A house of one’s own
I had never experienced an elderly man break down before and didn’t quite know what to say. At 78, Arthur Hamalian suddenly found himself without a home. ‘I beg you, help me,’ he said, his tears flowing stronger. ‘I’m depending on you.’
I stared at him, racking my brain for something to say. Hamalian, originally of Armenian descent and speaking halting Arabic, had come to look for me at my newspaper office after he had seen me once at a press conference. ‘Can’t you write my story?’ he urged. ‘Maybe someone can help us then.’
I promised to do my best.
I went searching for his home. It was a beautiful two-storey house built early last century. A little courtyard and a small fountain welcomed visitors. And it was unfortunately located in downtown Beirut, in an area all but destroyed during the 16-year Lebanese civil war and subsequently taken over by a real-estate company. Established by governmental decree in 1991, the company, Solidere, was given permission to develop the entire downtown area. In order to do so, the company had first to own the land. Thousands of the area’s inhabitants – most of whom now live in the outskirts of the city – were told that they no longer owned their homes. Instead they would get shares in the company.
The Beirutis’ hue and cry were ignored and the company’s plans went ahead. One of those inhabitants was Hamalian who had stayed in his home throughout the war. ‘We only left once for two weeks when the shelling was too close,’ he said. ‘But I came every day to look after it.’
Hamalian was apparently given the choice of keeping his home if he met certain requirements. He did so except for one requirement: the house had to be clear of any legal property disputes.
Unfortunately, in the 1970s just before the war erupted, Hamalian and his brother had had a minor dispute about the house in court. Hamalian had won the case. But before he had received the papers which proved his victory, the courthouse was shelled and burnt to cinders – along with all its documents.
Now, Solidere demanded these papers. In vain, Hamalian explained the circumstances and tried to get the courts to issue him new papers. But he was refused at every turn. The elderly couple was given notice to leave.
Early one morning in 1998, Hamalian, clad in pyjamas, answered the doorbell and found himself confronted with dozens of police. Before he knew it, he and his wife were dragged out to the street. The house was immediately seized and locked up. Shocked, the elderly couple made their way to their cousin’s small flat and have been there ever since.
Hamalian was duly issued some company shares. But with a Lebanese economy brinking on disaster, the shares are worth only a few dollars. Property prices, on the other hand, have gone through the roof. His house and land are estimated to be worth more than seven million dollars in today’s market.
‘I am an old man,’ he continued to cry. ‘I can’t wait for the economy to get better. I worked hard all my life so I could live well at this age. Now, I’ve lost it all. Just like that. Why?’
I visited the company’s lawyer. ‘He just didn’t meet the requirements,’ he told me coldly. ‘That’s all there is to it. He couldn’t prove that he had settled the dispute. We have the legal right to seize his property.’
It seemed like a flimsy excuse to me and I said so. The lawyer shrugged his shoulders. It was all part of a very dirty game.
I have since bumped into Hamalian several times. He would usually be taking his daily stroll to his lost house. I’d see his lonely, thin figure standing outside his beloved home – now surrounded by a tall fence. He notes every single change in his house. ‘See, they’ve taken off that railing there.’ Again, the tears.
‘Why have they done this to me?’ he repeats. ‘This house is the only thing I have to leave for my children. I am nothing without it.’
Now, I often pass by Hamalian’s house, hoping against hope that things have worked out and he’ll be back in it again. But the house is still locked and the fences are still up.
The last I heard was that the house has been sold to a wealthy Arab entrepreneur. I don’t know if that’s true. But I do know for certain that Hamalian will never get his home back – though he continues to fight for it.
© Copyright 2003 New Internationalist
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