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22 July 2006

nightlife in Beirut

The Gemayze neighborhood of Beirut,
from visitor's 2005 photo.

The Associated Press
Saturday 22 July 2006

Famed Beirut nightlife
shows resilience

by DONNA ABU-NASR, Associated Press Writer

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Fewer restaurants than usual are open, making the narrow street appear dimmer. A staff shortage has owners tending bar, and the menus have thinned.

Still, despite the death and destruction wrought by an Israeli offensive against Hezbollah militants, a small and tenacious coterie of war clientele have clung to Beirut's famed nightlife, hoping for a moment of reprieve from the violence.

The fact that the restaurants and bars lining trendy Gouraud Street, a narrow one-way thoroughfare cutting through Beirut's downtown, are still open and drawing clientele is a testimony to the resilience of a city and a country too painfully accustomed to war.

Even at the height of the 1975-1990 civil war, Beirut residents braved militia fighting and Israeli bombing to head to the beach for a dip or to cafes and restaurants for an evening meal.

While the conflict now is different, the expressions they wear on their faces are eerily reminiscent of those worn by Lebanese during the earlier war.

At one pub along the street, Sana Taweeleh sits next to her young son, Maxim Abi-Aad, at the long wooden bar dominating the tiny room. The outing was a treat for Abi-Aad, who was spending the weekend with his mother. Taweeleh and her husband are divorced.

"Do I look happy?" asked Abi-Aad from behind a giant glass of a frothy, pink fruit cocktail. "Well, at least this is better than being bored at home."

Abi-Aad said the summer has been miserable, particularly since the fighting started July 12.

"What's really not cool is that it happened just before my birthday," says the boy, who turns 12 next Sunday.

Taweeleh said her son had trouble sleeping, kept awake by the sound of Israeli bombing of Hezbollah's stronghold in the southern suburbs. They live in a nearby Christian area.

As she spoke, Michel Ghanem, a 36-year-old divorce lawyer, slid onto the stool next to her. When he overheard her saying she needed milk and medicine to donate to refugees who have fled Israel's relentless attacks in south Lebanon, he told her he had a friend who runs a charity.

On the other side of the bar, a waiter and a client played Janga, carefully stacking the wooden blocks to form a column. A small television flashed the news that an international conference on the conflict was scheduled in Italy.

Standing behind the cash register, Sharbel Nahed said business was down by about 85 percent. He said the bombing of the nearby Beirut port nearly panicked some of his customers when it happened a few days back.

"They asked for the bill, but when they saw how calm we were, they changed their mind and stayed," he said.

All along Gouraud Street, the scenes are similar, and speak of a country that rebuilt after years of fighting -- looking at a future beyond the immediate violence. The restaurants and bars along the street were built during the last couple of years, when hope for Lebanon's revival was at its height.

Where traffic was congested, valet parking became the norm and reservations were required at many restaurants. But in a telling reminder of its history, the facades of some of the century-old stone buildings that house many of the restaurants still bear some marks of the civil war: bullet holes.

This weekend, the lights that just weeks earlier had been as bright as Lebanon's future appeared dimmer, with just a half-dozen eateries open. Staff shortages have forced owners to tend bar and, at one pub, a journalist was asked to run the sound system after the DJ failed to show up.

The clientele, usually sticklers for the latest fashion trends, dressed informally. The muted laughter wafting into the street had a brittle edge, the conversations focused on violence. The appetites for food, drink and cigarettes seemed whetted by an undercurrent of apprehension.

At a restaurant down the street from the pub, waiters set juicy steaks, cooked rare, in front of diners. The place was busy, unlike a sushi outlet and a pizza joint nearby.

Amin Younis, who was having a drink with a couple of friends, said he went out to "vent a bit." But unlike many Lebanese, Younis, 36, a coffee shop owner, was optimistic that Lebanon would return to normal. He complained that life was not nearly as fun this weekend as it was before the fighting started.

"We're just kidding ourselves," he said.

His friend, Sabine Chamaa, a documentary film producer, said she had added jogging to her regimen of swimming to keep fit and relieve tension. Her last documentary was on war-ravaged Bosnia.

