The Changing Face of Beirut

Last weekend, I took my toddler for a stroll in downtown Beirut. It dawned on me as we were scaling the corridors of Beirut Souks that it had been nearly a year and a half since I last graced the area.

Mir Amin Mosque in downtown Beirut
(captured on my Instagram stories)

I worked in the Riad el Solh stronghold of a leading local bank for exactly five years. Believe me when I say no one has paced the historic downtown as often as I have. I’d arrive a good half hour before the 8 AM business day commenced, packing in a brisk 3-km walk from Zaitunay Bay and into Minet el Hosn, weaving through Beirut Souks before I crossed over to Banks Street. At lunch time, I would pace the shop-lined streets of Foch and the Souks, sloughing off hours of sedentary movement intrinsic to any office job. And after work, in a bid to avoid rush hour traffic, my feet would yet again retrace many of the paths I’d exacted during the day, as I tucked inside the TSC Signature gourmet supermarket for a snack or shawarma wrap and a chat with the friendly staff.

Beirut Souks (captured on my Instagram stories)

Those were the days, my friend. I really thought they’d never end. But as with all things, there is an inevitable finish. And when I say finish, it has little to do with my departure from the bank and everything to do with the interminably altering colors of Beirut.

It honestly didn't feel like home on my visit last weekend. I struggled to place a face to what I beheld. TSC Signature has long since shuttered. In fact, it closed a few months after I flew to the US in the third quarter of 2017, owing to what appeared to be dwindling business and poor oversight. For months, I noticed the shelves weren’t being restocked, inventory was severely slashed, and brands like Taanayel were pulling their products off its shelves altogether. Staff were being replaced faster than a Beirut sunrise, and the in-store bakery department changed hands more times than is reasonable, from Café Najjar to Wooden Bakery, and subsequently Secrets to Nestle Tollhouse.

That prime real estate of TSC Signature sits barren, as if no brand is courageous enough to occupy its space, in capitulation to the stagnant economy. And TSC isn’t the only business to have vanished. Famous chocolatier Patchi pulled out. Haagen Dazs is MIA. The jewelry souks is a ghost town. Corner Café, where Yannick Alleno’s unforgettable Sweet Tea once perched, is no longer. Even the restaurants at the foot of Beirut Souks, accustomed to throbbing with families, tourists, and businesspeople, were quiet on a Sunday afternoon, when footfall should be greatest.

My shock and awe grew deeper as we crossed over to Place de l’Etoile, where the clock tower stands tall. At first, I was impressed to note the revitalization of the infamous arguileh cafes that in the early 2000s overflowed with Arab visitors. Over the last five to seven years, we’d seen nearly all the shops, restaurants and cafes come to a standstill, strangled by the barricade erected around Star Square where Parliament is housed, on account of riotous demonstrators pouring in to protest the trash crisis. International giants McDonald’s and Starbucks drew their last breaths, a sign of how miserable the times had become. Other restaurants like Le Relais de l’Entrecote, Duo, TGI Friday’s, and Al Balad toppled over in a domino effect long before those coffee bastions.

Do you spot the bell tower in Star Square?
(captured on my Instagram stories)

So how was it that now, on a sunny Sunday in February, the arguileh cafes were bursting with life reincarnate? The answer quickly appeared to me, like writing on the wall, except it was on chalkboards advertising shisha for LBP 5,000 (US$ 3.33) and a Pizza-Pepsi combo for LBP 10,000 (US$ 6.67).

Let me put things in perspective for you. The only LBP 5,000 arguileh you’ll ever find in the entire 10,452 square kilometers of our Mediterranean nation is the home delivery variety, and that’s after discount. Elsewhere it goes for upward of LBP 20,000 at cafés like Saniour, Nasma, and Provincial.

So you can start to fathom the enormity of dirt-cheap hookah nestled on Beirut’s most expensive real estate. Something feels askew. And why now? Why after all these years – when those cafes were abandoned by customers unable and unwilling to pay their puffed up fares – have prices plummeted so abysmally?

I’m not entirely sure, but I’m confident it has something to do with Beirut’s deep transformation. The capital is dressed in different robes, ones I don’t recognize. And it doesn’t feel homely as it used to. Nothing about it last weekend stirred up any sentiment of nostalgia in me. I didn’t find that I had missed it as I was certain I would.

Beirut has changed. And yet maybe I have, too.


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