|Going back a few years, Gemmayzeh was a quiet, residential area. As the brown tourist signs declare, it was and still is a “quartier a caractère traditionnel”, and back then one might have thought of it as something of a “sleepy neighborhood.” But much of that has changed. In those few short years it has gained a reputation as a nightlife hotspot — one of the places to be seen over the weekend, where the high heels and Gucci bags brigade rub shoulders with the nose rings and dreadlocks crowd.|
Four years ago there were only a couple of bars or restaurants in Gemmayzeh, but the last year or so has seen an exponential growth in the number of establishments with around 80 bars at present, and it seems as if a new place is opened every week. While this may be good news for weekend revelers, the rapid development has come at a price for some of Gemmayzeh’s residents. Over the weekends the quarter’s once slow and sleepy roads are now packed with traffic and the streets are crowded with the city’s youth letting off steam. As the neighborhood’s residents get ready for a good night’s sleep, a cacophony of clinking bottles, base beats, laughter and chatter rises from the streets until the early hours of the morning.
Tensions between the residents and the bar owners and patrons had been on the rise for a while and at some point something had to give. In the beginning of April, some residents staged a demonstration in Gemmayzeh, bringing the place to a stand still for a couple of hours, while also lodging formal complaints with the Ministry of Tourism and the Governor of Beirut about the problems the bars were causing them. This lead to the temporary closure of some twenty establishments that were not in possession of the correct licenses and placed yet another two groups in Lebanon in a tense stand-off: bar owners on one side and the residents on the other.
Parties to Politics
Those who read foreign press features will be acutely aware that there are two almost contradictory stories that periodically emanate from Lebanon. The first revolves around the political turmoil and speculates about the possibility of conflict and the second celebrates Beirut as the only city in the Middle East with a “decent” — whatever that might be — nightlife. So it is a fitting irony that Beirut’s nightlife has, of itself, become the latest cause of turmoil.
To date things have not gotten too out of hand, and although the odd egg or two has been thrown from a sleep-deprived resident’s balcony towards a crowd of loud and tipsy drinkers, the security situation appears to be under control. However, Ellie Nassar, the mukhtar (mayor) of Gemmayzeh and head of the residents committee, noted that there have been escalations of late: in one instance a whole bucket of carefully aimed steaming water drenched a noisy group of street drinkers. He proceeded to make the point that Gemmayzeh should have some 15 to 20 police on the streets over weekends, plain clothed if possible, to monitor the situation.
Nassar even expressed concern, possibly a little tongue in cheek, that without proper policing and with so many inebriated individuals, events might take a violent turn. He explained, “with so many drunk people coming from the bars and making problems with the residents, maybe it will end in a shooting — when people drink they lose control and everybody here has a gun. Everybody. It’s dangerous and it could happen.”
Perhaps this is over the top, but perhaps not. On one occasion in a bar in Gemmayzeh there was a young man who was very eager to show off his gun. Standing with an Al-Maza in hand, he proudly listed the names of his friends in different sects and then proceeded to explain that he had an automatic weapon in the back of his car and he’d be more than happy to get it out. The offer was politely declined.
The road from Monot to Gemmayzeh
In a more serious vein however, Gemmayzeh’s rise does have a connection to the political situation. The opposition sit-in around the downtown area seriously affected the number of patrons visiting bars around Monot, which predated Gemmayzeh as Beirut’s street nightlife center and is located only a stone’s throw away from the fringes of the tent-city sit-it. At tense points in the political stand off, Gemmayzeh, although also close to downtown, was viewed as a somewhat safer location for a night out. Novelty, changing fads, and a trendy set of bars and restaurants have also played their part in Gemmayzeh’s transformation from a sleepy residential area to the latest hip thing.
Then, of course, there is money. Entertainment is big business. According to a survey by Ziad Kamel, who sits on the Gemmayzeh bar owners’ marketing committee, local businesses in Gemmayzeh were losing as much as $70,000 a day in revenue during the two-week period in which a number of the bars were shut down and strict closing times were imposed on those that remained open. It is not only the bar owners who are profiting, between them the restaurants and bars pay some $3.4 million annually in rent to Gemmayzeh landlords.
At present, the vast majority of the bars have been reopened and the early closing times have been lifted, following a series of commitments from the bar owners, such as monitoring noise levels and preventing customers from leaving their premises with drinks. Residents have also requested closer regulation of the valet parking system and there has been a suggestion that the disused Charles Helou Bus station car park might be revamped to cater for weekend parking in the area.
Both the bar owners and the mukhtar were keen to point out that the responsibility for regulating the area does not fall to the proprietors alone. Both have requested that the government provide better services in the area, particularly efficient policing, improvement of the infrastructure, regulation of the one-way traffic system and possibly even installing cameras along the street.
The debacle has had some positive effects, as Ziad Kamel pointed out that “it’s the first time that the bar owners in Gemmayzeh have worked together and seen one another as support rather than competition — this is something that Monot never had.” At the same time the mukhtar, Ellie Nassar, hopes that the efforts on all sides will make life easier for the residents. Under the new agreements all the entertainment establishments are to be given three warnings should they violate the noise regulations, after which they will be summarily closed down.
At the end of the day though, Mukhtar Nassar clarified that even the vast majority of residents do not want it to come to this, saying “We don’t have any target to close down the bars, we simply want to regulate the nightlife.” As another resident, Michelle Ghanem, said while attending the bar owners’ committee meeting, “all I want to do is get some sleep, that’s it, just some sleep.”