Bana Bissat
Last updated: 8 March, 2013

Hamra – Beirut’s Comeback Kid

This article is part of Your Middle East's series "My favorite neighborhood in…".

Centered on the bustling Hamra Street, the Hamra area has no defined borders. Loosely, it connects major areas in Ras Beirut (literally translated to be the “head of Beirut”).  The area includes both the American University of Beirut and some of the Lebanese American University – two of the leading English universities in the Middle East. Consequently, businesses have proliferated in the area to serve the large population of students.

Hamra’s liveliness died out in in the 1990s following the Civil War. Because of its high-profile status, and with so much religious cohabitation it was feared as a political danger point. Shopping districts like Mar Elias and Kaslik became safer and more isolated from the public eye and pushed down Hamra from the commercial throne.

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Only recently has it regained its original momentum, becoming more of a distinguished cultural hub than it ever was.

For the past three years, the alleyway, a hidden street of eleven cramped bars, has been frequented by the same young faces, there to mingle at happy hour and into the wee hours of the night. The cacophony of music and banter will seep into neighboring areas. Occasionally, an overlooking window will open and a half-asleep resident will howl out words of tired complaint.

For those seeking a lighter mood for a drink, there are over forty bars in Hamra alone. Some are nondescript and humble, while others opt for grandeur in solitude. Some prefer Arabic playlists, while others have full-fledged French nights. Variety is a good word to describe the area.

Some say Beirut is the city that never sleeps. Naturally, most areas do. The upscale Downtown, for one, is dead by 1am. But Hamra will be up and running at any hour of the day. Partygoers will usually end their night with a savory delight at one of Hamra’s late night diners. Stop by the iconic Zaatar w Zeit at 4am on a Saturday night; chances are you’ll have to wait some fifteen minutes for a table in this two-floor gourmet manouche restaurant.

Hamra also boasts some of the strongest cultural hubs in the region. The Piccadilly Theatre where the singer Fairuz and the Rahbani Brothers held their musicals closed down during the Civil War. And as any proud Hamra resident will tell you, the Piccadilly Theatre also hosted the French singer Dalida on a few occasions. Albeit the theatre’s closing, the street in Hamra is still referred to as The Piccadilly and continues to emit the energy it did in the late 1900s. Nearby, The Metro Hall, a Cabaret-style theatre hosts all sorts of entertainment, including literary ones. Although it is only a year old, it has already gained noteworthy success.

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In 2011, The Democratic Republic of Music (DRM), a concert lounge, opened its doors – bringing local and international music to the spotlight in a distinguished, New York blues style setting. Shows have included the Algerian singer Souad Massi and the comedian Nemr Abou Nassar. Uprising artists, too, have taken the stage.

Further West, Café Younes, popular for their strong brew, hold monthly poetry readings where all are welcome to join. For the older generation, Café Younes is reminiscent of Hamra’s Café De Paris, where the big shot journalists and writers once gathered. Like Picadilly Theatre, Wimpy’s diner and Modca Café, Café de Paris is off the map but engraved in Lebanon’s political and cultural history.

“Hamra always had this feeling that revolutionary changes happen there,” Rasha Moukaddem, 56, explains.

Because the land rent has skyrocketed in recent years, only established chains have been opening in the area. Still, the older stores that had been standing there for the past decades remain. Because they are purchased land, they are exempt from Hamra’s increasing exclusivity. In such a way, torn-down, local fabric stores juxtapose larger chains like Virgin Megastore creating the most interesting visual image for the tourist. Indeed, foreigners who visit the country will likely comment on the contrasts prevalent in Hamra.

“Its charm resides in the blend of new and old, Western and local. It’s my creative muse,” says Dalia Khalifeh, a 20-year old design student.

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In the same way one can shop clothes in Hamra on any budget, food comes for a dollar or thirty. This isn’t London’s Knightsbridge, nor is it San Francisco’s Chinatown. It is a middle ground of price ranges. For three dollars, one can have the (arguably) best shawarma in the country from Barbar. Walking past the restaurant, you will find a horde of people hungry for a sandwich at any hour of the day and some forty Barbar motorcycles parked outside waiting for an order to deliver. But, if today’s the day to splurge – you can indulge in some sushi at Soto or pepper steak at Le Rouge just a few blocks away.

“It is home away from home. For you and me. For everybody,” an elderly man selling magazines in the area rejoices. 

Hamra is the Comeback Kid, and it’s here to stay.