Holiday in Beirut

Let’s forget for a minute the politics, the assassinations, the wars, the sectarianism, the ailing economy and talk about (one of) the reasons why I actually enjoy living in this country. I have been taking a break from both the blogging and professional activities during the last week, and spent some more time with friends and enjoying the amazingly lively and varied nightlife here in Beirut. By now you’ll probably think ‘oh no, not another cliché article on wealthy Gulf princes of business chatting up the gorgeous Lebanese girls in the Sky Bar, dancing in decadence on the edge of the volcano while the country’s in a political crisis’ – but no, don’t worry. I will describe only places that I’ve actually been to. Although in an effort to be complete, I will in fact start with a short mention of a scene I don’t know well at all. There are basically (as far as I have discovered up to now) 3 different nightlife areas in Beirut. One is rue Monnod, traditionally praised in travel guides, but in fact by now démodé, and anyway horribly expensive. It is mostly limited to the ‘m’as-tu vu’-crowd of ‘beautiful people’ with far too much money for designer clothes and plastic surgery and with cars too ostentatiously flashy even to Lebanese standards (and I can assure you that the car park in Beirut is several dimensions more expensive than that in, say, London or Brussels. The number of Porsche Jeeps, top of the range Mercedes and BMW sports cars, Maseratis, Jaguars and Ferraris is absolutely amazing, and they drive models which have not even been released yet in Europe). Rue Monnod is located in the predominantly christian area of Ashrafieh.

So is the second scene, Jamaizeh, centered around rue Gouraud, which is also pretty show-offy and ‘valet parking-y’ in many places, but includes more low-key ‘alternative’ (both arty/avant-garde and ‘just locals meeting in the pub’) places. It has a far more varied crowd – as is evident now during the month of ramadan, which has considerably reduced the usual crowdedness of this street full of bars and restaurants. It is home (both for going out and for living) to a lot of the younger people trying to escape the narrow sectarianism and moral conservatism that characterize many other places in the country and in the capital itself. Many students, artists, musicians, journalists, writers, expats etcetera. Torino Express, which started off the Jamaizeh scene some three or four years ago, is the best-known place (and with good reason), but there is also Kayan, with softer music and a somewhat older crowd, and of course Bulldog, dossed out like an English pub with a living-room atmosphere and catering to a mixed Lebanese-foreigner crowd and, later at night, to the bartenders of a lot of other places after they close. Treesome and Biba are very lively places too, though more clubs than bars really, and there’s a full-on club called Snatch for the hardcore boomboom-lovers. Basement is a popular club too, located ,you guessed it, in a basement not far from Jamaizeh and occasionally hosting concerts. Since last year’s July war, they advertise with the motto ‘It’s safer underground’…
The third area with a vibrant nightlife is Hamra in (religiously) mixed West-Beirut – which is not as easily categorized as the other two. One part of it is the alternative, predominantly leftwing bars, most notably Abu Ali’s legendary communist hangout: a tiny bar in a non-descript flat block, its walls covered with pictures of Che Guevara, Mao, Kamal Junblatt and many other soicalist and communists icons, including even Stalin. Its ageing crowd and general atmosphere are heavily pregnant with the nostalgia for the ‘golden age’ of socialist, secular, panarabist seventies and eighties, when it was cool to be a ‘fedayi guerrilla’ (as opposed to a ‘mujahid terrorist’) and when the Lebanese Communist Party, the Syrian Socialist National Party, PFLP and DFLP were all united with Kamal Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party in the Lebanese National Movement, striving to end the sectarianism in the country. Evergreen, which I’ve only been to once, seems to exude a similar atmosphere, though it hasn’t got the pictures on the wall. Then there is Baromètre (my favourite in Hamra and according to legend also Arafat’s favourite hangout when the PLO ruled West Beirut) which has a bigger and younger crowd and keeps up the tradition of serving delicious traditional Lebanese food all night. Contrary to the much more ‘westernized’ bars in Jamaizeh, they actually play Arabic music, both modern and classical, in between the ‘Euro-American’ rock and pop. Ta Marbuta is a more avantgarde hangout, combining a library with a large space full of comfy sofas where ambient and experimental soundscapes create a relaxed atmosphere conducive to discussion. Of course there are also places of a more politically neutral nature, like Café de Prague, catering to a trendy, more arty audience. De Prague is reminiscent (and I presume intentionally so) of a Central European bar, playing films on a big screen, providing food and free wifi and playing eclectic pop and sophisticated ‘world’ music often of the South American tango or Andalusian flamenco varieties. Hamra of course also provides the daytime coffee bars like Café de Paris (which has existed since forever, run by a legendary grumpy old couple) as well as more ‘American’ places like Kosta, and of course the American place, Starbucks (so American in fact that it’s the only non-smoking place I know of in Beirut, but unfortunately sometimes hard to avoid because of the fast internet). Finally, there are also the seedy ‘cabarets’ in dark back-alleys, of which I can tell you nothing apart from the fact that they have suspiciously shady characters at the door trying to convince men to come and enjoy massages and special attentions at a price inside. Not my scene.

8 thoughts on “Holiday in Beirut

  1. i think you’re referring to Abu Elie’s pub.. not Abu Ali.. and it’s on caracas not hamra..

    ok so i’m nit-picking lol

  2. Jad,
    your nitpicking is correct – I know, it’s in the yacubian building on caraces, but as caracas is actually the continuation of hamra, I thought it would not be worth creating a 4th ‘nightlife area’ just for Abu Elie’s place… I always heard his name as Ali, btw, but you sound very knowledgeable about it, and my spoken lebanese is nowhere yet, so you’re probably right

  3. They’re in Hamra, close to Hamra street, Barometre is in the Blue Building, Ta Marbuta is hidden on the first floor of another nondescript flat block, I don’t know, ask around – this is Lebanon, man, where the streets have no names…

  4. Abu Elie’s is definitely one of my fav hangouts in Beirut, great decor and convivial conversation The bar and Abu Elie is himself a legend

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