BEIRUT: Among the daily rush of customers ordering coffee to go in Hamra’s Rossa Cafe sits a group of men in their 70s and 80s, chatting and filling in newspaper Sudoku puzzles. Over the past 30 years, they have met there for several hours every afternoon.
Before the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975, these men belonged to a vibrant political and creative scene in Beirut. As poets, journalists, artists and film directors, they were regular visitors to the neighborhood’s coffee shops.
The Rossa Cafe was known in the ’60s and ’70s as the Horseshoe Cafe. Back then, it was one of the most popular hangouts for writers, critics, artists and intellectuals.
Before the war, Beirut’s cafes - or “maqha” - were famous for their politically charged atmospheres. With tables and patrons spilling onto the streets, they were widely known as hotbeds of debate and dissent.
“Once, there was a play criticizing the government that was banned. They performed it in [the Horseshoe] anyway, in front of an audience in the ’60s,” the journalist and economist Zulficar Kobeissi says.
Besides the Horseshoe, the main spots included Modka Cafe, Wimpy and Mat’am Faysal in Hamra, and the glitzy La Dolce Vita in Raouche.
“In the golden age of Lebanon, between the ’60s and ’70s, [La Dolce Vita] was the most famous ... Politicians, film stars, writers and poets used to meet there from all over the Arab region,” Kobeissi says.
The conversation was such, he recalls, that Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser even made a speech in which he named La Dolce Vita as a place where people were “conspiring against the government.”
“Mat’am Faysal had so many intellectuals and was so famous that when people asked where the American University of Beirut was, they’d direct them to the cafe,” the retired journalist Nouhad Hashisho recalls. “It was an incredible time. There was passion and intellect, ideas being shared and developed every night.”
Nabil Dajani, a media sociologist and professor at AUB, believes that such spaces are vital for the growth of civil society.
“They are a medium of face-to-face interaction between people,” he says. “They contribute to the development of a healthy public sphere, healthier than the influence of social media ... You actually see the person you’re exchanging ideas with.”
Most of these once-famous meeting places have since disappeared. In the post-civil war reconstruction frenzy, chains such as Starbucks, Costa Coffee and Dunkin Donuts began to take over. Modka is now a Jack & Jones clothing store. Mat’am Faysal is a McDonald’s, facing the gates of AUB. Meanwhile, a Rotana hotel towers over the space where La Dolce Vita once stood.
Sitting in Cafe Rossa, Kobeissi gestures at his surroundings. “Look at this place. This is the Americanization of our country,” he says.
“Before, we were Lebanese. We were Phoenicians. Now we belong to a small world called globalization.”
While the golden age of Lebanese cafe culture may be over, new venues are opening, which aim to rebuild the communities that once dominated the sidewalks of Beirut.
During the day, many are havens for laptop-carrying freelancers, journalists and NGO workers, who come for the free internet. But by night, they transform into bars that host music and cultural events.
T-Marbouta, a cafe and restaurant that opened in Hamra Square in 2010, has become a destination for students, artists and activists. On its second-floor is a library filled with Arabic books, which customers are invited to borrow. The same area is also used for the screening of political movies.
“T-Marbouta’s idea from the beginning was to create a cultural and intellectual space that was missing in Beirut,” says Nour Izzedine, the venue’s cultural events coordinator. “Everything is becoming commercial now, which makes this really important.”
Just down the street is Mezyan. Just over the bar hangs a blackboard, letting customers know that if they bring a book and refrain from looking at their phone, they get a free drink.
Co-founder Mansour Aziz says he opened Mezyan in 2010, because “my friends and I felt that there were fewer and fewer places where we could hang out, with a community feel.
“It was never about making money. I wanted to start a place where people could share thoughts, listen to a lecture, start an artistic movement or write a manifesto.”
Aziz speaks passionately about Hamra’s heyday, which he says was the inspiration for his business. With scenes from old Egyptian movies and photographs of Umm Kulthum hanging on the walls, Mezyan certainly has a traditional Arabic ambience.
It also provides a space for community-building initiatives, including garage sales to support Syrian refugees, and provides a venue for local Lebanese musicians to play live.
When Mezyan first opened, Aziz recalls that it attracted a lot of Syrian artists and writers, as well as Egyptians and Yeminis, who had fled political upheaval at home and settled in Beirut.
Following a trend that began in the early 2000s, Beirut’s Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael neighborhoods are now both dotted with bars and cafes.
Aaliya’s Books started its life as an English-language bookstore inside a Gemmayzeh cafe in 2016. Then, a year later, its founders bought the entire space. Because of its roots, the venue attracts a cosmopolitan clientele of expats and Lebanese.
It also hosts book clubs, jazz nights and events run by Lebanese organizers including Coffee & Politics, an initiative run entirely in Arabic, which seeks to encourage young people to engage and understand their role as citizens.
“The politicians of the day are still the politicians of the Civil War,” says Niamh Fleming-Farrell, co-founder of Aaliya’s. “They might not be coming to the cafes anymore, but what we’re seeing now is the next generation of social leaders and innovators in Lebanon coming into [places] like Riwaq [in Mar Mikhael] and Aaliya’s, talking about their ideas and engaging in discussions that they think will have a massive impact on the country.”
According to Fleming-Farrell, Aaliya’s mixed clientele has also brought about “greater cultural exchange, which leads to greater understanding ... A lot of friendships are built in this space between strangers, locals and foreigners.”
Maysan Nasser, founder of the weekly open-mic event Sidewalk Beirut in Riwaq Cafe every Wednesday evening, agrees.
“Riwaq attracts a lot of foreigners ... It’s really interesting because it becomes a sort of exchange of ideas, a cross pollination of knowledge and feedback,” he says. “You’ll hear [a person] saying to someone who just read a poem in Arabic, ‘I don’t know what you just said but I really felt it.’”