Beirut through the eyes of community veterans

BEIRUT: Tony Bou Safi begins his day at 4 a.m., selecting produce to stock his grocery, before driving back in Geitawi neighborhood to prepare for the morning hustle of locals purchasing their daily supplies of fruits and vegetables. By 8:30 a.m., the small corner shop is filled with shoppers scurrying in and out. Bags of tomatoes, cucumbers and onions are thrown on top of Bou Safi’s constantly rattling scale. In between each weighing, customers pile in and clamor for assistance, asking Bou Safi how much this season’s watermelons cost and which loquat are the sweetest.

“Tony!” his wife, Ghada, calls out over the morning commotion, “Remember to save three boxes of peaches for madame.”

Like many of Beirut’s local vendors, the Bou Safi’s are intimately woven into Geitawi’s everyday life. Though both husband and wife are originally from Maghdoushe, a village in southern Lebanon about 8 kilometers from Sidon, the Bou Safi’s have sold produce on the same Beirut street for 27 years.

In Geitawi, their faces are well-known. And as long-time residents of the neighborhood themselves, the Bou Safis know their neighbors well.

“Do I love my job? It’s work, but I do enjoy it. It’s like being with family every day,” Tony says, after handing several bags of groceries to a young customer.

“It is a pleasure to know that we feed people the same food we eat ourselves. Having worked here for so many years, we have also watched children like him grow,” Ghada said, gesturing to a young boy who was stuffing a bag full of apples. “It’s something special; we’ve even taken people to Maghdoushe with us.”

After the morning rush died down, Tony sat behind his desk in the quiet corner store and reflected on the changes in the neighborhood’s scenery over the past 10 years,

“There are so many foreigners now,” he said. “I enjoy it though – I practice a little French here, a little English there. Plus, they don’t buy in kilos like the Lebanese.”

Picking up a stray banana, he added, with a laugh, “the French, they’ll just buy one or two of these at a time. There’s something nice about that.”

Further east, in Gemmayzeh, Georges Haddad walked back to his modest barber shop after taking a brief mid-day break from work.

“Yalla, ya George,” a few men from neighboring stores jokingly shouted, “get back to work!”

The 85-year-old Haddad has been in the barber business since he was 10 years old, when he first started out as an apprentice. His shop in Gemmayzeh has become a staple of the neighborhood, catering to clients such as former President Camille Chamoun, Lebanese journalist Ghassan Tueni and former Speaker of the Parliament Adel Osseiran.

“I never talked politics with Chamoun, just about things happening around the country,” Haddad recalled.

When The Daily Star visited, his shop was quiet. An old photo of Chamoun hung on the wall and a coat of dust covered the mirrors.

For several decades, Haddad has watched the city collapse during the Civil War and evolve thereafter, and has witnessed the movement of people in and out of the neighborhood.

Like many of his generation, Haddad lamented the degradation of the country in the aftermath of the war. “Even the food tastes bad,” he said, sighing.

“The money was easier back then. Plus, I didn’t have to learn a lot – it’s not like I was learning a trade,” he said, when asked why he chose his profession. “Do I like the job? I’ve been doing this for 75 years,” he exclaimed. “Of course I like it.”

When asked about his most notable memories, Haddad took a lengthy pause, with his hand against his forehead, before answering.

“What do you want from me?” he said, laughing. “I’m 85 years old! Plus, whenever you want to remember something, you can’t. When you don’t need it, it comes to mind.”

But the barber continues to go to work daily, a rare staple in Beirut’s constantly evolving landscape. “I have my loyal customers, and as long as they need me, I’ll be here.”

To the south-east, in Al-Khandaq al-Ghamiq, Adel Khawam sat outside his sandwich shop “Abou Adel” and watching cars pass by. Normally, a queue of hungry patrons stretches along the street but business was slow on a Wednesday during Ramadan, the grill void of meat.

“My father started this store in 1955,” Khawam said. “At first, though, we didn’t sell meat from the grill. It was all hummus, foul and fatteh. We had to change because that was not as popular anymore.”

Khawam’s son, Mohammad, who was absent from the storefront Wednesday, is the third generation of Khawam’s family to work in the popular snack bar.

The family, which has largely remained in Al-Khandaq al-Ghamiq through unstable times, has seen the neighborhood ravaged by war and altered with time.

When leaving work one day during the Civil War, Khawam’s father was fatally shot by a sniper – the shop was dangerous close to the front-lines. From then on, Khawam has run the shop, following changing trends in the appetites of Beirut’s residents.

“After the hummus and foul, people were always buying falafel. Now it’s Taouk [chicken] and Lahme [meat],” he said.

Regardless, customers have remained loyal over the decades.

“People who come now are the sons of those who came before. I know everyone who lives here,” Khawam said. He added that Beirut’s growing popularity as a travel or work destination had also added some spice to the shop’s clientele.

“Last year, there was a delegation of Sudanese,” he recalled. “I don’t know what they were doing, but they were staying in a hotel nearby. All of them came to eat once, that was something special.”

A little way up the street and around a corner, in Basta, Ali Ayyash sat outside the shop in which he had worked for his whole life, following in the footsteps of his father.

“Everyone I see today, I have seen yesterday, and I will see tomorrow,” he said, while sitting behind the cash register of his shop, which hasn’t changed much since it opened circa 1942. Ayyash took over in 1982, after his father’s death.

“I’ve watched kids grow up. It makes me happy, especially when i see that they have succeeded and gone to college,” Ayyash said, recalling one man who left during the 2006 war. Years later he returned and took to greeting the shop-keeper night and day. “I didn’t realize who he was until I saw a photo of him at my grandmother’s house. She told me who he was the boy who used to visit me daily. All those years later, had grown to become a general in the police or General Security,” Ayyash said smiling.

This, Ayyash said, is the best part of his work.

“It’s the relationships you make with everyone around you,” he said. “But now it’s different. People’s personalities are different. Before, they used to like you for your character, for who you were. Now it’s all based on the money you make.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 03, 2017, on page 2.




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