Beirut – Gemmayze’s iconic cafe forced to close

(The Daily Star, December 18, 2010)

For all the pomp and lipstick that get paraded down Gemmayzeh on a Friday night, the area has proven more resilient than most to the encroachment of contemporary high-rise developments.

Its colonial style mansions and rows of dainty apartments are some of the last in Beirut and in spite of their sometimes decaying facades; the architectural relics remain sufficiently numerous to give visitors a rare glimpse of what the city would have looked like in its glory days.

As we enter the next decade of the 21st century, however, the signs of demise on the narrow windy street of the “Quartier avec Charme” are painfully clear.

Dozens of arguably illegal demolitions have taken place in the last few years alone and despite a spate of public protests, many more are expected in the near future.

To add insult to injury, in exactly two weeks, the iconic Gouraud Street will lose one of its best-known attractions. On New Year’s Eve, the Gemmayzeh Café, known widely as the “Glass Café,” will finally clear out its remaining tables and close the doors on over 85 years of history.

First opened in Downtown Beirut in the late 1920s, the cafe quickly established a name for itself as hangout of choice for writers, politicians and professional drinkers.

When it migrated the seemingly small, but symbolically colossal, few hundred meters to east Beirut in 1951, it took many of its customers with it and became the first night spot (and day spot) in an area now choked with bars, clubs and restaurants of every persuasion.

“The cafe is known as the mother of Gemmayzeh, it was here first and it has endured the longest,” said the establishment’s managing partner, Galleb Yaccob.

“Over the years, we created so many stories and wrote history within these four walls, which have hosted Lebanon’s first prime minister, Riad al-Solh, former President Camille Chamoun and Phalange Party founder Pierre Gemayel.”

Even in the darkest days of Lebanon’s 1975-90 Civil War, the cafe never closed its doors and always acted as a retreat for those wishing to play backgammon or smoke what was once considered some of the best narguileh in town.

“This place has endured so much and never surrendered,” said Yaccob. “We have done everything in our power to stay but despite our best efforts we have been forced out with no regard for what this place means to people or the city.”

The premises will now return to the building owners, who have been embroiled in legal disputes with the café for years over the continuation of pre-Civil War rents.

“Once our contract was revoked on a legal technicality in 2007 we knew our days were numbered,” said Yaccob.

The cafe is so synonymous with Beirut’s identity that it regularly features in magazine articles and was depicted side-by-side with landmarks such as the Saint George Hotel and Casino du Liban in a television advertisement by Bank Audi playing on Beirut’s glamorous past.

What will become of it now remains unknown. Building owners have assured conservationists that the site will not be demolished but speculation is rife over what will become of one of central Beirut’s last traditional cafés, with rumors circulating it will be turned into a new snazzy bar, maybe even a Starbucks or a bank branch.

“This is a case of death by hummus,” said Giorgio Tarraf, a leading member of the conservation pressure group Save Beirut Heritage.

“This closure is symptomatic of a wider cancer which is spreading [through our city and society].

“It is truly devastating to see the city lose one of its icons. The cafe has always been here and remained a big comfort through all the turmoil and change we have seen in such a short period of time,” he said.

Perhaps for this reason the cafe owners are refusing to give in and have resolutely moved the restaurant and its famed oud player Joseph Issa to a new location in Antellias, north of Beirut.

“Gemmayzeh is dead. It is no longer an attractive area for a number of reasons but we are determined to not let our tradition die,” said Yaccob.

“We have relocated once and succeeded in taking all our customers with us and we are doing so again.”

Before the Gouraud venue is finally set to rest, the legendary cafe is in store for a fitting bon voyage.

In the first few days of January the cafe, which will be by then cleared of its furniture, will play host to a tribute concert to raise money for Save Beirut Heritage. The event will feature a lineup of contemporary Lebanese artists.

“The cafe has always been so full of life that we wanted to give it one more evening to be remembered where people could come, pay their respects and say goodbye to a venue that defined many generations,” said Tarraf.