When Lebanese sisters Yasmine and Julie Audi were growing up in Beirut, they had no idea how special their family house was, and that over 25 years later, they would become champions of preserving local architecture and contributors to rebuilding their beloved city. This is a story about a mother’s resolve to share the cultural beauty of Beirut with her daughters, but also, all children, and how, out of tragedy, two young women found purpose and strength to carry on their mother’s work to benefit the next generation. Yasmine and Julie have spearheaded the publication of a beautiful children’s book called The Houses of Beirut, originally published by their mother, Nayla Audi, 25 years ago. Vogue Arabia sat down with the two young women to hear their story.
What is the story behind The Houses of Beirut?
Yasmine: Basically, our mom made this book for us 25 years ago. We were both kids and one of the houses in the book, the pink one, was going to be destroyed. She said she didn’t want us to grow up without knowing this house.
Julie: It is perched next to the sea near AUB. This was part of the post war movement in Lebanon. Our mom was herself rediscovering the city after moving back, and she didn’t want us to not know these heritage houses. She decided to write us a letter, telling us about this house.
Yasmine: She wrote me this letter, but quickly realized this was not enough… that this would have little impact. So, she started working with a well known artist friend, Flavia Codsi, on this book project. Flavia did watercolors of the houses and my mom wrote a little text. Interesting to note: no one was interested in publishing it! But if you know my mom, she just said, “Fine, I’m going to publish it myself!” She is unstoppable!
Julie: So we grew up with this book and she gave it to the public schools and it was in our school library. It then went out of print.
What was your idea, republishing this book?
Yasmine: Julie and I always loved this book, and it was in the back of our minds to republish it one day. When the explosion happened in Beirut and we went back to our family house, which is a traditional one, it had been completely destroyed. This is when we decided to republish the book and give all the proceeds to rebuilding these heritage houses. She did this for us and we are doing this for the next generation.
Julie: Yes, it was important for us to work with the Beirut Heritage Initiative. They are scholars and architects and the founder grew up in one of these houses.
Yasmine: They are a smaller NGO, and what we contribute has an impact.
What is the emotional meaning of these houses to you? Can you share some of your memories?
Julie: We both realized that this is a part of our culture and identity, and is so important. These houses represent our history, and we need to preserve them…
Yasmine: …Which is something we only realized later. Growing up, I think we just thought, “This is our house.” I remember when we had friends over, they thought it was so cool and I didn’t understand at the time what this meant. We grew up in one of these, and one is right across the street. They all still exist.
Julie: They are all different and this shows the diversity and colors of Beirut.
What are your hopes for this book?
Yasmine: We printed a large quantity because for us, this is a long-term project. We are not in a rush and this is our way of contributing.
Julie: We want to make a difference and have an impact. It is important to help in small ways. There are generations of families in these houses who have been displaced. This is also helping to bring these people back home. We are happy that our story resonates with people all over the world. This is not just a children’s book. It is our culture.
So far, the dynamic and committed young sisters have already held book signings in Beirut, Milan and Dubai at the Design Expo. Next up are plans for Paris and London. They have been touched and amazed to receive feedback and comments from people near and far. One person wrote to them from Tokyo and asked if they would be able to send to him there!
As Audi sisters learned from their mother, it does wonder when one doesn’t underestimate the power of passion, culture and commitment, combined with a love for country and heritage. Take a closer look at some of the beautiful homes featured in the book below.