I arrived in Beirut during the winter of 2006, knowing nobody. I rented a one-bedroom apartment in Hamra, two blocks from the American University of Beirut, which I would be attending. During those early days, Hamra’s cafes served as my introduction to Beirut.
The cafes in Hamra are as diverse as the people. Old poets and artists cluster together under a cloud of cigarette smoke in one open-air café, with plastic chairs and rusted tables. The owner’s wife brings me my drink without asking, even if I have been absent for months. Scruffy students sit at wooden tables in another café, pecking away at their laptops beneath rows of bookshelves. Privacy-starved young couples have overrun the big chain cafes, cuddling on their plush couches.
For a long time, this was my Beirut. It was Lebanon shrunken down to a manageable size. I later moved out of Hamra, but maintained the ritual of returning for a Sunday morning breakfast at one of my favorite cafes. It resembles the living room of some massively wealthy bohemian artist. There is a leather couch the color of red wine and a wooden chest which doubles as a table. The café has a subdued mood, especially on a Sunday morning, which makes it perfect for a lazy conversation or spending time with a good book.
The best spur to accomplish real work is found in these cafes. The perfect café achieves a fragile balance between isolation and surrounding activity. For me, at least, it was also a way to be in Beirut but not necessarily of it. The memories of homework and books mix with the memories of people: endless Arabic verb conjugations and vocabulary, Winner Take Nothing and “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” the French Revolution and Saint-Just.
For a few weeks in May 2008, Hamra was no longer a place for cafes. It became an area dominated by machine gun fire and men who hid behind masks and shreds of ideology. But once the violence ended, the cafes were revived. They were, once again, a safe haven, divorced from the troubles of “real” Beirut. People went there to meet friends and enjoy the summer air.
I should have known better. Soon after the end of the violence, a boycott began of my Sunday morning café. It was run, you see, by the same thugs who had wreaked havoc throughout Hamra in May. There are more important wounds to heal in Lebanon, of course, but add this to the list. For the rest of my stay in Lebanon, I preferred to eat my breakfast at home. My drink, by the way, is American coffee – scalding hot, no milk, no sugar. As always, bittersweet.