Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Dar Bistro and Books, an oasis in Beirut

Dar Bistro and Books
A two-week holiday in Beirut was truly too short to catch up with family and friends and take in all the new places that opened since my last visit 14 months ago.

My greatest pleasure when in Beirut is to walk everywhere and greet and be greeted left, right and center. Each time I am there, I notice new cafes, restaurants, shops and galleries sprouting in the city and the streets getting all the more busier well after midnight.
My discovery and favorite venue this trip was Dar Bistro and Books.
I heard so much about it that I went to check it out one afternoon with my cousin Lillian. And what a pleasant surprise it was!
Jasmine you can smell throughout the Dar garden

Dar is tucked away in a little side street in Wardieh Square, just after the petrol station. You can easily miss it if you don’t notice the signboard. It’s at the end of the cul-de-sac, in an old, traditional two-floor house set in a garden overflowing with jasmine and bougainvillea.
When you enter Dar, which is owned by Rima Abushakra, Dima Abulhusn and Ramzi Haidar, you leave the hustle and bustle of Hamra Street and step into a village house and garden.
I first heard about Dar on arrival in Beirut in mid-November, because it ran into some trouble recently and many friends thought it had closed down. It seems the BBC Beirut correspondent, who lives close to Dar, lobbied his political connections to shut it down.
Keeping the noise down
The reason for the dispute is the noise from Dar, which opened in July 2011. Dar has a music night on Fridays. The groups play indoors and usually stop before midnight. The problem is currently being sorted out, so out of discretion, I will not dwell into it.
The noise from cafes, restaurants and bars is one that residents all over Beirut are facing, including in Hamra, Monot and Gemmayzeh. It is all the more acute as patrons spill out onto the street and the outdoor seating areas since the no-smoking ruling came into effect a couple of months ago.
Dar is open, starting 8 a.m., for breakfast, lunch and dinner. As well as serving excellent food, Dar has a boutique bookshop, with a handpicked selection of titles, which I found very difficult to leave.
A couple of days later, we went back for dinner to introduce Dar to my sister Asma. The three of us enjoyed a yummy dinner, sitting outside in the garden, of four different plates that we shared. Riad, the manager, or Rima Abushakra, the owner, always greet you warmly.
The delicious meal we enjoyed...
... sitting outside
We had the Thai Beef Salad (shaved grilled beef, lettuce, shredded carrots, cucumbers, cilantro, cabbage, peanuts, with a tangy Thai ginger dressing, LL17,000); Musakkan (chicken wrapped in saj bread with spicy yogurt sauce, LL10,500); Halloumi sliders, LL13,500; and the Dar Goat Cheese Sandwich (goat cheese, oven roasted tomatoes, gilled zucchini with pesto on a baguette, served with chips, LL17,500). The service is excellent. Together with drinks and coffee it set us back $50, which is Dar’s price range of $10-to-$30 per person for a delightful meal.
The Dar bookstore
But that was not all. I went there again to take these pictures and stock up on books again. And I returned yet another time with Asma on my last day in Beirut for a morning coffee and a tête-à-tête.
I met Ibrahim Nehme and got a copy of The Outpost
Dar was always full of people planning, meeting, eating or visiting the current exhibition. You are always sure to meet a friend there. I ran into Ibrahim Nehme, the editor of the newly launched magazine, The Outpost, and was lucky to get my first hard copy, which I am still going through.
Dar Al Mussawir
On the floor above the bistro and bookstore, Dar hosts exhibitions and Dar Al Mussawir, a center that deals with all aspects of professional and amateur photography. It’s there that professionals and hobbyists can work on their projects and encourage the spread of photography.
Some vintage photography equipment...
... and more cameras at Dar Al Mussawir
Dar Al Mussawir is a multifunctional and vibrant space for emerging and accomplished photographers to share ideas, develop community projects and explore various photography concepts. Regular activities being held there include workshops, training programs, seminars, lectures, exhibitions, etc…
Dar Al Mussawir provides learning opportunities as well as equipment. It houses a darkroom, photo printing facilities, gallery space, a library of books and material on photography, a studio, and a room for photography training workshops.
I was kindly offered a copy of Lahza...
... and a tour of the center by Ibrahim Dirani
Dar Al Mussawir was set up as a Zakira (Memory) initiative and follows the center’s two projects, Lahza (2007) and After Lahza (2009). Zakira – The Image Festival Association was initiated and launched by Rami Haidar, a photojournalist himself, in 2007.
In Lahza (Arabic for glimpse), 500 disposable cameras were provided to 500 Palestinian children aged six to 12, living in Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps, to capture their everyday lives. Out of 13,000 captured photos, Zakira published a collection of 141 photos in a book that I was very kindly offered while visiting the center. The photos by the children are some of the best I have seen of life in the camps.
After Lahza provided advanced photography training to 250 marginalized Lebanese and Palestinian aged 14 to 18, focusing on dropouts and undereducated youth. The aim was to introduce the various communities to each other and provide them with photography as a tool to earn a living.
I have never seen so many cameras in one space and felt awkward taking pictures with my little digital thing. But I got the grand tour by Ibrahim Dirani and will treasure my Lahza gift.
Samir Kansoe exhibition
On exhibit at Dar Al Mussawir was Lebanese painter Samir Kansoe. I bumped into him on the second floor balcony and we got chatting about his paintings.
Samir Kansoe with one of his paintings
Kansoe, from South Lebanon, is a self-taught artist who began painting in 1986. Nuns, monks and convents influenced him when in school, without the religiosity. He draws inspiration from their rituals, as well as from nature, music and theater.(See more of Kansoe's paintings here.)
He began painting in black and white, and is now at his 16th exhibit, most of which were in Arab countries. His November 15-December 1 show in Beirut was his first and a start in the Lebanese capital he had shunned because he thought galleries were in it to just sell rather than display the art and introduce it to the public.
Kansoe black and white paintings
The upstairs balcony at Dar...
... looking down on the garden
Kansoe chose Dar as the ideal venue because it allowed people to simply pass by or stumble upon the exhibit, as I did, and view his work. Patrons from the bistro come up, students spend hours discussing his paintings and others sit with him and chat. He sought exposure to a public that didn’t know him.
Kansoe still finds it awkward to make money out of putting colors on paper. He doesn’t always draw, collecting his ideas in his head and then executing them.
I look forward to my next cappuccino at Dar...
... and a tête-à-tête with my sister Asma
Dar Bistro and Books is certainly one of the places to keep an eye on because of the myriad of interesting events taking place there.
If you haven’t been yet, or if you are visiting Beirut, don’t miss it.
I wish Rima, Dima and Ramzi and their team good luck and can’t wait to go back.

You can view more pictures of my visits to Dar Bistro and Books here.