The Lights Are Going Out in Beirut

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The Lights Are Going Out in Beirut

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By Mona Alami - IPS
Mar 11, 2008 - 8:08:44 AM

BEIRUT, Mar 10 (IPS) - Sporadic gunfire erupts, breaking the silence of the night. A few police cars speed up, heading east. Their lights flashing in the dark and their sirens echoing across the shanty neighbourhoods, they rapidly cross the run down metallic Basta bridge in the direction of the shootout.

On either side of the street, tanks are parked, with soldiers briskly pacing the pavement, listening to the cacophony. Such have become Beirut's nights.

Only a few years ago, Lebanon was known for its hip clubbing scene, and the people for their hedonistic lifestyle and love for entertainment. Tourists and partygoers flocked to Beirut: youngsters in tight jeans or short skirts, dressed to kill, regularly queued in front of bars and clubs. Today, nightlife venues open and close at rocket speed, with only a few areas still filled with the reassuring laughter and typical Lebanese joie de vivre.

They are minuscule pockets of light in an increasingly dark and threatening world.

"We've lost around 20 percent of our customers this year, the average expenditure of customers per table has also decreased significantly of late," says Tony Matran, manager of Joe Penas, a bar-restaurant in the popular Gemayzeh neighbourhood frequented by the Lebanese upper crust and yuppies. "However, we are doing relatively well compared to others in the business, as our clientele remains, after all, less price conscious than others."

In recent months, political deadlock over the presidency, a rise in confessional tensions, and the threat of a war with Israel has weighed heavily on the country's economy and its tense, overwrought population.

On this particular weekend, however, the Lebanese seem to have forgotten about their anxieties as they engage in their favourite pastime: heavy socialising while sipping on cocktails of vodka and Red Bull-cranberry juice, or frozen margaritas.

"Our turnover is linked to the situation. I've noticed that people have avoided going out since the recent Mar Michel confrontations," says Matran, referring to the recent violent clashes between protesters from Shia Hezbollah and Amal parties and the army that ended in a bloodbath.

Away from the bustling Gemayzeh area is Noueiri, a neighbourhood that has been struck by the confessional divide that is redrawing the map of Beirut. Unlike the 15-year civil war (1975-1990) -- during which the country was split into the Christian East and Muslim West -- demarcation lines are today increasingly blurry. Conflicts between Shias and Sunnis emerge in areas densely populated by both communities.

"We used to close at 11 or 12 every night. In recent weeks, though, we have been serving our last meals at around eight o'clock," says Mohamad Chmeitally, owner of a small restaurant in Noueiri. "People are anxious about the recent confrontations, which are taking place more frequently. I estimate the drop in overall activity at 70 percent."

His neighbour, shop owner Ghazi Jaroudi, says jokingly, "I increased my consumption of narguileh (water pipe for smoking) from two to seven (pipes) a day. Too much idle time on my hands is going to literally kill me! My landlord and banker are hunting me down and I am sinking under debt."

His friend, Bassam Hijazi, interrupts him: "This is a waiting game; Sayyed Hassan (referring to Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah) advised us to be patient. He knows what he is doing and I am sure that all the sacrifices will be worthwhile."

A few kilometres away, large military trucks are parked under the Mazraa bridge. Soldiers standing guard on street corners have become a common sight. Hussein Daou, a pastry shop owner who works in the vicinity, says he lives in the Ras al-Nabeh area, where only a few weeks ago, violent fights ignited between the Future Sunni movement and Amal. "The situation has calmed down since, but I see fewer people in the streets."

Daou says client purchases have decreased, as his products are perceived as unnecessary luxury, with people preferring to save money in case a war erupts. "What has happened to the Lebanese? In whose name are Sunnis and Shias, united by blood, fighting a brotherly war?" he asks.

Not far from Mazraa, but seemingly light years away, is the once bustling Monot area, now far from busy. Around the Element nightclub, a few dressed up hipsters cross the street under the watchful eye of Lebanese soldiers. The sight of women in high boots and black dresses walking by men in their fatigues armed with M16s seems almost absurd. The party, no matter how subdued, goes on.

شمعون: حرام أن يعير احد عون أهمية لأن دواءه ليس عندنا بل في العصفورية
الجوزو: لقد سقط لبنان وسقطت حكوماته، بفضل إرهاب حزب الله
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