At night Beirut’s streets come alive with revellers and pedlars. India Stoughton joins the crowd
The Corniche, 6pm: Beirut’s curving seafront promenade is one of the most diverse places in a city dominated by private spaces catering predominantly to particular classes, sects or communities. On a winter night, soon after dusk, fishermen line the railings overlooking the sea below, young couples ride rented bikes down the wide pavement and pedlars sell special balloons sparkling with LEDs and cups of warm sweetcorn from old wooden carts.
The Corniche, 6.30pm: On a January evening, Dia and Raneem escape their home in the crowded southern suburbs of Beirut and bring their water pipe – argileh – down to the seaside. Dia is a Syrian refugee who has lived in Lebanon for five years; his 18-year-old wife joined him last September. Beirut is an expensive city. Cafés in the centre, which routinely charge $5 for a coffee or a bottle of beer, are out of reach for many. But this couple say they enjoy sitting outside, in spite of the cold. It’s their way of finding respite from the chaos of the city.
Beirut Souks, 7.30pm: The Lebanese civil war, which raged from 1975 to 1990, turned central Beirut into a ghost town. Rival factions fought over it; refugees squatted in it. Before that, downtown Beirut was dominated by the old souks, a tightly packed medley of shops selling everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to fabric and clothes, jewellery and shoes. After the war, the old souks were bulldozed and replaced with Beirut Souks, a swanky new shopping mall. Advertised as “the place for everyone”, the new souks cater almost exclusively to wealthy tourists from Lebanon and the Gulf and are flanked by designer stores including Rolex, Chanel, Dior and Hermes. On a rainy evening, this shopper in her hijab and stilettos pauses to take a selfie in front of the Stella McCartney shop.
Abu Eli’s, 9pm: There’s much more to Beirut than the bars and bombs that often make the headlines. That said, this small pub – nicknamed, for obvious reasons, the Communist Bar – has its roots in the civil war. Abu Eli fought with the Lebanese Communist Party during the war. He opened his bar, located at the back of a car park on the ground floor of a housing block, in the early 1990s. Inside it’s a shrine to communist heroes: the walls and ceiling are plastered with Cuban flags and portraits of Abu Eli’s idols, who include several assassinated local figures as well as the usual suspects like Lenin and Che Guevara. Old machine guns and ammunition belts are artfully draped on the back wall. It’s usually packed with crowds of left-wing regulars, sipping whisky.
Internazionale, Armenia Street, 10.30: Ambient British trip-hop pours from the speakers while small groups of young Beirutis drink wine and cocktails. It’s Valentine’s Day and love – nascent and deceased – is in the air. A long-haired bartender flirts with a woman perched on a bar stool whenever he gets the chance. Two women dissect a break-up. As one speaks about her ex-boyfriend, blending Arabic, English and French in a distinctive Lebanese patois, a stray cat leaps into her lap as if sensing she wants a cuddle.
The bar was one of the first to open on this long, narrow road in the east of the city. The area now lights up after dark. Beirut’s nightlife has been rejuvenated as the country recovered from civil war. A giant photo on the wall recalls a more hedonistic era. It shows the owner’s grandfather aboard a plane in 1969, cigarette protruding from beneath his moustache, evoking an age when tourists flocked to Beirut to dance and gamble in five-star hotels.
Recurrent conflict has left today’s clientele unsure that the future is golden. Much of the country’s elite fled abroad during the war; now some of the next generation is following. I hear a young entrepreneur defending his decision to start a new business and invest “in Lebanon’s future”.
The bar’s real action is outside. Internazionale is unusual in honouring Beirut’s indoor-smoking ban, and many patrons have migrated to the pavement, where people squeeze around communal tables or mix with drinkers from neighbouring watering holes. Even when it rains they remain outdoors, huddling under awnings to nurture their cigarettes. As they smoke, Syrian children, refugees from a war not far away, duck between the tables and badger the drinkers to buy roses. It’s Valentine’s Day after all.
Armenia Street, 11pm: With its long humid summers and mild winters, Beirut has developed an alfresco nightlife scene. After dark, crowds swell to fill the pavements to drink and smoke outside strings of tiny bars which line the pavements on both sides of the street, forcing pedestrians to take their chances in the road. This couple are taking time out on the pavement below a popular Lebanese restaurant.
Armenia Street, 11.30pm: At night Beirut’s narrow streets are jammed with cars. Although there have been campaigns to curb drink-driving in recent years, many people still flout the rules. Across the wealthy areas of the city, valet parking has become ubiquitous. Drivers inch their way to their destination, then leave their keys in the ignition and their cars blocking traffic until someone comes to move them. This traffic policeman in Mar Mikhael, where jams bring the main street to a standstill from 9pm until the early hours of every morning, stops the slow flow long enough to let a car turn down a narrow side street lined with hole-in-the-wall bars.
Sole Insight, 12am: Halfway up a long flight of stairs in the east of the city is a small café-cum-bar, where Ahmad Sayyed has worked for four years. On warm evenings, customers crowd the low tables and spill out onto the stairs, where they drink beer and play cards or backgammon. When the winter storms come, they huddle around a small wood-burning stove, sipping coffee as the rain drums on the plastic roof. A self-taught artist, actor, dancer and poet, Sayyed smokes a cigarette languidly beside one of his artworks, a portrait from a series called “Back to Black”, painted on scavenged wood. “For me, life is just an experiment and we have to live it to the maximum,” he says.
Vendome Stairs, 12.15am: Beirut’s nightlife is frenetic and fickle. A bar can go from popular to passé in the space of a month. This couple are enjoying a drink at a secluded table set to the side of a long staircase lined with tiny makeshift cafés in Mar Mikhael.
Ballroom Blitz, 2.30am: Hidden inside a former Harley Davidson showroom, Ballroom Blitz is the latest in a series of high-end clubs that have sprung up in old factories and abandoned buildings in the eastern outskirts of Beirut. On Friday nights, the party crowd ride an industrial lift up to the club, which has a large central dance floor, a smaller gilded space known as the Goldroom and an open-air terrace, all connected by disorienting curving tunnels, lit in startling colours. DJs from Europe are flown in to play for the crowd, which is made up of young, bohemian Lebanese and foreign revellers who party until sunrise.