On a May evening in Solidere, the reconstructed city center of Beirut, a sales lady from a local jewelry shop relaxes with a hookah pipe. Almost utterly destroyed by civil war, the Solidere area has been re-built and is filled with street cafés and high-end shops.
Beirut – Been There

Inhaling Beirut life in Gemmayzé

Photo by Jason Florio

Beirut – Been There Inhaling Beirut life in Gemmayzé

My warmest Beirut memories are of tiny bars in Gemmayzé where I become instant friends with the barman and the few other clients, or the cafés where the evening starts.

Kieran Meeke
Kieran Meeke Travel Writer

As young people chase the latest night spot, these cafés fill a similar social niche to bars in America or pubs in Britain, somewhere to meet and pass the time by chatting with friends.

Each area of the city has its favorite, often steeped in history, to which regulars might have been going for decades. During times of unrest, they have played an essential role in bringing people together and disseminating news. Such cafés are found throughout the Middle East but Lebanon’s owe much to the French Mandate period of its history and the familiar Parisian tradition of lively social debate over an endless cup of coffee or a beer. Here, Beirut still feels like the Paris of the Middle East.

Given Islam’s ban on alcohol, it may be a surprise to find beer, wine and spirits so freely available in many cafés. Drinking to excess, however, is frowned on both by Christian and Muslim locals and the family-friendly atmosphere is part of the attraction.

Sometimes the party starts right here, as the musicians come out or the sound system is cranked up. A familiar sight is the water-pipe or nargileh (also called a hookah, hubbly-bubbly or shisha in other countries). The highly decorated brass pipes are a popular souvenir and even the non-smoker will be tempted to try a puff by the smell and the ceremony of preparing one.

As the tobacco smoke is passed through water, the taste is much milder than a cigarette (though don’t think it is safer than smoking; it isn’t). Various flavors are available, with watermelon and apple among the most popular, and the man with the coals, for whom a small tip is customary, prepares a new sterile mouthpiece for me and every new customer.

Children play among the feet of chatting mothers. Office workers dash in for a lunchtime coffee and snack. Couples hold hands and gaze into each other’s eyes. Older men sit around playing cards and drinking date juice. In the cool of the evening, the cafés spring into life. The air fills with the fragrant fumes of the water-pipe, leisurely meals are enjoyed, passers-by are rated for style and looks.

Sitting and watching, I realize that it’s here where I can see Beirut’s full story of life.

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