Once Lebanon’s glamorous center, Hamra Street goes dark

Michel Eid, 88, works at his music store on Hamra Street in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022. From his small music store, Eid has witnessed the rise and fall of Lebanon in through the changing fortunes of this famous boulevard.  for over 60 years.  Hamra Street was once home to the best cinemas in the region, shops selling international brands and cafes where intellectuals from the Arab world gathered.  (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Michel Eid, 88, works at his music store on Hamra Street in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022. From his small music store, Eid has witnessed the rise and fall of Lebanon in through the changing fortunes of this famous boulevard. for over 60 years. Hamra Street was once home to the best cinemas in the region, shops selling international brands and cafes where intellectuals from the Arab world gathered. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

PA

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

Hamra Street was the center of Beirut’s glamor in the 1960s and 1970s, home to Lebanon’s best cinemas and theaters, cafes frequented by intellectuals and artists, and boutiques selling the best international brands. It has seen a revival over the past decade, thriving with international chain stores and lively bars and restaurants.

Now many of its stores are closed. Miserable Lebanese and Syrian refugees beg on its sidewalks. Garbage piles up on its corners. Like the rest of Lebanon, the economic crash swept the streets like a destructive storm.

At 88, Eid recalls the bad times, during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, when Hamra saw militias fighting, killings in his cafes and, at one point, invading Israeli troops marching through the city. Street. Nothing was as bad as now, Eid said.

“We’ve hit rock bottom,” he said. Few customers come to his Tosca Music Shop and Electronic Supplies, which sells records and a variety of electronic clocks, calculators and watches. Its activity fell by 75%.

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

The program ultimately collapsed in what the World Bank calls one of the world’s worst economic and financial crises since the mid-1800s.

The value of the currency has evaporated, wages have lost their purchasing power, dollars in the banks have become inaccessible, prices have skyrocketed in a country where almost everything is imported. No less than 82% of the population today lives in poverty, according to the UN Unemployment is estimated at 40%.

The crisis has been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and a massive explosion at the port of Beirut that killed 216 people, injured thousands and destroyed parts of the capital.

While the economic system collapsed, the political system did not collapse. The same leaders, firmly anchored in power, have done practically nothing to deal with the crisis. Refusing fundamental reforms, they made no progress in talks with the International Monetary Fund.

A stroll down Hamra Street shows the impact.

Many stores closed because landlords could no longer afford high rents and huge monthly bills for private electricity generators. After dark, businesses still in operation close early. Many streetlights are not working due to power cuts. Hamra, which remained lively well into the night, feels deserted before midnight, even during the recent holiday season.

During Hamra’s heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, the street was lit up with colorful lights at Christmas and New Years, with Santa Clauses walking up and down the avenue offering sweets to passers-by.

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

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

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

“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 boutiques in the neighborhood.

He was talking while sitting in a café which, in the 1970s, was called the Horse Shoe. He pointed to a corner where two of the greatest Arab singers of the time, Abdel-Halim Hafez and Farid el-Atrash, had a regular place, as well as Nizar Qabbani, an iconic romantic poet from Syria.

“It was dizzying, quite honestly, the number of people on Hamra. It was a vibrant and transient part of life in the city,” David Livingston, an American who has lived for decades in Lebanon, said of Cedar. Rapids, Iowa As a student in Beirut in the 1970s, he remembers how intimidated he was to walk into posh Hamra Street to buy a leather belt from one of its shops.

The Civil War put an end to this golden age. In 1982, invading Israeli troops passed through Hamra. After they left, the militias took over the area in fighting which caused heavy damage. The Commodore Hotel in Hamra became a popular base for foreign journalists covering the war.

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

This has fueled a revival over the past 15 years. International chains like Starbucks and Nike have opened stores. New restaurants have blossomed. Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war have opened their own restaurants, as well as popular sweets and shawarma stalls.

The new wave pushed aside many pre-war icons from the Hamra region. Its famous Modca cafe 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 platters of appetizers. The Piccadilly Theater has been abandoned and was recently damaged by fire.

But the street attracted a new generation of young people from all sects, bringing with it the progressive spirit of the frustrated Arab Spring of 2011. Again the street rang with bars. One club, Metro Medina, attracted young crowds with retro performances of early Arabic music from the last century.

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

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

Rbeiz, 70, 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 haircut. Rbeiz expanded his business 20 years ago to include menswear.

Now in the economic crisis, its sales have plunged.

Still, Rbeiz believes Hamra will bounce back. He said his store blew up during the Civil War and he renovated and reopened it. “I didn’t surrender then and I won’t surrender now. Ever.”

Not everyone is so sure.

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

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

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

Eid opened his music store 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 collectibles, he will donate them to Lebanon’s National Conservatory of Music.

Will Hamra Street bloom again? “Never ever. Impossible,” he said. The Gulf tourists who once fueled his trade will no longer return, they will turn to Europe.

But he won’t leave.

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

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