There’s one street in Beirut where all are welcome

Times Staff Writer

Through their apartment windows or from just over the tops of their newspapers, the artists, writers, students, journalists and lawyers peered at the beefy armed men.

They had come before, grimacing young toughs wielding Kalashnikovs, their legs dangling over the sides of pickup trucks, swaggering along the sidewalks, festooning streetlights with their flags.

This time it was the Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah and its allies, gangs of less disciplined gunmen who burned buildings and terrorized their enemies. But others had tried to impose their will here before, in the one part of this city that has refused to bow to narrow-mindedness and embraces the country’s political and religious melting pot.


Unlike the rest of Lebanon, Beirut’s Hamra Street doesn’t belong to Sunni or Shiite or Christian or Druze. In a Middle East characterized by extremes of poverty and wealth, radical Islamic fundamentalism and compulsive Western-style consumerism, decrepit slums and gated Persian Gulf fortresses, Hamra Street stands out.

Neither a fading old marketplace nor a gleaming shopping mall, the two-lane commercial avenue is among the last few spaces of homegrown urban culture in Lebanon, under the sway of political leaders who thrive on promoting communal identity.

The road emerges from downtown Beirut and runs parallel to the Mediterranean coast, about three or four blocks to the west, where the leafy campus of the American University of Beirut spreads along the cliffs.

“This is the only street that is cosmopolitan in all of Lebanon,” said Khalil Hakim, a bespectacled architect with a rectangular face. “All the religions are here. People from all over the world are here.”

He looks older than his 50 years. He sits with a group of friends at the Cafe du Paris. They inhale cheap cigarettes and sip Turkish coffee spiced with cardamom. At first they are reluctant to talk, but eventually their anger pours out.

“We don’t wave flags,” Hakim said. “We don’t belong to one religion or another. We don’t want what they want.”

“They” are the men who periodically try to overrun this place. Hezbollah arrived here, guns blazing, on May 8. The militia menaced its Sunni Arab political rivals in the pro-government Future Movement as well as the people of West Beirut, who huddled inside their homes. Militiamen burned cars and flashed “V” signs, a show of strength meant to cow political opponents into submission over a power-sharing agreement and Hezbollah’s right to keep its arsenal of rockets and heavy weapons.

The Lebanese government had targeted Hezbollah’s robust telecommunications and intelligence assets. Hezbollah called the moves a declaration of war on the group and its ability to fight what it calls Israeli aggression. It responded by launching its military offensive, taking out the political and paramilitary offices of the government’s supporters. Then it quickly left. The point had been made: Don’t touch our tools of war. The main political groups began talks last week in Qatar.

All have hung their flags along the streets, laying claim to Hamra. There is the black and red of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, green and red of the Amal movement, and yellow and green of Hezbollah -- to the despair of those who live, work and spend time here.

Hamra Street remains one of the last authentic bastions of liberalism and tolerance in the Middle East, after the expulsions of foreigners from the Egyptian city of Alexandria, after the rise of nationalist and religiously exclusive movements, small and large.

Hezbollah certainly wasn’t the first to bear arms along Hamra. Yasser Arafat and his men tried to impose their will in the 1970s. Then came Israel with its tanks, followed by a succession of militias, heavily armed, blanketing the walls with posters filled with thick angry lettering, sickles and hammers, cedar and trees and fists, placing brutes on street corners to monitor locals they viewed suspiciously.

But the people of this tiny district of several thousand families insist they are of a different breed. They shudder indignantly when asked whether they’re Sunni or Shiite, Christian or Druze.

That’s just something you don’t discuss here.

“If you visit any of the cafes here, you’ll find young people, students, artists from all over Lebanon, all over the world,” said Sarjoun Kantar, 25, a freelance journalist with curly hair tumbling to his shoulders. “We are a group in this country with no political voice.”

Hamra was mostly farmland west of the old downtown before World War II. It began to swell as a commercial and intellectual hot spot during the 1950s, when it was first paved. A flood of Palestinian intellectuals and merchants fleeing the newly established state of Israel settled here.

A postwar economic boom brought cinemas, galleries, cabarets and nightclubs like the nearby Lido or the Kit-Kat club. Famous for its libertine ways, the area became a magnet for single young professionals. Revelers roamed the streets, pouring out of movie theaters and heading to cafes and cabarets.

Among the more famous performers was Carmen Paddy. “She was English or Irish and she used to sing Arabic songs, and of course she could not sing Arabic, so they used to teach her how to say things in Arabic,” said Kamal Salibi, a Lebanese historian who lives in West Beirut. “She was very beautiful.”

The 1975-90 Lebanese civil war drove up to a quarter-million Christians from West Beirut, but mostly spared Hamra Street, which was not ravaged like downtown Beirut or subject to the violence that afflicted other parts of Lebanon. Still, Christians who remained on Hamra during the war were afraid to sell Christmas decorations.

When peace returned, Christians began moving back, as did many foreigners, students and scholars teaching or studying at American University, Lebanese American University or nearby Hagopian College.

Today, foreigners mingle easily with locals in what has become the equivalent of the city’s downtown commercial district, since the old one has been turned into an upscale outdoor mall. Artists, businessmen, prostitutes, shoe shiners, merchants, college students and engineers all call it home. Laughing, fresh-faced students fill cafes and bars, such as the ultra-hip Prague nightclub.

After a 2006 political crisis strangled Beirut’s elegantly restored downtown, more and more businesses, nightclubs and bars moved here.

But the forces of the contemporary world have also hit hard. There are fewer poor and lower-middle-class people. In place of quaint old cafes, there are now Starbucks and Costa Coffee.

“That modernity is Western modernity,” said Kherat Zein, a 50-year-old painter who regularly meets her graying friends at the Cafe du Paris, the last of the grand coffee shops, which cautiously reopened after the fighting settled down and the most onerous of the gunmen melted away.

“It’s not for us,” she said. “Lebanese culture is my modernity.”

Some of her friends, sitting in a half-circle beneath the cafe’s sidewalk awning, disagree.

They say Hamra retains its charm and international flavor. And it doesn’t matter that the young now sip Starbucks lattes instead of Turkish coffee while discussing art and politics, that they write on laptops instead of in spiral notebooks. Hamra will continue to radiate light against the dark forces that surround it, they say.

“When I see the young people on the street, it makes me very happy that this will live on,” painter Fawzi Baalbeki said with a sweeping gesture at the street.

Rafiq Hajj, an attorney in his 50s, lives and works on Hamra Street.

“Hamra is the phoenix of Lebanon,” he said. “Nobody can touch this idea.”