Culture, clubbing and chaos: out with the locals in Beirut
‘Life in Lebanon exists on a Samuel Beckett level of absurdity,” actor, writer and poet Dima Matta tells me. We are chatting on the terrace at Onomatopoeia on Jean Jalkh Street; it’s a music hub and NGO where Matta’s storytelling events have become popular with young, culturally aware Beirutis. Matta is referring to a political elite seen as a corrupt, contemptible joke, and to the daily consequences – roads choked with cars, electricity that runs for only a few hours a day, a bribery culture, and so on – of this alleged avarice and incompetence.
Emerging from this mess is a community of progressive young people – artists, writers, musicians, bloggers, environmentalists, designers, entrepreneurs and more – inspired by and committed to their city, in spite of everything they see wrong with it. Many do what they do to challenge the city’s political and social problems head on, while others are engaged in creating progressive worlds in which they and like minds can exist as far removed as possible from the dark comedy of the nation’s establishment.
Beirut and Lebanon’s recent history is inevitably coloured by the 34-day war in 2006 with Israel, which was triggered by a Hezbollah guerrilla operation in Israeli territory. The city of Beirut wasn’t hit too hard, but the Hezbollah-dominated suburbs a short drive to the south were (the FCO still advises against travel to the southern suburbs), and many young Beirutis have vivid memories of the conflict. “I shouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the sound of fireworks and the sound of bombs or gunshots – nobody should – but I can, and so can all of my friends,” Matta said.
In the shadow of this, Beirut has been gaining a reputation as a burgeoning cultural hub, and I wanted to find some of the people and places doing the most to drive the city forward. During the country’s 15-year civil war Beirut was divided into Muslim west and Christian east. Much of the cutting-edge cultural activity I was interested in can be found to the east of the old Green Line (so-called because nature took back the deserted strip during the war) that divided the city until 1990. I stayed at the WH Hotel in the heart of Hamra, in the west, and headed east each day, on foot when I could face the constant obstacles, disappearing pavements and speculative honking from taxi drivers that dominates any walk in Beirut, and by cab when I couldn’t.
The route east from Hamra goes past the Mohammad al-Amin mosque (and the equally imposing Saint George Maronite cathedral beside it) and on into the Gemmayzeh neighbourhood, where bars, restaurants and shops are crowded under brightly coloured buildings dating from the French-mandate era. Gemmayzeh leads into Mar Mikhael, whose main drag, Armenia Street, is home to the city’s rowdier, more crowded bars, though cooler, calmer, less backpacker-y spots such as Internazionale (on the corner of Alexander Fleming Street) can still be found. The best of Mar Mikhael is generally off Armenia, though: the sophisticated-yet-relaxed cocktail bar Anise, further up Alexander Fleming and the superb music venue, bar and lending library Riwaq, which is 10 minutes’ walk away on Assad Rustom.
To the south-east is the Badaro district, the other hotspot for new bars and restaurants, with Kissproof, halfway down Badaro Street, a class act in terms of service, drinks and atmosphere, and there’s the great tapas bar Ortega, on Ibrahim Medawar Street.
Armenia Street continues east over the Beirut river into Bourj Hammoud, home of Beirut’s Armenian community, and of streetfood stalwarts Basterma Mano and Basterma Bedo, the city’s two finest purveyors of the wonderful sujuk (a spicy sausage found in various forms from the Balkans to central Asia) shawarma.
One of the city’s two notable record shops, Ernesto Chahoud’s Darkso Records, is on Bourj Hammoud’s colourful Maraash Street, south of Armenia. Chahoud’s stock of rare Middle Eastern jazz, soul, funk and prog vinyl, not to mention his larger-than-life personality, make the place worth a visit – if you can make good on his endearingly erratic opening hours. Chahoud’s record collection runs well over the 10,000 mark, and his first compilation album, TAITU: Soul-Fuelled Stompers From 1960s-70s Ethiopia is now available on vinyl and download. It’s a fine expression of the skills he has honed at his long-running weekly Beirut Groove Collective night at sweaty basement club The Back Door in Mar Mikhael.
