The honking car horns, the heavy traffic, the sidewalks bustling with pedestrians, the wide variety of tightly packed shops and eateries, the mix of accents and languages which can be heard around you … No, this is not some dynamic foreign metropolis. It is Beirut’s Hamra, and many other areas in Lebanon have a thing or two to learn from its inclusive urban approach.
Historically, and specifically in the 1950s and 1960s, Hamra was a haven for persecuted intellectuals from throughout the region who found a welcoming environment in its cafes and its residents. This is due in part to the presence of the American University of Beirut, but perhaps more importantly to the fact that Christians and Muslims have coexisted for generations as landowners and residents in the neighborhood (see “Something for everyone“).
Today, Hamra continues to welcome non Lebanese and is one of the few neighborhoods in Beirut where you are likely to hear the Syrian and Iraqi dialects of Arabic almost as much as you hear the Lebanese one. Migrant workers from the Philippines also frequent Hamra on Sundays, after attending services at Saint Francis Church.
In a similar manner to cosmopolitan areas like New York or Rome, these communities have established their own businesses in Hamra such as the Iraqi or Syrian restaurants in the side street facing Barbar or the Filipino mini market and eatery near Saint Francis Church. Syrian and Iraqi artists have also found in Hamra a place to sell their artwork.
Hamra has shown what can happen to an area when its residents stop fearing ‘foreigners’
These communities have also energized the venues on Hamra, with many restaurants citing high volume and retail outlets saying that it is the Iraqis — and the Syrians to a lesser degree — which have kept their businesses afloat (see “Shopping in Hamra“) at a time of dwindling purchasing power among Lebanese locals. By doing what it has done naturally for years — welcoming all nationalities — Hamra has managed to become one of perhaps two truly bustling, economically active areas of the city (the other being Dora–Burj Hammoud).
Of course, this comes with its own set of challenges. Hamra has had to deal with an increase in street beggars, which caused many locals to stay away. In addition, and similar to other areas of Beirut, Hamra has also had to deal with the issues of high traffic congestion, overall neglect of its infrastructure and generally less footfall from tourists compared to boom years such as 2010.
Yet Hamra has not taken these frustrations out on the non Lebanese in its community. Instead, it has given them the opportunity to create and contribute to its economic life for the general betterment of the neighborhood. Hamra, with its raw energy, grittiness and liveliness, has shown what can happen to an area when its residents stop fearing ‘foreigners’ and simply allow them to be. Others could learn from their model.