‘Completely dead’ Beirut shops struggle to attract Christmas trade

Lebanese can no longer afford festivities, leaving outlets deserted during what is usually one of the busiest weeks of the year

Every December, Beirut lights up in red, green and white, with pine trees and lavish decorations adorning homes, shops and streets.

But this year, the Lebanese are in no mood to celebrate. A severe economic crisis over the past year is being compounded by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and a deadly blast at Beirut port in August. This leaves shops short on customers and revenue ahead of the holidays.

"Shop employees on Mar Elias Street spend their days staring at another other. There are no customers, and this is supposed to be the busiest week for us, the week before the holidays," Nagham, an employee at a shoe shop, told The National.

The busy Beirut district where she works is filled with clothing and shoe shops, jewellers and other small businesses. It is one of Beirut’s oldest commercial streets, yet this year it is devoid of Christmas lights and decorations for the first time in decades. The neighbourhood is struggling despite having been relatively shielded from the explosion.

“During the same period last year, people were doing their Christmas shopping. This year it’s completely dead. We’ve done massive sales but still, people are not buying. Some days we do not have any customers at all,” she said.

Work may stop but it will come back. This is Lebanon, and Lebanon doesn't die

The Lebanese pound or lira dropped in value over the last year in part due to a shortage of foreign currencies in the country, making imported products that are not subsidised particularly expensive for Lebanese. The lira is officially pegged at 1,500 to the dollar, but its value on the black market has soared to more than 8,000 to the dollar.

A woman passed by and asked the price of a fake Fendi bag on display. Nagham told her it was 150,000 Lebanese pounds, less than $20 at the black-market rate. But for Lebanese earning an income in a depreciating local currency, such a purchase has become a luxury.

The woman cannot afford it. She shook her head and walked away.

The minimum wage in Lebanon is 657,000 lira a month, about $450 because of the financial meltdown. It is now less than $100 at the black-market rate.

On the other side of town, in the east, entire neighbourhoods such as lively Ashrafieh still bear heavy scars from the destruction that befell them in August. Shops there face the same struggles as in other parts of the country, with the added costs of fixing damaged shops and homes in the aftermath of the blast.

Yolla, an elderly resident of Ashrafieh told The National that people want to support local businesses but cannot afford it.

“Before the crisis, I would spend $3,000 on Christmas shopping. This year I don’t plan on buying any gifts,” she said.

Yolla's house was damaged in the explosion, and repairing it was so costly she could not even afford to replace curtains ripped by shattered glass.

Jeweller Pascale, who owns a small shop near Sassine Square, in Ashrafieh, said the holidays are bleak, despite attempts to revive the spirit of Christmas. A big pine tree stands tall on the square, next to a near-deserted mall. Small wooden stalls, empty and closed, are all that is left of what was meant to be a Christmas market.

“Jewellers in the area no longer put their items on display for security reasons. We are afraid of getting robbed,” Pascale said.

Business has gone down for jewellers in the past year, she said, because the economic crisis is pushing the Lebanese to sell their own jewellery in exchange for dollars as the lira continues to depreciate in value.

Joseph, the owner of a men’s clothing shop in the area, said his shop and some of his stock were destroyed in the explosion. He replaced all the furniture and glass panes in the shop to keep it open, but he can barely break even as sales plummet.

“I’ve been in this business for 40 years, what else am I supposed to do? I had to reopen the shop,” he said.

“At the same time last year the shop was filled with customers and friends. But now they have either left the country, or cannot afford gifts. Some are celebrating Christmas with their kids abroad, when traditionally children are the ones to come back home for Christmas,” Joseph said.

Lebanese abroad traditionally support their families at home by sending remittances and boost the local economy by spending time in Lebanon during the holidays. This year, Covid-19 restrictions and a bleak situation at home discouraged many Lebanese abroad from returning.

Despite having gone through a year filled with hardships and political inaction in the face of growing misery, Joseph still has hope for his country.

“Work may stop but it will come back. This is Lebanon, and Lebanon doesn’t die,” he said.