The city’s other must-visit record store, Paul and Diran Mardirian’s Chico Records, opened in Hamra in 1964. Chahoud was performing last June when Chico Records hosted the first Beirut broadcast by globally renowned DJ-set streaming platform The Boiler Room, and Diran is now involved with Chahoud’s club night.
Art and culture
Another Mar Mikhael highlight is Haven For Artists (in the 1142 Building on Armenia Street), a great example of the DIY art initiatives popping up around Beirut. It provides live/work space for four three-month artist residencies at a time, and all its furniture and fittings, including an extraordinary wooden chandelier, are made from salvaged materials. The ground floor of Haven’s grand old house is called Concept 2092 and is open each day as a cafe, exhibition space, work space and store selling residents’ work. Last year Haven was also the temporary home of Aaliyah’s Books, one of the city’s best English-language booksellers, whose new shop a few blocks west on Gouraud Street is well worth a look.
“Beirut has become a far better place for artists in the last year or two,” Haven’s founder, Dayna Ash, told me as we drank coffee and played with her hyperactive puppy. “I used to live in Berlin and when I came back I thought I would leave again but I stayed because I sensed a real shift in the atmosphere.”
Haven’s new home (it occupied another Mar Mikhail house until the start of 2018) also has something that Ash has dreamed of in a city almost devoid of green space: a garden. Rana al-Dirani, founder of the Saifi Institute on Pasteur Street, realised this aim a few years ago. Down steps, between a petrol station and busy the Charles Helou Avenue in lower Gemmayzeh, the Institute is an Arabic language school but also a wonderfully calm restaurant, bar, informal workplace and garden.
Al-Dirani talks with passion about the positive societal aims of teaching Arabic as a second language to her students, who come mainly from Europe, the US, and other parts of the Middle East. As we walk in the gardens I notice a plaque commemorating aid worker Peter Kassig, who studied at the Institute before his abduction and murder by Isis in 2014 – a solemn reminder of how close to home the brutal chaos in Syria has been for people here.
Syria and Lebanon have a densely entwined, often-fraught relationship, and the mass displacement caused by the war has brought that into stark relief. While anti-Syrian feeling still exists it’s clear that recent arrivals are doing a lot of good in the city. Theatrical collaborations have been particularly fruitful: Bronze, a critically acclaimed piece about a poet in a Syrian prison, is one recent example of how Beirut’s theatre scene has been enriched by talented and highly trained Syrian writers, directors and actors.
Kamal Mouzawak is a social entrepreneur and food visionary whose Tawlet restaurant in Mar Mikhael is famous for its food and for the fact that its chefs are all refugee women, many of them Syrian. Friendly Damascus native, Dima al-Chaar, was on duty when I visited for a delicious lunch of maftoul (Palestinian couscous with meat, shallots and spices), hendbeh b zeit (wilted greens topped with fried onions), musakhan djej (chicken cooked with onions and sumac and rolled in a thin bread) and potatoes and leeks with turmeric. As soon as she finished cooking she told me all about the wonders of Syrian cooking, and the difference Tawlet has made to her life since she left her homeland.
A couple of days later I headed to Souk el Tayeb, the weekly farmers’ market Mouzawak runs in the smart Downtown area, right on the former Green Line. “This city doesn’t have many places where people can just meet and mingle,” he said as we strolled around meeting stall-owners and tasting stuffed aubergines, manousheh flatbread, fruit and preserves. “Part of the reason we started the souk was to try to make that situation a little better.”
Elsewhere, Baron, on Pharoan Street in Mar Mikhael, has raised the gastronomic bar in Beirut since it opened a year or so ago. Run by celebrated Greek chef Tommy Kargatzidis, it does unforgettable things with apparently ordinary dishes (corn on the cob, baklava with ice-cream), as well as having a delightful vintage mobile spirits cart from which I rounded off dinner with my first taste of an Indian malt whisky.
For breakfast the Lebanese Bakery on Salim Bustros Street in the historic, well-to-do Achrafieh area is a must-visit. Owned by the former Zaha Hadid architect and all-round renaissance man Samer Chamoun and his brother, its raison d’être is to elevate manousheh from underappreciated breakfast staple to what Chamoun sees as its true place: a globally popular food item to rival pizza. Though I’d encourage anyone to sample the Bakery’s flagship manousheh with za’atar and its many other wonders in Beirut, a London branch is due to open in Covent Garden this spring.
