The old street of Gemmayzeh never ceases to amaze me with its charm and eccentric appeal; the old houses, narrow streets, candy shops, nargile places, the overwhelming music, as well as the chatter that envelopes you, are wonderfully relaxing and could only be depicted as an amalgam of languages and sarcasm, intertwining with a bit of self-deprecation that we have all acquired from those hilarious morning radio shows in English over here. It is a coveted place for those seeking a moment’s relaxation after the rush hour, or a long night out. A place that embraces you with warmth, always so appealing.
I was walking the other day through the streets with a friend of mine, sipping beer, peering through window panes, fascinated by paintings displayed in some modern-looking shop, letting our minds wander through the colors, until the cold night air got us shaking to the bone so we decided to head for my car for some warmth. While making our way through the fairly busy street on that Monday night, an odd looking woman stopped us on the curb next to the renowned Electricity of Lebanon (EDL) building and politely asked us for a lighter. With me being a non-smoker, I apologized for not carrying one, while my companion promptly provided her with that flickering flame to appease that need of hers. She was apparently the talkative type and instead of just thanking us for lighting her cigarette, she dragged us into what turned out to be a delightful intellectual/social/economic/political chat that got my mind racing with excitement. That small creature with bulging eyes, wearing over-sized clothes and a gigantic beige coat, was in fact a university professor and the living proof that the street we were just walking along is no less than a crossroads of minds swirling with intellect and merriment.
Gemmayzeh Street and Mar Mikhail Street (Mar being a local term for saint and Mikhail for Michael) are a melting pot of talent, eccentricity, happiness and emotions. A simple walk among the various pubs will allow your mind to find inspiration, thanks to the numerous artists that are either painting, singing, dancing or just sitting there sipping coffee and looking into the distance seeking thoughts and answers. The municipality enforced a policy that has kept the area as genuine as possible; the ancient houses underwent restoration, old facades were painted with their original colors and the impressive Sursock estates were set alight, shimmering amid trees and handmade ornate fences.
Lebanon is no war-torn zone. Do not let yourself be fooled by those pictures on the web or what the media have been broadcasting over the past few decades. One cocktail in Mar Mikhail can make you feel in a miniature New York street with a hint of French charm and a dash of British sophistication. A Gin-Basil Gin Smash is sure to get you smiling and swaying to the voice of Dounia (roughly translated from Arabic as “World”): a beautiful, wonderful young artist performing down at the Glitz and Funk Pub. A Moscow Mule can you get acquainted with just anyone wearing a smile and talking loudly as all Lebanese do. Yes! We are a loud, fun-loving crowd and our baristas are simply amazing. You could see, down at the tiny Abbey Road pub, people leaning their heads chatting as a jazzy tune ripples through the night air bouncing off the walls and fading out into the street, while residents of the area pass by taking a peek here and there with mild curiosity.
I shall not ramble further, but take you for a walk down that road that is situated right next to Beirut Downtown, it is an expanse of asphalt with cars aligned waiting for valets to park them somewhere in the dark alleys, with couples walking and throwing casual looks here and there, scouting the packed sidewalks for familiar faces in the crowd. You might also spot a “lone wolf”, sipping his drink in the dim lights as the bartenders flip their bottles and rattle their shakers in the background. Further down the lined road, a group of youngsters stride along the pavement, some rocking fancy hairdos and others showing a shabby-chic look or a retro outfit, reminiscent of the golden age in this small Middle Eastern country.