"I was interested to see how people lived a war," she said. "Instead of finding answers, I stumbled upon a question: 'Why is it that humans everywhere like to kill other humans?'"

Nada Abu-Farhat, a star of the Lebanese version of "The Vagina Monologues," said she and her fellow actresses are putting on a "Children's Monologues" to help cheer up displaced children.

"I hope the play we are working on will allow them to express their feelings and take their mind off their misery," Abu-Farhat said.

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Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Riemer Brouwer said...

A small correction: the picture is not from Gemayzeh, but from the Downtown of Beirut.

Vleeptron Dude said...

Hey Riemer --

Not a small correction in the least -- a big correction, and Agence-Vleeptron Presse greatly appreciates it! What, spefically, are the buildings in the photo?

Your reward: A-VP herewith appoints you our Man-On-The-Ground in Beirut and Lebanon! We pay our correspondents generously in pizza, if you ever come here (Northampton Massachusetts USA) or when I get there.

And I WILL get there. So scout out your fave pizzeria.

Okay, Man-On-The-Ground ...

How's things in Beirut right now?

What's the current relationship between the LB government and Syria? What up with Hizbullah?

Well ... look ... you make up your own questions, and then answer them. But we're just THRILLED to get some skinny from somebody who's really there!

I'd particulaly love to know how the wonderful and fabled nightlife of Beirut is doing this season -- rebounding, or ailing?

Meanwhile, here's wishing you and all your family and neighbors Peace/Paix/Salam/Shalom and a very excellent 2008! Thanks for the correction!

Riemer Brouwer said...

Hey Bob,

The picture you show on your blog is from the Downtown area of Beirut, more specifically 'Place d'Etoile', which is French for Square of Stars.

Amazingly enough, the restaurant you see in the background is the same where the murdered ex-premier of Lebanon had his last cup of coffee 5 minutes before he was blown up by a 2,000kg car bomb.

That's right! You have quite a historic location there!

See also e.g., here for a related article about that last cup of coffee. For the longest time, this cafe had a picture of Hariri in the chair he sat. Quite macabre, dunno if they still have it.

Thanks for the pizza, sure will pick it up if ever i pass by your area:-)

Vleeptron Dude said...

Hey hey Riemer --

When you open your Agence-Vleeptron Presse paycheck this week there will be 2 slices with extra mushrooms and shallots -- thanks for the Local Human Interest!

Look, let me get candid about this. I'm fascinated by LB and Beirut, but its recent history and politics are so poorly reported in the English-language and the US media -- well, I can't begin to tell you how confusing and untrustworthy the news we get about LB is.

So ANYTHING you can throw our way, any insight into politics, sectarian tension, Hizbullah, Syrian influence, relations (such as they are) between Israel and Lebanon ... well, I'll be really grateful for a voice from the heart of Beirut.

Naturally I'm just a perpetually nosey old journalist, but there's a serious angle to this. Especially in this election year, Americans have a lot of decisions to make about the foreign policy we want to project in the region.

(Right now You-Know-Who is visiting the Middle East to Fix Everything -- what do your neighbors say about this trip?)

Dank u wel for the Beirut travelogue! If I can ever find Gemayzeh -- what are your fave restaurants and clubs?

Anonymous said...

Nice places in Gemayzeh would be: Trisom, cactus, Mu, snatch, gauche caviar, Le rouge...

Vleeptron Dude said...

The new First Law of Vleeptron is:

No Anonymous Driveby Comments.

Unless we like them or they say nice things about Vleeptron.

Salaam et Salut Anonymous! Merci for the nightspot names! I'll shove it in my pocket when I finally get to Beirut!

Now listen ... this post and news story is now almost 2 years old. So PLEASE -- give us an update! How is Beirut doing these days? How is daily life? How's the nightlife? What do people feel about prospects for political stability, peace with the neighbors to north and south?

Have a little sympathy for us! Very frustrating being so far away and hearing so little.


USA said...

Pretty helpful material, thanks so much for the article.