Searching for The Soul of Hamra Street

The Beirut district is now more shopping mall than melting pot. "There is nowhere in Lebanon now where people of all communities and all classes meet," says one observer. (Ali Makki For The Washington Post)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 3, 2006


Nidal al-Ashkar's arms rarely rest. At one moment, they're flailing. At another, they circle in the air. Her hands jab, then turn upward in a plea. Often they point forward. The cacophony of motion suggests her background in drama -- as a Lebanese director, actress and theater maven. But these days she is an activist, too, and her body language implies a hint of desperation.

For more than a year now, Ashkar has struggled to revive a theater known as Masrah al-Madina, housed in the city's old Saroulla cinema. She brings determination, defiance and not a little faith to the task, inspired by nostalgia. By saving the theater, she insists, she can save the avenue that hosts it, Beirut's storied Hamra Street, the remnants of what was perhaps the most cosmopolitan mile or so in the Arab world.

"What makes Hamra important is that it still carries our memories," Ashkar said. "It still carries the hopes that people had, dreams, political dreams of change, real democratization -- real democratization, not what is happening now."

"When I started looking for a place, I didn't even hesitate," she added. "It had to be Hamra."

There are some places in the Middle East whose names suggest more an idea than a locale: Mutanabi Street in Baghdad, once steeped in books and trends, or Abu Nawas and its rollicking Iraqi nightlife. Cairo's downtown -- Groppi cafe and cinemas like Rivoli -- is redolent of a liberal era and its end with a fire in 1952 and a revolution that followed. But only Hamra, nestled in the neighborhood of Ras Beirut, could claim to have represented the most sophisticated, open and pluralistic space in the Arab world. From the 1960s until the civil war that erupted in 1975, Hamra's theaters and restaurants dominated Beirut's nightlife, the nearby American University propelled its ferment, and its cafes -- hosting Arab dissidents, Palestinian exiles and Lebanese of all sects and tendencies -- shaped an intellectual sanctuary that delivered a cadence to Arab politics.

Hamra is faded now, a repository of memory, its cafes and cinemas long shuttered. To some here, its demise defines the perils of the day, where politics are more and more reflected through an often unyielding religious discourse or primordial affiliations that break along sect and ethnicity. That complexity is infused with a depoliticized materialism that can serve as an opiate. Ashkar's critics ask: How can Hamra exist when its environment no longer does?

"This is a good question to pose," said Mohamed Soueid, a filmmaker and critic who began his career along Hamra Street. "In a world where no one trusts anyone, talking about being cosmopolitan and open, it's a losing -- " His words trailed off. For a moment, he reflected on Beirut, Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world. "It just seems out of place," he said.

Ashkar would not necessarily disagree; she, too, is grim about the future. She believes that within the past is a way forward, her theater's success the first step.

"We renovated the whole place," she said, as her arms swept forward to open the doors to the main theater, lined with 450 red velvet chairs, the cinema's originals, "but we always kept the spirit of the 1960s and 1970s."

Her hands leading the way, Ashkar glided past a coffee bar, plated with polished chrome, past green leather chairs a generation old, past faded pictures of Egyptian and Lebanese actors and a long-gone Beirut. She barreled into each remodeled room.

"We had rubbish up to here," Ashkar said, passing through a newly painted hallway, her hand held to her head.

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