Lebanon's charm is fading - fires, protests and the bloodbath in Syria don't help

The Arab Spring may have passed Lebanon by, but the country has nonetheless been pollinated by its impact.
The Lebanese singer Marcel Khalifa, right, holds a candle during a vigil sit-in by Lebanese intellectuals and journalists to show their support to the Syrian protesters.
The Lebanese singer Marcel Khalifa, right, holds a candle during a vigil sit-in by Lebanese intellectuals and journalists to show their support to the Syrian protesters.

I have just returned from a rather disappointing "protest" in Beirut's Martyrs' Square in support of Syria's pro-democracy activists.

The square is in a part of town that should be throbbing with tourists. Instead, the only people there were 500 candle-clutching types, journalists and a dozen or so riot police backed up by a similar number of equally bored firemen.

To be fair, it is Ramadan and the bulk of the Arab tourists have gone home, but anyone who might have fancied sampling the epicentre of Beirut's much vaunted nightlife will have been put off by potential for trouble, especially in light of last week's violence in front of the Syrian embassy in the capital's Hamra district.

The Arab Spring may have passed Lebanon by, but the country has nonetheless been pollinated by its impact.

Hotel occupancy is down by more than 60 per cent for the first six months of the year; the flights this month are half empty and the malls are not exactly teeming with shoppers.

To make matters worse, the prime minister Negib Mikati has been forced to chair a meeting on food safety after a rash of food-poisoning cases have been blamed on lax hygiene standards in the country's restaurants.

It has not been a good week for shop owners in Beirut's Basta district, either.

Basta is an area known for its antique shops and one where even the most hardened bargainers are tested but last Friday a fire destroyed one of the area's most famous indoor markets. Its once dizzying labyrinth of stalls selling the mostly art deco contents of homes that belonged to Lebanon's once prosperous middle class is now a blackened husk.

The falling of Ramadan during the hottest month of the year had ensured most shoppers are staying away from this dusty, sweat-stained part of town.

Even the unrest in Syria, which has annihilated business for the shop owners in Damascus's Bab Touma district, does not appear to have created a trickle-down effect on its traditionally more expensive Beirut equivalent.

Still, it was with trepidation that I set off with my sister who is visiting from London and who, like me, was in the market for some Damascene occasional tables. "I just got these this week from a house clearance," said a trader pointing at a collection he was offering for US$450 (Dh1,652) each. "You could buy them and sell them tomorrow for more. They are selling for double in the galleries."

He was not wrong. Across the road from the bombed-out Holiday Inn at Orient 499 - I cannot remember a more outrageously priced store - they are selling for a shade more than $1,500. Admittedly, they were in better condition, but only slightly.

We said we would come back. In the next road up, in a vast Aladdin's cave of furniture, the owner admitted he just wanted to sell. "What can I do," he said, pointing around at the piles of art deco and faux Regency chairs, settees and tables. "These won't pay the bills or put food on the table. I have Eid Al Fitr to think about."

The shop with the Damascene tables was locked. The owner, we were told, was praying. "He'll come soon," his neighbour said. It was too hot. I told him I would come back another day. Halfway to the car, a boy caught up with us. The owner had returned.

In the shop, the air conditioning was on full, which was a good move by our man. Would he take $1,000 for three. "$1,200," he countered. "My wife has set a limit of $1,000," I said, brandishing my mobile phone. Silence and then he sighed. "Done."

I would like to think I had only been mildly ripped off but one could not ignore the stench of desperation in Basta. The only other people on the street were onlookers, watching as the fire brigade cleared up the debris from the night before. It was a cruel moment in difficult times.

The gloom has not been restricted to the tourist industry and the retail sector.

During the first week of Ramadan, $40 million, or 0.34 per cent, was wiped off the value of stocks on the Beirut Stock Exchange and analysts said political uncertainty would continue to exert a downward pressure on stock prices, and that investors who had become used to a 20 per cent return would have to revise expectations.

They confide that Lebanese shares, including those issued by the blue-chip banks, have lost their lustre for investors and I have a sneaking suspicion that for the time being at least, the country has too.

The government is hopelessly out of touch. Its shameful showing at the UN Security Council when it abstained from voting on a presidential statement pertaining to the Syrian crisis confirmed that it is parroting the views of a Damascus regime that now finds itself under siege from its fellow Arabs.

Lebanon is just not so groovy at a time when people are dying across the border.

Michael Karam is a communication and publishing consultant based in Beirut

Published: August 11, 2011 04:00 AM

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