Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Beirut walk down memory lane

For my Saturday walk around town last week, I thought of going to an area I haven’t been to in ages. When I was last living in Beirut during the 1975-1990 civil war, many areas were off-limits and inaccessible. It was a pleasure to explore them again over the past few months.

It’s so easy to hop into a communal taxi and go almost anywhere in Beirut for just LL 2000 ($1.33). Better still is to take the bus, and the fare is just LL 1000 (66 cents). I used both that day.

My cousin Lillian and I headed to Mazraa and then walked towards Basta, stopping at Barbir along the way. Both Mazraa and Basta are old Beirut neighborhoods with a rich and interweaved past.

Basta was the stronghold of Beirut’s Sunnis at the turn of the 20th century. By the end of the French mandate, it became home to the Sunni bourgeoisie. Solh, Samadi, Kayssi, Baltaji, Akkari, Sardouk and Ariss were prominent Sunni families living there or thereabouts in the late 40s and early 50s.

Nearby Mazraa was more of a mixed district and home to leading Christian households: Tadros, Halabi, Saliba, Seyagha, Okdeh, Majdalani and Yazbeck…

Premier Saeb Salam (right) greeting folk hero Abu-Afif Kreidieh
When I told a close friend who used to live in the area I was writing this post, it brought back many memories to him too and he recounted how Basta and Mazraa developed narratives of their homegrown qabadayat, or folk heroes, in tandem. The qabadayat were sort of Lebanese “Robin Hoods” for their times. They stood up for the rights and interests of their community, he told me, often taking from the rich and giving to the poor. They upheld morality and decency in community ranks and judged fairly in family or personal disputes. But their characteristics and deeds have at times been grossly overstated.

The unchallenged star of the onetime qabadayat of Beirut, who typically carried a Saint-Étienne revolver around their belts, was Basta’s Abu-Afif Kreidieh (1889-1971). Others from Mazraa and Basta included Abu-Adnan Itani, Abu-Maarouf Doughan, Abu-Feisal Shatila, Amin Sardouk, Rashid Shehabeddin, Elias el-Halabi, Jirji Tadros and Hanna Yazbeck… 

My friend told me how he used to see Abu-Afif Kreidieh in Basta, mostly on Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. After Eid prayers, Kreidieh would stand with three of his men outside the Grand Mosque and hold a tablecloth to collect money for the poor.

Abu-Afif Kreidieh was courted by successive Lebanese prime ministers (Riad Solh, Sami Solh, Abdallah Yafi and Saeb Salam) and was granted an audience with 1958-1964 president Fuad Chehab.

I always like to give as much historical details as possible about the areas I visit. My sister Asma says I often sound like Google.

Not to disappoint her, I would also evince here memories of Basta’s hakawatis. On that I would quote an excerpt translated from a book in French by Joseph Matar titled Abou el Abed, le Beyroutin.”

In his view: “…There are for example the hakawatis, the storytellers, their craft being to use their great powers of imagination, their wide range of stories and legends, and their ability to improvise. People in their hundreds would surround the storyteller and listen to him while he enflamed their imagination, moved them deeply and even brought tears to their eyes.

“First he might have read fortunes in the grains of coffee cups and in shells, entertained his village, enlivened its evenings, until he created a certain aura around himself, an individual personality and style, with a command of language, mimicry, movement, expression, voice and tonality, and a certain distinctive dress, the kumbaz, long robe fastened across the front and held by a broad cummerbund of silk or taffeta, often striped, round his middle, a fez on the head, a cane in the hand, and a distinctive way of walking and holding himself.

“Then he would be seated in one of the coffee shops of Beirut, notably in the district of Basta, a mainly Muslim area in West Beirut, stretching from the central Martyrs’ Square along the sides of the old tramway to Barbir and Mazraa.”

Basta today is an antiques haven. It also boasts the last public Turkish bath in Beirut – namely, the century-old Hammam al-Nouz’ha (or “The Promenade Bath”) owned by the Bayrakdar family. 

I was disappointed to hear that Barbir Hospital -- bearing the surname of its founders -- that treated so many people and casualties during the civil war -- has closed down because of financial constraints.

What I learned by walking down Barbir towards Mazraa and Basta and noticing an Ethiopian supermarket, was that the area hosts many Ahbash, who have their primary religious center in Basta. The Ahbash follow the teachings of Ethiopian Sheikh Abdallah al-Harari who brought his vision of political Islam to Lebanon in 1950 after fleeing the persecutions of Ethiopia’s late Emperor Haile Selassie.

Barbir's gold quarter has jewelers on both sides of the street
A occasional sweet vendor
The first part of our walk in Barbir took us past the gold quarter, lined on both sides of the street with jewelers. It’s a fine place to go if you need to sell gold. But, dotted between them, were the occasional sweet vendor, and the rucksack corner display, whose owner was busier on his computer than selling his wares.

Ahwet Doughan, a traditional street coffeehouse
The coffeehouse's open kitchen area
We passed Mar Mikhail Church and then the delightfully renovated Majdalani house. Further down we got to Ahwet Doughan, a traditional street coffeehouse that my friends used to pass daily and where the neighborhood elders come for coffee, tea and sheesha. They also play cards or backgammon, chat, read the newspapers and discuss local and world events.

They didn’t want to be photographed, but I could take snaps of the coffee shop itself -- a relic of times gone by. The architectural details of the ahweh are beautiful though, especially the little iron railings by the doors giving onto the street.

I couldn't resist a ka'aki with Picon and sumac
Heating the ka'aki in the portable oven
A seller of ka’ak (a hollow, quasi-circular and crispy Lebanese sesame bread) passed by as my tummy was starting to growl. I could not resist a ka’aki, filled with Picon cheese and a sprinkle of dried sumac and thyme. This street vendor had a portable oven on his cart. It’s the first time I’ve had a hot ka’aki… Succulent!

It reminded me of my friend Anissa Helou, who is a chef and author trying to bake ka’ak at home. Anissa writes on her blog that she and another friend, “Summer Blast” author Dania El-Kadi, were thinking how they’d love to munch some in London. So Anissa “decided to see if I could replicate them at home.” You can read about how Anissa’s tryout went.

A beautiful old building
The mnajjed's doorstep
We continued walking down Mazraa, passing some very old buildings I hope will not be destroyed that contrasted with the newer ones. We passed shops that still practice dying trades, such as the mnajjed, a one-man upholsterer who beats then stuffs wool or cotton in cushions, mattresses, seats, sofas and who had a display of cottons at his doorstep.

Our favorite brooms
There were a few shops that rent tables and chairs for events, plenty of hairdressers drying their towels outdoors in the sun, our favorite brooms hanging here and there for sale…

The closer you get to Basta, Beirut’s antiques market, the more the street is lined with antique vendors and shops. It’s a treasure trove. I remember we used to go there often when we moved to Beirut in the 1970s and had to furnish our flat on a tight budget.

Bus driver Ahmad rests his right leg and drives with the left
But it wasn’t a day for antiques hunting. At Basta Bridge, we hopped onto a bus heading back to Hamra. It was some ride! The bus was nearly empty, and our driver, Ahmad, was in good spirits. Chatting away on his mobile, he was resting his right leg and driving with the left -- quite well I must admit.

Ahmad kept us entertained and took the long route, passing by Sanayeh Garden, in full bloom, to drop us off nearly at home off Hamra Street.

There are many more photos of the walk down memory lane here.