Clubbing and the LGBTQ scene
Clubbing in Beirut has only recently started to progress beyond a there-to-be-seen culture (aimed at the rich) towards something more inclusive and credible. The tagline of the influential Gino’s Blog: “Everything you love and hate about Beirut” neatly sums up the complicated relationship most young, plugged-in Beirutis have with their city. When he isn’t blogging about music, the eponymous Gino Raidy co-runs an NGO called March, which works to deradicalise former Isis and al-Nusra Front fighters an hour’s drive up the coast in Tripoli.
Raidy sees the city’s clubbing scene as a crucial bulwark against social conservatism. “In Lebanon it’s still widely perceived that clubs are full of silly people who get drunk every weekend and don’t care about anything,” he said. “But clubs are the places where the social cohesion that people talk about actually happens – you can find people of every sect and political ideology becoming friends. In terms of music, Beirut has good clubs such as The Gärten, AHM and The Grand Factory but it still isn’t like Berlin or London, where you’ll go out and discover an act out of the blue. We’re moving in the right direction though.”
Interesting clubs (Yukunkun in Gemmayzeh) and parties (Frequent Defect) with low door and drinks prices are starting to appear, and good homegrown DJs such as Ramzi & Rami, Three Machines and Rolbac are emerging, too.
Beirut’s club scene is a work in progress but The Gärten, a dazzling open-air club in the port area, does feel like the finished article. It, along with its winter-season sister club Überhaus, has been a game-changer, and last summer hosted Detroit techno pioneer Jeff Mills and top-tier European DJs such as Dixon and Magda. On the balmy September night I visited, Barcelona-based American DJ/producer Maceo Plex and Egyptian DJ Raxon were playing to a crowd of 3,000. As I stood watching the sun rise over the mountains, Raidy appeared next to me. “This place was the underdog a few years ago,” he grinned. “Now look at it.”
Beirut’s clubs also act as a sanctuary for LGBTQ people in a city where holding hands on the wrong street can still lead to harassment or even arrest. Sexual activity that is “against nature” is still banned in Lebanon but new strides are being made almost constantly. Beirut held its first Pride event in May, and Dima Matta organised an open-mic, LGBTQ-themed storytelling event to coincide with it. It drew 400 people and ran for hours as dozens of young Beirutis, including Hamed Sinno, lead singer of the internationally successful Mashrou Leila, stood up to tell their coming-out stories.
The gay singer and dancer Moe Khansa is big news, too: at the Beirut Art Fair an Iranian artist’s portrait of him embracing another man sold for $8,000. Bar/restaurant Bardo, in central Hamra, has established itself as the epicentre of the gay scene, and is one of the city’s best-regarded spots of any kind. “I really think something is happening on the LGBTQ rights front now,” Matta said. “Each year it becomes possible to do things that would have been impossible the previous year. It’s a very exciting time.”
Near the end of my stay, I headed for a rooftop terrace at the American University, near the Corniche, where Dima Matta was hosting a storytelling evening. As the sun set over the Mediterranean behind them, half a dozen young women took turns to step up to the microphone and tell fascinating stories about living, studying and working in Beirut, the temptation to seek an easier life abroad, and the desire to stay and make the city a better place. Afterwards, the floor was opened for the audience to ask questions or just talk about their experiences. The spirit of collaboration was moving, and the proceedings imbued with humour.
“Every day we ask ourselves why we still live here,” said Jawad Sbeity, founder of a cycling initiative called Beirut By Bike, as he gave me a tour of the city’s civil-war hotspots, some of them still pockmarked by bullets fired decades ago. “But then I visit the UK or the US and find myself bored. I think the challenges of living here and investing in improving things gives people an energy and generosity that you don’t get in more stable places. I mean, where in the west could you stroll into a stranger’s business premises and the next day find them volunteering to drive you around for hours showing you the city?”
We looked out on the simultaneously manic and static rush-hour gridlock of Armenia Street as we inched our way east out of Mar Mikhael. Sbeity grinned: “I guess we’re all just a bit addicted to the chaos.”
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