Jean-Luc Duthion admits it was risky to have opened a bar in the heart of Damascus almost a year into Syria’s conflict, but his venue has become a hit among locals seeking relief from the bloodshed.
Despite the violence closing in, the 28-year-old Frenchman decided along with his brother Jean-Pierre, well-known across the Twitter universe for his daily updates from Damascus, to open the trendy Pure Lounge club in the majority Christian Old City neighbourhood.
“In hindsight, I think we decided to open the bar because of our total lack of political understanding,” says Duthion, who has lived in Syria since 2007.
“We thought the revolt would only last a few months, and that party-loving Syrians would get bored quickly. We were very wrong.”
Duthion was a special effects expert in filmmaking and advertisements before he decided to launch Pure Lounge in February 2012.
The brothers chose to live and work in Syria because “it was quite a closed country, but whose growth rate was higher than France’s”.
Duthion had been making good money in advertising until the Arab Spring-inspired uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad erupted in March 2011.
“Suddenly, all our orders were cancelled and I found myself without work,” Duthion says. “That was when we decided to open the bar.”
Pure Lounge is white all over, and is decorated with mirrors and red sofas. It cost $120,000 to set up.
“The idea behind it was to make it a clean, young, fresh place, and where women would also be able to relax. It is no dark hole in the wall,” says Duthion.
Pure Lounge was not the only bar established in the midst of the uprising, though not all have survived the impact of the violence.
Two other night clubs have been forced to close — the Zodiac and the Tao Bar, which cost $5 million to build.
A handful of other clubs remain open in Damascus, once home to a flourishing nightlife. Among them are the 808 club, the Back Door, White and the Tini Bar, which organises salsa nights.
But owners who have kept their clubs open suffer week in, week out, as very few clients show up. Even on weekends, the number has shrunk massively since the revolt broke out.
Meanwhile, only a few restaurants have held up, while cafes offering the traditional nargileh water-pipe close at 10:00 pm.
“We thought we’d make returns on our investment within a year of launching,” says Duthion. “What a mistake!”
“Initially our bar was doing amazingly well. All the young well-to-do were coming to us, but as the months dragged on, most of them left Damascus for Beirut or elsewhere.”
Now, most customers come from Syria’s middle class.
“Most of my clients are young people aged from 20 to 35, who want to relax and to think about something other than war,” he says.
“Still, as they make their way to the bar, many customers have to listen to the sound of shelling.”
On an average evening, Pure Lounge has about 25 clients. At weekends, the number rises to around 45 to 60, and business does a little better when customers hold engagement celebrations or bachelor parties.
“I think people still come because our waiters smile, and because our prices are mid-range,” says Duthion.
“The music is good here, and people who come just want to relax and dance,” he adds.
A beer at Pure Lounge costs about 310 Syrian pounds ($4), while spirits are priced at 350 pounds ($5).
Cursed by war and increasing poverty, many Syrians can no longer splash out. But they can at least afford to take their wives or girlfriends out for the night.
“We come here because we love life, and we want to take advantage of every moment,” says Elias Hanna, a 27-year-old engineer.
“Two months ago, I was witness to an attack. I started to get depressed. Then I started to come to Pure Lounge. I feel better.”
Though Pure Lounge’s finances have been hit by the war, Duthion says he is not losing money.
He does not know, however, how long he will stay in Damascus. He won’t flee, he says, “until it is impossible to live here.
“I used to visit all areas of the country, but now, it is impossible to even go out into the suburbs of the capital. If war hits Damascus and all movement comes to a halt, I will pack my bags and leave. It’s a pity. I love this town.”