Miserable Pubs on the Street … Beirut’s Stolen Nightlife

Pascale Sawma
Lebanese Journalist
June 25, 2020
If you are familiar with what Beirut looks like at night, the sight of it nowadays is disturbing. Spending time in its streets these days will immediately narrate a sadness that is surrounding everything. Even if you tried to search, you would not find a single laugh emerging without immediately being followed by worry from the few diners and cafe guests.
Awaiting customers..

Hanging out at Badaro, Mar Mikhael or Alhambra these days seems painful and strange. Suspicious feelings dominate the walls, buildings and nightclubs that we used to visit to steal some joy from our dreadful everyday lives. Discussions about dollar prices flow from table to table in the few bars that decided to take the risk and open their doors. You can only hear people talking about fear everywhere, with every glass of whiskey, or bottle of beer that is possibly shared, to spare the cost of another. “Coronavirus” is not the main topic in chats and discussions, with the fear of the disease declining dramatically, not because the virus has left us, but because the fear of hunger and bankruptcy has become more urgent and more dangerous.

“Don’t be deceived by the crowd”, Fouad Madhoun, a Beirut pub owner, tells Daraj pointing towards Badaro Street. “Many bars have not yet opened since the general mobilization was imposed against Coronavirus.” “Perhaps more than a few will remain closed, since the costs of getting caught are greater than our endurance. We have had many difficult days, and we have endured volatile political and economic conditions, from the presidential vacuum to the formation of governments, and so on, but what is happening today is very painful. We have to lay off some of our employees because we are unable to pay their salaries. I try to help them to secure other opportunities for them, because I really can’t go on anymore,” He added. He explained that “purchasing power has decreased dramatically, people are now resorting to stringency and trying to save money as much as possible.”

Madhoun is currently thinking about immigrating with his family, because he is no longer prepared to endure the deteriorating economic, social, and political conditions, “I want to live well,” he said.

Dishes Disappeared!

The food and beverage lists in many nightclubs and pubs have changed, some dishes have been completely omitted, especially seafood or the already expensive food items, whose prices have more than doubled now. “Modifications to menus include a large number of dishes and drinks, but we try not to raise our prices much”, Jad , a nightclub owner in Gemmayzeh, tells Daraj. “We’re losing money, I don’t know how long we can go on,” he adds. “No one thinks about us, our families, and the families of our workers in these small businesses.”

Jad approaches one of the club’s regulars, clinking their glasses. “Daraj” asked the young man, “Could you still afford the cost of the nightlife?”, he responded by saying “just one glass, dear.”

“Don’t assume that we are happy, we are just trying to be a little happy before hunger reaches us, after it has reached many,” explained his female friend.

The issue regarding nightlife seems to be an absurd tragedy in the grand scheme of things, but it is an important question; the Beirut we know and want is not the skyscrapers, the general debt, the unfit roads, the bridge construction projects that have been started and are likely to never end. The Beirut that we know and desire is the one brimming with joy, dance, music, and love, and this Beirut is now deeply threatened.

The “near-dead nightlife” tragedy has arrived to all the nightlife streets, including Beirut suburbs, like Zalqa, Jdeideh and Dbayeh. Many restaurants and bars have now decided to remain closed, because the costs are too high.

Jumana, a cafe manager in Zalqa district, explains that “restaurants are the most affected establishments of the tourism sector, because they depend on selling dishes mainly, and today the prices of meat, cheese, milk, imported fish and other components have all increased, and we are unable to raise prices on our customers at the same rate. People are tired, their purchasing power has declined dramatically, and they prefer to eat at home to save money, and also for fear of Coronavirus.”

Locked!

Jude Feghali, who closed his sushi restaurant on Mar Mikhael Street, due to the crisis, keeping only his Hazmieh branch open, seems to have to maneuver in order to live. “There are items that we had to currently cancel because of the high prices of their components, many of which we buy with dollars, and we have also had to reduce the number of employees, so we don’t have to raise prices. Yet there is no escape from raising them at least 20 to 25%, which is far less than the increase in prices we have had to face”, he explained quietly to “Daraj”.

Many restaurants have not been revived by the easing of general mobilization measures, as the sector has been suffering since October 2019 with the start of the rise in the dollar price, the Lebanese uprising and the successive collapses. The restaurant sector is directly affected by the political and security situation in the country, in addition to the economic situation, and if the owners of these enterprises usually hoped for a summer in which expatriates visit their country, or some tourists visit, there is very little hope this year. Even the procedure of reopening Beirut’s airport has been complicated by the Coronavirus, on top of the fact that no one would like to spend their summer in a troubled country.

Some Lebanese officials narrate stories about a promising summer, as tourists will come to the country that has since bec0me cheap because of the collapse of its currency, which will raise the morale of the tourism sector. Yet, on the other hand, the restaurant and hospitality sector has been suffering big losses, according to what was declared by the President of Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes, Night-Clubs and Pastries, Toni al-Rami. The closing of about 785 enterprises was registered, 240 of which closed in January alone, and the number rose even more due to the Coronavirus crisis.

Rent Disputes

A number of owners of bars and restaurants have been complaining of high rent costs, compared to their low income, given that the owners demand their rent to be paid according to dollar price in the black market, which means that the rent that had been around $3000 per month, i.e. 4 million and 500 thousand lira, is now being paid according to the new unstable price, where one dollar could reach 7,000 lira, a figure that owners of bars and restaurants cannot afford.

On the other hand, the chairman of the Owners’ Union Patrick Rizkallah believes that “there is a disagreement over the law in this matter, since there is a legal opinion stating that the one who signed his rent contract in dollars should pay in dollars, and there are those who see the opposite. But, as a union, we encourage solutions by mutual consent. The crisis has affected everyone, and everyone suffers, but we cannot go after everyone and intervene.” “As usual, the state withdraws itself and leaves people confused,” he adds. “The problem is that the owners still suffer from the old rent costs caused by the dollar’s rise crisis from years ago, and we don’t know whether today’s rents will also cause a rental crisis similar to what we witnessed with old rent.”

While unemployment threatens about a million Lebanese citizens, according to warnings from the International Information Corporation (IFI), and with the dollar almost worth 7,000 liras, the issue regarding nightlife seems to be an absurd tragedy in the grand scheme of things, but it is an important question; the Beirut we know and want is not the skyscrapers, the general debt, the unfit roads, the bridge construction projects that have been started and are likely to never end. The Beirut that we know and desire is the one brimming with joy, dance, music, and love, and this Beirut is now deeply threatened.

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