Qatari Money Buys Beirut a National Library

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Many questions were raised when the architectural firm Erga was hired to oversee the construction of the new Lebanese National Library. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

Published Monday, November 5, 2012

Lebanon embarked on a project for a new national library more than a decade ago, but little progress has been made. The Ministry of Culture has taken a backseat to the project’s Qatari investors, leaving many to wonder just when and how the library will take shape.

Many questions were raised when the architectural firm Erga was hired to oversee the construction of the new Lebanese National Library.

After the Ministry of Culture formed two committees – the Lebanese National Library Rehabilitation Project (LNLRP) committee and the National Library Revival Committee (NLRC) – they expended much time and effort organizing a competition to determine the building’s design. In the end, the choice was made by the authorities in Qatar, whose government offered to fund the project back in 2005.

Erga’s chairman, Elie Gebrayel, stressed that his company was only appointed by the Qataris as consultants for the project, and that the actual construction work was tendered out.

“The grant the Qataris offered is conditional on them paying it,” he explained. “They took the view that the competition would take too much time, and there was concern that it would result in exceeding the budgeted $25 million. The ministry committee’s plan, for example, would have cost around $45 million. As the project was kept in the drawer for a long time, they decided to select a company to implement it so the work could start.”

Gebrayel further explained that they selected Erga because it “operates in 25 countries via 14 offices around the world, including in Qatar, and we specialize in cultural buildings, having built universities and schools before.”

The biggest challenge for Gebrayel, and the project as a whole, is keeping within budget.

“When the grant was awarded in 2005, the sum of $25 million was enough to carry out the work, but with the delays to 2012 the sum has become a real challenge. Erga hopes to overcome it by providing the library with the infrastructure to help it absorb the changes it will face in years to come, but without any non-essential equipment,” he explained.

The former premises of the Lebanese University’s Faculty of Law in Beirut’s Sanayeh neighborhood is being renovated to become the new National Library. Four extra underground floors are being built to provide space for 1.5 million books and manuscripts. They will be earthquake resistant and equipped with special air conditioning to help preserve paper. For the time being, however, only one of these floors is being equipped.

In addition, two transparent glass structures are to be built on the original building, designed not to clash with or obscure its architectural style. One will contain the elevators and stairs that lead to the book storage rooms, and the other, u-shaped, will serve as a large lecture theater or reading room.

But Erga has its critics. Maude Estefan, university professor and scientific advisor to the NLRC, complained that the company only met once with the committee that had previously been planning the library’s revival. She noted at the time that there were flaws in its plans. For example, the planned book storage facilities were inappropriate for large manuscripts.

Gebrayel countered that his company has worked hard to create the best library possible. While it can hardly be expected to have previous experience in building a national library, it hired expert advisors from France to help with concept and structural requirements.

Yet Estefan argued that this is insufficient and wondered whether the “client” – the Ministry of Culture – is keeping enough of an eye on the work being done, no matter how much confidence it might have in the contractor.

So, is the ministry keeping watch? “From a distance,” replied Minister of Culture Gaby Layoun. “We don’t have an engineer following the work on the ground, because the culture ministry doesn’t have engineers.”

Yet the Qatari funders are keeping close tabs on the project. They require Erga to submit a monthly progress report, send engineers to inspect the work, and make sure their money is being properly spent. While the Qatari funders are entitled to ensure their interests are upheld, why does the Lebanese client seem so unconcerned with the project? Although the minister in charge is unaware of what is actually happening on the ground, he nevertheless promises the Lebanese “a national library befitting them and their heritage.”

For workers on the ground, a historic building like the Faculty of Law poses many challenges, said Firas Qusyafi. Some issues are related to the structure’s age, which gives rise to problems that cannot be dealt with by simply replacing or modernizing old features. Renovation is further complicated by the many changes made to the interior over the years, as different users have adapted it to their needs by building extra walls or covering certain features.

In a first floor room, workers are removing an added ceiling, revealing the original one built in 1907. The golden paint indicates that the original chamber may have been used for stage performances. Qusayfi said it is now set to become one of the library’s conference rooms. The golden ceiling will be re-covered with wood in keeping with the new library’s style and lighting scheme.

The building’s foundation stone was laid by the Ottoman governor Ibrahim Khalil Pasha in 1905. It was part of the Sanayeh arts and crafts center, and consists of two main structures. The eastern one was the arts and crafts school, later to become the Faculty of Law building, and the western one was a hospital and is currently used by the interior ministry. The Sanayeh public garden lies south of the site. The center was inaugurated on 19 August 1907, with Ahmad Abbas al-Azhari as founding head of the school, one of many that were built throughout the Ottoman empire.

The last signature in the visitors’ book of the old national library is dated 3 February, 1978. After that, there are only blank pages. Past tributes are penned in Arabic, English, French, and even Russian and Chinese. It is hard to identify the authors from their abbreviated signatures, but they came from all over the world. That was before the library was besieged by the Lebanese civil war. Fearing its contents would be destroyed or looted, the library closed its doors in 1979.

In the Sanayeh district, cars drive past without noticing the large billboard that bears the image of Sheikha Mozah, wife of the Qatari emir, laying the foundation stone for the new national library. The photo was taken in 2008, when she came to perform the ceremony for the second time. The foundation stone was laid for the first time in 2005 after Qatar announced its grant. But while the stone was laid, the grant did not come. Even after Sheikha Mozah wielded the cement-trowel in person, the grant did not materialize until 2010.

The delay in providing the grant negatively affected much of the work done under the LNLRP, according to committee member Nada Itani. For example, staff who were trained to work at the library as part of the project between 2003 and 2006 have since found other jobs. Estefan added that the state has yet to adopt a staffing structure for the library, which is supposed to employ 144 people.

In addition to the staff drifting away, critics say that since the state first promised to revive the national library in 2000, it has been reinventing the wheel. Every new culture minister would take the project back to square one, according to Fawz Abdallah, head of the Lebanese Libraries Association. “They didn’t know how to build on efforts and results,” he said. Instead of moving things forward, they kept repeating the steps of their predecessors. Abdallah does not believe the state’s promise that the library will open in 2014.

“When Salim Wardeh became culture minister, he contacted the Qataris and asked to go ahead with the national library project. They told him that Erga would take charge, and he agreed so that the project could get going. He also halted meetings of the NLRC and excluded it from the engineering project,” said Abdallah. “He stopped asking it to meet, and all decisions since have been left to the minister.”

Estefan said she does not know why the former minister did that, suggesting that maybe he didn’t trust the committee, but added that the incumbent minister has also only met with the committee once.

Although all decisions are supposedly in his hands, Layoun lacks answers to key questions about the library.

Of the $25 million pledged by Qatar in 2005, $6 million was supposed to be spent on developing the library’s collections. Given the cost inflation, the total sum is no longer sufficient even to refurbish the Faculty of Law building in the way originally intended. The question remains: Where is the money for the collections, which have been frozen in time since 1975, to come from?

The above question was put to the minister. Usually, such queries are seized on by ministers of culture to complain that their meager budgets prevent them from getting things done. Not Layoun. He is blunt. “The library must suffice with whatever can be allocated from the ministry’s budget,” he explained.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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