When tourism dries up, there goes the neighbourhood

Business is down in the antique shops of Beirut, and even the party district is feeling the pinch, writes Michael Karam

A Lebanese DJ plays at a bar in Beirut's Gemmayzeh district. AFP
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A few months ago, I inquired about a painting in what the French call une brocante, not a flea market but not really an antique shop either; somewhere one might, literally, uncover a decent objet du desire but where provenance is a vague concept.

This being Beirut, a town where everyone knows the price of everything, I knew that I was unlikely to get a bargain, and the price I was quoted was more than double what I had intended to spend.

The owner kept my number in case she found something I might like, "now that I know your style Monsieur Karam", she said, peering at my card. I couldn't tell if this was typical Ashrafieh sniffiness or a genuine interest to build what one might describe as a relationship. I was half-hoping she might call a few days later with a new offer, but she didn't. That is until this Monday. Was I still interested? If so, I could have it for the price I had initially offered.

A week earlier, I had a similar experience with my carpet dealer, a man from whom I have been buying carpets for more than five years and who I like to think has taken pity on my ignorance and has given up on trying to cheat me. In January, my wife and I were taken by a rug in his window.

Again it was double what we were prepared to pay. He said he couldn't go down any more because he was already offering it to me at half price "because you are a regular customer".

Last week, I went back with an American friend who used to live in Beirut and who wanted a rug for his Washington, DC, apartment. He was sold a decent Afshar and, as it was being packed, the owner took me aside and asked if I was still interested in the Caucasian we had discussed in January. I could have it at half what he initially quoted.

"I'm not surprised," a friend told me later. "The market is dead. Until the crisis ends, confidence is low. The only people who might spend are the [Gulf] Arabs and they may not come this summer. Even if they do, they certainly don't do brocante."

Nor it appears, do they do Gemmayzeh, the district that stretches from the eastern extremity of the downtown until the port, and which in the past six years has defined Beirut nightlife. Whereas the "Arabs" would "do" the rows of hookah pipe cafes that spill out on to Maarad Street and Parliament Square in the downtown, Gemmayzeh has been the preserve of the hard-partying Lebanese jeunesse doree. Today, the word on the street is that the bars and clubs are feeling the pinch. If predictions of a 20 per cent drop in tourism this summer are to be believed, then many won't make it to October.

Those who remember Gemmayzeh as a sleepy neighbourhood with small family-run shops will no doubt be feeling more than a little schadenfreude at the news that businesses in the area are hurting.

Life for residents living on either side of the main drag at one point became so bad they staged a pillow-wielding pyjama protest one Saturday night, blocking traffic to complain about the noise.

I suspect that Gemmayzeh is merely experiencing what its predecessor Rue Monot did before it. In 2001, I took a year off journalism and worked as an analyst in commercial property.

It taught me a few rudimentary lessons, one of which was that good retail will struggle on a hill because people simply don't like walking up and down. Rue Monot, for so long the party strip, was on a very annoying hill, and when the market moved to Gemmayzeh it was merely moving to a better "pitch".

Rue Gouraud, Gemmayzeh's main drag, is flat and there are pavements. With its art deco buildings and the Paul Cafe at the entrance, Gemmayzeh offered a more elegant vibe.

But the short-term view soon coated Gemmayzeh with a grimy patina of seediness. Bars sprang up and shut down at an alarming rate, valets ruled the night, residents couldn't park and many moved out. The mere mention of the word Gemmayzeh made many people groan. It was all too exhausting. All that traffic and noise, for what?

Which brings us to rule number two. In any recession, it's the bulletproof areas that are most likely to hold their value. Remember the newly developed London Docklands in the 1980s? When the property market crashed, developers resorted to offering a free Porsche 924 with each house.

The Lebanese market is still too small to sustain a multitude of entertainment districts, and it may just be that the money is seeking shelter in a safe port. That port is Hamra, the traditional residential area of Ras Beirut with the schools and universities, a multi-confessional population and a genuine flat high street. Hamra, quite simply, is booming.

"It's a pity we can't go to Damascus, dude," my American friend said as we left the carpet shop, his Afshar rug slung over his shoulder. "We could have really cleaned up on rugs and stuff."

Michael Karam is a communications and publishing consultant based in Beirut