It used to take me a good 20 minutes to reach my car, parked a few metres away from my home in Gemaizeh – one of the few quarters of Beirut to retain its original pre-civil war charm. There was the grocer to greet, the butcher to chat to, the old Armenian shopkeeper to shake hands with, and the cobbler who would insist that I admire some newly repaired shoes. I always ended up being late for appointments.
But these days it takes me only a few minutes. Most of my friends are gone, replaced by restaurants and pubs.
‘I can’t keep up with the businessmen coming to my shop,’ says Nimr, who has run his herb and spice shop for over 30 years. ‘I have been doing this all my life. I don’t want my shop to become a restaurant. But they keep coming and pestering me.’
Most of the shopkeepers do not own their shops but rent them according to the ‘old rent’ system of the 1970s which has not been adjusted for inflation. Because the Lebanese pound plunged in value from a couple of Lebanese pounds to the US dollar in the mid-1970s to the present rate of 1,500 to the dollar, many landlords receive a tiny rental income and are eager to be rid of their tenants. But eviction requires the landlord to pay the tenant 40 to 60 per cent of the property’s value as compensation.
Entrepreneurs come to Gemaizeh offering to pay the evacuation fee to tenants and modern rental rates to the landlord, theoretically keeping everyone happy.
But some shopkeepers are renting under the modern law – and they are far from happy.
‘I was paying a fair sum of rent before Gemaizeh was “discovered”,’ says Anwar, my local grocer. ‘Now, the owner keeps raising the rent. It has almost tripled in less than two years. I can’t afford it. He wants to push me out so he can turn this place into a pub.’
It all started three years ago when a traditional coffee shop was renovated. For years it had been the meeting place of old men. They would spend the entire day smoking, drinking coffee, playing cards and backgammon and spending very little money. One day I arrived to find dozens of them standing on the sidewalk looking lost. Their shop had suddenly been closed. A month later, a fancier-looking coffee shop opened. I still bump into some of the old men just walking aimlessly up and down the street, unable to afford the new café prices.
Shortly afterwards, an upmarket patisserie and restaurant opened up and became popular with chic Beirutis. And before long, investors descended with open wallets.
Gemaizeh was once an important Roman road, linking the city centre to villages further up the coast. It later became a souk where farmers set up stalls and sold their goods. The stalls became shops with homes above them.
My father laughed when I moved here six years ago. ‘It’s like a village,’ he said, as he walked along a street filled with traditional Lebanese townhouses in desperate need of renovation. Dozens of dusty family-run shops lined the street, most of them small. I immediately fell in love.
Before long, I got to know all the shopkeepers. Many times, one or the other would run over to carry my grocery bags to my building or escort me home under their umbrella when I was caught in a sudden rainstorm. My first pregnancy was noted early on and I received endless winks and conspiratorial smiles. When I reappeared on the street after giving birth to my daughter, Yasmine, they rushed to praise and coo.
Two years later, my son, Alexander, was born. Very few were left to admire him. Most of my shopkeepers were gone. Since most fell under the ‘old rent’ category, they were handsomely paid. So I suppose I should be happy for them.
But I’m not. I miss my butcher who would take his time cutting the meat to my strict specifications. I yearn to buy the wrinkled tomatoes that the old Armenian man displayed every day. I’m lost without the tailor and the newspaper shop. Even my three-year-old daughter seems disturbed. ‘Where are all the amous?’ she asked, using the Lebanese expression for ‘uncles’.
I had no answer but took her to have lunch at Le Chef. Once Gemaizeh’s only restaurant, it is a family-run business that has been operating since the 1950s and serves traditional Lebanese food. I was glad to see that it remains filled with customers. I’m not the only one who prefers the old Gemaizeh.