Saturday, September 13, 2008

Into the Lebanese Night

Beirut nightlife is legendary in the Arab world and beyond. Even so, could it be improved further?

for Aishti magazine

That Beirut has the best nightlife in the Middle East has not been in question since the civil war ended and the capital replaced Jounieh as the country’s prime spot for drinking and cavorting.
Come rain or shine, conflict or peace, Beirut has always offered a vibrant scene, from restaurants to bars, to after-hours clubs.
But as Beirut can be with fashion - fickle to say the least - so is the nightlife scene. Bars open, a trend is set, other spaces are established, and hey presto, a new nightlife hub hits the capital.
Then the Beiruti capriciousness sets in, with the scene moving elsewhere as people tire of that locale or places are run into the ground. So it was with Monot street a few years ago, and now perhaps with the current nightlife hub of Rue Gouraud in Gemmayzieh, after the revival of Downtown Beirut.
There is nothing overly surprising about this – it’s the free market after all – but there is a degree of herd mentality, in not only the setting up of bars, but also how people migrate with the nightlife vibe. And that can lead to what, to some, is a bad sign: homogeneity.
“It seems Beirut has a diverse nightlife but if you scratch the surface you realize there isn’t much diversity,” says Paddy Cochrane, owner of Gauche Caviar and lounge bar Cloud 9 in Gemmayzieh. “I find it curious that 90% of Beirut’s nightlife limit itself to one street - Rue Gouraud. And how many really unique places are there? Very few. Many are a copy with slight adjustments.”
Cochrane may have a point. Many bars on Gouraud are near carbon copies of each other, offering the same drinks, the same menus and the same music in similar interiors. One recent edition to the street allegedly even asked the interior designer of one bar to do exactly the same thing for their establishment. The feeling is that if it works in one place, it will work again. But on the very same street?
Veteran bar owner Michel Saidah, behind nightlife institutions Havana (Jounieh), Pacifico (Monot), and Dragonfly (Gemmayzieh), points the finger at wannabe entrepreneurs setting up bars without any professional experience in the field. But what he thinks is really missing is passion.
“And not only passion, its taste. Those succeeding are the most professional in taste and music, lighting, technical stuff and in solving problems. Also keeping stock. It’s a whole machine, and owners have to give 90-100% of his time to do it,” says Saidah.
“I went to South America, Asia and Europe to get inspired but not to copy, and those ideas are part of your inspiration,” he adds.
Inspiration, like necessity, is the mother of creation. But when you are catering to a mere 10,000 people that are willing and financially able to have a night on the town, numbers can be a problem. On an average week night bar owners reckon between 300-400 revelers go to Gemmayzieh, and over a 1,000 are knocking back cocktails on Fridays and Saturdays.
This has prevented European-style dance clubs and live music venues from opening up. Beirut does have Music Hall, which puts on great live acts from around the world, but the venue doesn’t allow Lebanese artists to perform. And there are a number of Arabic music-orientated venues but they are not always to the taste of the Europhiles.
“People who like Lila Braun have a more difficult choice than those that like Concerto or Casino,” says Andreas Boulos, owner of Torrino Express in Gemmayzieh.
The current political situation obviously doesn’t help, but neither do cash strapped 20-somethings that want to party but can barely afford a shot. This hasn’t stopped people from thinking that larger spaces could, and should, open.
“It’s remarkable, given the Lebanese love of dancing, that there isn’t a European-style night club - the size of Basement - with a proper dance floor in the middle that would get people away from their tables and get the community spirit back,” says Cochrane.
Zeid Hamdan, the producer and musician behind bands Soap Kills, the New Government and electronic band ShiftZ, says that if a venue for alternative live music opened, he “could fill it every week.”
But the idea of opening a place that needs a good volume of people through the doors is fraught with problems. BO18 has survived as the only - and best - place in town for dancing into the small hours. But when the likes of Sky Bar and White are open during the summer months, the action is diverted there away from Gemmayzieh.
“Sky Bar pulled all customers out of the town. Every sales man was saying, ‘Can you believe how many boxes of champagne we sell everyday?’” recalls Boulos. “But that’s the thing, one hub takes it off everyone else.”
So where next for Beirut’s nightlife? Monot Street is making a bid for a comeback with the re-launch of Lila Braun, and bars keep opening in Gemmayzieh, despite the area’s near saturation point.
Boulos thinks that the strategic location of Gemmayzieh will continue to attract new bars.
“Some mention Badaro as a possibility but most likely down to Mar Mikael. We are already from Paul’s to Electricite du Liban, so will probably connect all the way to Art Lounge,” he says.
Ultimately, the question is what kind of nightlife are people looking for?
Beirut isn’t New York or London, lacking both the numbers and the cosmopolitanism of greater metropolises, but considering the population here and what is on offer, there is little to really complain about. Although a bit more passion and a lot less homogeneity wouldn’t go amiss. After all, having the best nightlife in the region doesn’t mean you can’t get even better.

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