Beirut’s Nightlife Survived Civil War. Can It Withstand Pandemic?
Beirut’s Nightlife Survived Civil War. Can It Withstand Pandemic?
BEIRUT, Lebanon — When the disruptive threat of the coronavirus first came for Beirut, I was, appropriately enough, in a local bar.
When a friend and I set out for a drink at a neighborhood standby one Saturday night early in March, the virus had yet to leach from the headlines into daily life, Lebanon’s lockdown was not yet in force and pre-pandemic traffic was still honking through the streets.
Before we could even order, however, the owner said he expected the police to start closing bars and nightclubs that night to disperse crowds. In Beirut, a night out is something of a sacred right, so he didn’t ask us to leave. Instead, we sat in the back with the lights low as he pulled the metal gate down over the front door, like something out of Prohibition.
But by the next evening, as the police forced people to hurriedly drain their cocktails and exit popular bars around the city, the unimaginable had begun to feel real: Beirut was shutting down its nightlife.
Nightclub appearances by electronic D.J.s who had flown in from Europe, hyped for weeks on social media and street posters, were abruptly canceled. Soon it was just restaurants and cafes, and then not even those.
The barhopping neighborhood of Mar Mikhaël, which used to vibrate with the clip-clop of high heels and the car-stereo beat of Western and Arabic music every night from Tuesday to Saturday — and sometimes Sundays and Mondays, too — went mute.
Such losses may sound frivolous in a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and shoved millions to the edge of starvation.
But in Beirut, the world-weary capital of the most nonchalant of Middle Eastern countries, it is both a cliché and a point of pride to say that the Lebanese partied straight through a civil war that cleaved Beirut in half, pitted Christians against Muslims and killed at least 100,000 from 1975 to 1990.
“When you live in a place where nothing is stable and the ground is shaking under you all the time, you live in a state of urgency,” said Charbel Haber, 41, a musician, giving the usual explanation for why the nights here can go on for days. “You have to live in the moment.”
Beirutis have few spaces to share. Parks are scarce, and Mediterranean beaches are swallowed by private resorts. It is in the seaside cafes, the restaurants, the hookah spots and the sidewalks of the drinking districts on a Friday night — and, at 5, 6 or 7 the morning after, in the nightclubs — that city life whirls on.
Or used to. The truth is, Beirut has not been itself for many months, slowly asphyxiating as the currency plunges in value, banks withhold depositors’ own savings and the government goes hat in hand to international donors.
But nightlife survived the summer of 2006, when war erupted between Hezbollah and Israel. And it went on last fall, when more than a million people, about a quarter of the population, surged into the streets in countrywide antigovernment protests as the economy crumpled.
At first, many bars and clubs closed in solidarity with the thawra (Arabic for revolution), urging customers to demonstrate. But then they discovered that revolutionary energy was good for business. Crowds of protesters fizzed into nearby bars every evening to refuel, shouting antigovernment slogans on the street, negronis and beers in their hands.
When they returned to the demonstrations a few drinks later, they danced to local D.J.s. The protest hub in downtown Beirut thudded with music from a half-dozen different stages as if to compete with the city’s famous nightclubs. At the actual clubs, revolutionary chants sounded between techno beats.
“People hang on to what they think is their identity,” said Rani Rajji, who runs Brazzaville, a bar popular with Beirut’s young, chic and well-traveled. “And part of their identity is to work, to go out, to socialize.”
During the civil war, he remembers, his father’s friends bribed militiamen at checkpoints to let them cross the no man’s land between west and east Beirut for parties on the other side.
Then as now, going out was not just an escape. It was a gesture of defiance, a small flare of dignity.
“This is how you sustain a semblance of normal society,” Mr. Rajji added. “And this is how you have hope for the future, for it to come back again.”
Granted, only the well-off and certain foreigners can afford a $12 cocktail these days. Since the demonstrations began in mid-October, nearly 800 bars and restaurants have gone out of business.
But it took the coronavirus to conquer what remained, putting thousands out of work.
Though Lebanon appears to have dodged a mass outbreak, allowing the government to announce a staggered reopening for businesses in the coming weeks, not all will come back. Now that the Lebanese pound buys less than half what it used to, imports and drinks alike cost more.
Protesters are no longer staying home, driven more than ever by hunger; in recent weeks, demonstrations have boiled over again, culminating in clashes with security forces that killed a protester in Tripoli last week.
Amid the lockdown, some bars have sought to eke out revenue with cocktail deliveries, entertaining their old customers with Instagram demonstrations of how to make their favorite drinks at home. The shut-in can order premixed old-fashioneds, complete with dehydrated orange slices for garnish, and down them while listening to a local D.J. livestreaming from her living room.
One bar in Hamra, a majority-Muslim neighborhood in west Beirut, is uploading mood music to Facebook and holding Zoom happy hours to “keep the vibes” going, said a co-owner, Ralph Malak. The bar, Ales & Tales, is also delivering cocktails with a sampling of everything else patrons normally receive: crackers, basil-flecked hummus and infused water.
The club experience has been harder to assemble at home.
“My whole world collapsed in a second,” said Ralph Nasr, 26, a nightclub booker, freelance D.J. and co-founder of an artists-and-musicians collective that throws house parties. Since a gig in Milan was canceled in early March, he has performed just once, providing the soundtrack to a local bar’s livestreamed cocktail demonstration to raise money for food donations.
“The party thing is about the people, the venue, the music,” he said. “Once you remove one of the elements, it’s not the same thing. An artist reads the room, but over the livestream, there’s no ‘room.’”
In what passes for more normal times in Beirut — war next door, a refugee crisis, political turmoil, paralyzing protests, economic collapse — people go clubbing to blow off steam. But even the civil war had an endpoint. Joe Mourani, the owner of Ballroom Blitz, a popular alternative electronic-music nightclub, found it harder to foresee when people would dance in a crowd again.
“Clubbing, it’s really all about proximity,” Mr. Mourani said. “It’s the opposite of social distancing.”
The government has proposed allowing clubs to reopen in early June, but Mr. Mourani doubts Ballroom will do so.
When the clubs do return, they are unlikely to have the money to fly in D.J.s from Europe. That’s good news for local artists at least, who are usually overlooked.
One of those local D.J.s, Priscilla Bakalian, 25, had no doubt that the clubbers would return, if in smaller numbers.
“People are dying to go party,” she said. “It’s in our DNA.”