asked himself. Would they want revenge? Did they blame him for their damaged homes, stolen cars, missing children? He retreated to his wartime comrades and his Christian neighborhood of Ashrafieh -- next to Sodeco Square -- and did not often get out.
But now, he was inside the building he had known only by a code name, sure-footedly crossing dust and rubble. He showed off a line of concrete-encased sandbags he had once installed to protect a sniper's nest. He pointed out a ceiling of reinforced concrete he had ordered molded, to prevent rockets from penetrating from above. He did not venture toward the rooms at the front of the building that the fighters had always avoided.
Rushing through the building, Elie, 48, was moved to tell war lore: the time he mistook a parrot for the enemy in the dark, the time someone launched a weapon at him while he was eating a sandwich. Back then, he said, the enemy was so close. The fight was so tricky. At night, opposing militiamen would yell curses across the street, Elie said.
After a thorough survey, Elie quickened his pace to leave and walk outside on Monot Street, where rows of folding, partially destroyed buildings have been rebuilt into chic, stylized bars and restaurants serving sushi and tapas. Elie saw someone he knew.
Grinning, the two men pinched each other's cheeks. "Wasn't it better then?" Elie asked. Many fighters say the same thing: During wartime, you had jobs and enough to eat. More foreign money came in to buy guns than ever did after the war to pay for reconstruction. Elie's chocolate business is failing, he said later, and it turns a profit only at Christmas and Easter.
Elie asked for news all up and down the street, and some of it was bad. Abu Jihad died. The fat guy died. All the women died.
Still, he was ever more excited as he walked confidently into the backyards of his former territory. "You don't know me?" he called up, waving his arms, to a man in his undershirt on a second-floor balcony.
The man called down: "May we remember so that it doesn't repeat itself."
"May it repeat itself!" called Elie.
Later, he said the war was the best time of his life, when he felt closest to his friends, when he felt most alive, when he was fighting for something he believed in -- Christian rights. Driving along the narrow streets of Ashrafieh, Elie said the most important reason to keep the Barakat building intact was to show his children that their father had fought, in case they needed to fight someday, too. Elie's reason for remembering is the same reason many Lebanese say they must forget: They don't want to repeat the past. But others say that absorbing the past will prevent its recurrence.
In 1996, Mona Hallak, an architect, discovered the Barakat building and began to lobby for its preservation. Restoring the building, she said, would be an important step toward healing Lebanon's divisions. "We're a very fragile country," Hallak said. "We never faced our differences."
The following year, the Barakat family decided to tear the building down and sell the land, which today is worth about $5 million, according to Paul Barakat, Victor's nephew. For six days, the brilliantly colored tiles and iron railings from balconies and stairs were carted out, according to Paul, until the mayor, urged on by Hallak and a campaign in the An Nahar newspaper that she helped launch, revoked the demolition permit.
Though the city finally agreed in 2002 to acquire the building, the process has been slow because of disagreement over how to renovate it.
Some want to leave untouched some of the damage -- such as the artillery-scarred stone and evidence of the snipers' nests -- as a grim monument. But others have a vision of a building restored to its 1920s glory to house a museum recording 7,000 years of Beirut history.
The Barakat family has no interest in preserving memories.
"Why do they want to make a museum? There's nothing remaining but broken stone," said Victor Barakat. "I don't like to look at it. I don't have the heart. Memories of the past can't stop people from killing each other if they want to."