Once Lebanon’s center of glamour, Hamra Street is darkening

BEIRUT – From his small music shop on Hamra Street in Beirut, Michel Eid has witnessed the rise and fall of Lebanon through the changing fortunes of this famous boulevard for more than 60 years.

Hamra Street was the center of Beirut’s glamor in the 1960s and 1970s, home to Lebanon’s best cinemas and theatres, cafes frequented by intellectuals and artists, and shops with top international brands. In the last decade it has experienced a revival and has thrived with international chain stores and lively bars and restaurants.

Now many of its shops are closed. Impoverished Lebanese and Syrian refugees beg on its sidewalks. Garbage piles up at its corners. As in the rest of Lebanon, the economic crash swept through the streets like a devastating storm.

At 88, Eid recalls the bad times during Lebanon’s civil war from 1975 to 1990, when Hamra saw militia fighting, assassinations at his cafes and once invading Israeli troops marching down the street. Nothing was as bad as now, says Eid.

“We’ve hit rock bottom,” he said. Few customers come to his Tosca Music Shop and Electronic Supplies, which sells vinyl records and a variety of electronic clocks, calculators, and wristwatches. His business has plummeted by 75%.

Lebanon’s economic collapse, which began in October 2019, was the high point of the country’s post-war period. The militia leaders of the war became the political leaders and have held power ever since. They ran an economy that was booming at times but was effectively a Ponzi scheme riddled with corruption and mismanagement.

The system eventually collapsed in what the World Bank calls one of the world’s worst economic and financial crises since the mid-19th century.

The value of currency has evaporated, salaries have lost their purchasing power, dollars in banks have become inaccessible, prices have exploded in a country where almost everything is imported. 82% of the population now live in poverty, and unemployment is estimated at 40% according to the UN.

The crisis was exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and a massive explosion at the port of Beirut, killing 216 people, injuring thousands and destroying parts of the capital.

The economic system has collapsed, the political system has not. The same leadership entrenched in power has done virtually nothing to address the crisis. They reject fundamental reforms and have made no progress in talks with the International Monetary Fund.

A walk down Hamra Street shows the impact.

Many businesses have closed because owners can no longer afford the high rents and huge monthly bills for private power generators. After dark, the shops that are still open close early. Many street lamps do not work due to power outages. Hamra, which used to be lively into the night, feels deserted before midnight – even during the final holiday season.

In the heyday of Hamra, in the 1960s and 1970s, the street was lit up with colored lights for Christmas and New Year, and Santa Clauses offered sweets up and down to passers-by.

This was pre-war Lebanon’s cosmopolitan era – and Hamra Street was its elegant heart, Beirut’s Champs Elysees. Arab, European and American tourists flocked to the elegant shops, restaurants and bars.

Hamra had the best cinemas in the capital. Lebanon’s most popular singer Fayrouz performed at the Piccadilly Theatre. You might see international diva Dalida strolling down the avenue before one of her shows at Piccadilly. World stars gave concerts in Lebanon, including Louis Armstrong and Paul Anka.

Located in the western Ras Beirut district of the capital, Hamra was – and still is – a place where Christians and Muslims live side by side. Its cafés were meeting places for artists, intellectuals and political activists caught up in the leftist, secular Arab nationalist zeitgeist.

“Hamra Street is an international avenue,” says Mohamad Rayes, who has worked on the street since the early 1970s and owns three clothing and lingerie stores in the area.

He was speaking at a cafe called Horse Shoe in the 1970s. He pointed to a corner where two of the greatest Arab singers of the time, Abdel-Halim Hafez and Farid el-Atrash, regularly sat, along with Nizar Qabbani, an iconic Syrian romantic poet.

“Frankly, the number of people on Hamra was staggering. It was a vibrant, ephemeral slice of city life,” said David Livingston, an American who lived in Lebanon for decades, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. As a student in Beirut in the 1970s, he recalled being intimidated when he came to posh Hamra Street to buy a leather belt from one of their shops.

The Civil War ended this golden era. In 1982, invading Israeli troops marched through Hamra. After they left, militias seized the area in fighting that caused heavy damage. Hamra’s Commodore Hotel became a popular base for foreign journalists covering the war.

After the war, Beirut’s international trade and shopping center moved to a newly renovated downtown area. But Hamra Street underwent a major facelift in the early 2000s, when new water, sewage, and electricity systems were installed, and the asphalt was replaced with cobblestones.

This has led to a revival in the last 15 years. International chains such as Starbucks and Nike opened stores. New restaurants flourished. Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war opened their own restaurants, along with candy shops and popular shawarma stands.

The new wave displaced many of the pre-war icons in the Hamra area. The famous Café Modca has been replaced by a bank. A McDonald’s stands in place of the Faisal restaurant where Arab leftists once huddled over cigarettes, glasses of arak liquor and plates of appetizers. The Piccadilly Theater was abandoned and recently damaged by fire.

But the street attracted a new generation of young people from all sects and brought with it the progressive spirit of the frustrated 2011 Arab Spring. Once again the street was full of bars. One club, Metro Medina, attracted a young crowd with retro live shows of old Arabic music from the last century.

Hamra remains a busy thoroughfare during the day. Thousands come to the medical centers for treatment or to study at the nearby American University of Beirut, one of the top educational institutions in the Middle East.

But “Hamra is not the Hamra of the past,” said Elie Rbeiz.

The 70-year-old Rbeiz has been a hairdresser for the elite in Hamra since 1962. Among his regular clients was the late Saudi businessman Adnan Khashoggi, who once flew Rbeiz to London on a private jet for a cut. Rbeiz added menswear to its business 20 years ago.

Now in the economic crisis, his sales have collapsed.

Still, Rbeiz believes Hamra will bounce back. He said his shop was blown up during the Civil War and he renovated and reopened it. “I didn’t surrender then and I won’t surrender now. Never.”

Not everyone is so sure.

“I feel the pain every day because there is more suffering and more poverty,” said Naim Saleh.

A fixture on Hamra Street, Saleh has been selling newspapers, magazines and books from his sidewalk kiosk for 52 years.

Now his business is ruined. Foreign magazines are a luxury few can afford. He sells one or two books a month, compared to 50 a day in the past. Saleh observed a young beggar chasing Iraqi tourists nearby. “Look how many beggars there are in the streets. It’s like a curse.”

Eid opened his music shop in Hamra in 1958. He will close it when he stops working, he said. His two sons live abroad; If they don’t want his 4,500 records, many of which are collector’s items, he donates them to Lebanon’s National Higher Conservatory of Music.

Will Hamra Street flourish again? “Never, never. Impossible,” he said. The Gulf tourists who once boosted trade won’t be coming back, they’ll be turning to Europe.

But he won’t go.

“Hamra Street is the oxygen I breathe,” he said. “I grew up on Hamra Street and this is where I will end my life.”

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