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Hip district keeps going as bullets fly

Ben Gilbert May 15, 2008

Hip district keeps going as bullets fly

Ben Gilbert May 15, 2008


KAI RYSSDAL: The first regularly scheduled flight in a week landed at the airport in Beirut this afternoon. Negotiators have announced a deal to end a week of fighting that killed more than 80 people. In the 30 years since the Lebanese civil war started, violence has become almost a way of life. For residents. And for businesses. Ben Gilbert reports from West Beirut.

BEN GILBERT: My neighborhood is called Hamra. Churches sit across the street from mosques in this area with Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Druze and foreigners all living together. Hamra Street is kind of the Main Street of Beirut. It’s lined with clothing and jewelry shops, bookstores, and a Starbucks, a Radio Shack and dozens of small hotels.

GILBERT: How’s business?

TARIQ: Business is bad.

This is Tariq, the assistant manager at the Mayflower Hotel in Hamra. I’ve known him since I first came to Beirut in 2005. I use the hotel’s occupancy as one of my indicators as to how the country’s doing. Today, 17 of the hotel’s 80 rooms are taken. And half of the guests are journalists, which Tariq says is not a good sign.

TARIQ: Somehow it’s like . . . It’s an indicator that something bad will happen. Because when you see journalists, they are coming from everywhere — from Norway, from the States, from UK, from everywhere, from China let’s say — this means that something will happen.

Hamra was the most cosmopolitan neighborhood in town before Lebanon’s 15-year civil war began in 1975. The area never fully recovered. But just in the last few months, Hamra had begun to undergo a renaissance.

WALID ATAYA: Even the glory days of Lebanon, Hamra was the place to be.

Walid Ataya is the head of the slow-food movement in Beirut. He opened a hip, artisanal bakery called Bread Republic . . .

ATAYA: It’s the only formal shopping street in Lebanon, where you have wide street, wide sidewalk. So it’s the heart of the city, actually.

In the last few months, half a dozen new restaurants opened here, and a sushi place was on the way. But last Thursday and Friday, bullets struck Bread Republic’s outdoor tables, when Hezbollah gunmen and their opposition allies overran this neighborhood. Bullet casings littered the street and militiamen lurked where I had eaten lunch that afternoon. It was May 9th.

ATAYA: On the 9th it was a war zone over here. And it was full of Hezbollah people. And I got to like 20 meters away from the shop and they start shooting. So I left. I went to my friend’s place and came back at 4.

The next day, Bread Republic was one of the few cafes open on the usually bustling street, even though Army personnel carriers rumbled by to try to keep the peace. Marwan says he’s open out of necessity and, unfortunately, he’s done all this before.

ATAYA: We have to pay our bills at the end of the day. We have to pay our wages and stuff like that. We Lebanese, we — I don’t want to say we got used to this, but we can manage our way around the situation.

Like other businessmen, Ataya has his own indicators for when he should open or close. These days, he shuts his door before the sun goes down and militiamen start roaming the streets. The flow of traffic and the neighborhood chatter are also good weathervanes. But he says his best indicator is his gut — paying attention to the mood on the street to get a heads up if the fighting is about to start again.

In Beirut, I’m Ben Gilbert for Marketplace.

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