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The Heart of Beirut: Hamra's small businesses beat the odds

The Heart of Beirut: Hamra's small businesses beat the odds

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Culture Diversity History The Truth

Thursday 16 May 202405:25 pm


Lebanon has endless stories of hardship and undying pessimism – followed by short bursts of hope. It has become a notoriously predictable vicious cycle that doesn’t leave anyone believing in a positive future for their country.

Yet, it seems Lebanon goes on defiantly. No better example than the small business owners and entrepreneurs whose stories are a testament that success can be achieved in Lebanon. Funny, I thought Lebanon was a place where people needed to leave to make dreams come true? Well, though this may be true, some people manage to make themselves the exceptions to the rule. 

Lebanon has endless stories of hardship and undying pessimism – followed by short bursts of hope. It has become a notoriously predictable vicious cycle that doesn’t leave anyone believing in a positive future for their country. Yet, it seems Lebanon goes on defiantly. No better example than the small business owners and entrepreneurs whose stories are a testament that success can be achieved in Lebanon

Take Adib Rahhal, a young guy with his own bookstore in the middle of the legendary Hamra neighborhood. It is called The Little Bookshop. It feels like walking into a scholars’ den – filled with books, coffee, and a warm welcome by Adib – who embraces you as a friend rather than a customer. I have been a frequent visitor since late 2021, when I was traveling to Beirut with a girlfriend of mine whom I was only too keen to impress by showing off the magic of Lebanon.

Adib was kind enough to share how he has figured out the secret to pulling off running a small store with relative success despite Lebanon’s economic troubles – especially after the Lebanese currency (lira) tanked in 2019.

Adib expressed some of the following remarks with Raseef22,

“I suppose many things have helped me. Being my own employee is a factor, seeing that there are no salaries to pay. There will always be readers out there, and those interested in books, crisis, or no crisis. Sure, work has slowed down significantly, there's no denying that, and for a while things seemed to be getting quite dire, especially in the first couple of years after the crisis began. But I think we've adapted to the new normal, as much as possible, and hopefully there'll be better days ahead.”

Take Adib Rahhal, a young guy with his own bookstore in the middle of the legendary Hamra neighborhood. It is called The Little Bookshop. It feels like walking into a scholars’ den – filled with books, coffee, and a warm welcome by Adib – who embraces you as a friend rather than a customer

The one universal aspiration of all business owners is to avoid too much overhead costs. Adib managed to pull off being a one man show where it was unnecessary to employ additional staff.

Plus, the old mantra of, “location, location, location” rings true when it comes to Hamra. You can’t really beat having a business in an area that is in the middle of two major universities that attract international students to come and study, bookstore or any other kind. The American University of Beirut (AUB) and the Lebanese American University (LAU).

In Adib’s own words,

“Hamra is a great location for a bookshop, I think; it's pedestrian, and close to two major universities (AUB, LAU). I have regular customers, plus random passersby who walk in.”

There is one place in Hamra where you can find students and tourists, or just regulars looking to enjoy a nice glass of whisky to end the day… the Captain’s Cabin.

If you haven’t heard of it, well, you are in fact missing out, my friend. It is a Beirut must-see and an exhibition of excellence. Many have written on it. As hard as I may try, I fear I will repeat cliché after cliché in my description. I am surprised the owner Andrea has not tried to start classes to teach people a thing or two about how to pour a drink. Although I never asked, Andrea doesn’t seem to have any employees. Like Adib, his store is his center stage. The outside entrance feels like walking into a portal of a long-forgotten pirate past. A rainy night with a low glowing light somewhere inside. You open the door and there it is. The bar on the right side with Andrea behind it, ready to serve you whatever beverage your heart desires. I recommend a local Lebanese favorite of Almaza or Beirut beer. Go inside, play a game of pool, make a friend, and talk politics. Maybe you’ll come up with a brilliant solution to Lebanon’s systemic electricity problems. Many before you tried. Who knows? You might be the first ones to figure it out.

Funny, I thought Lebanon was a place where people needed to leave to make dreams come true? Well, though this may be true, some people manage to make themselves the exceptions to the rule.

All I know is, I will not come out saying the words scallywag or scurvy. No amount of alcohol will make it happen. Although Andrea could not be reached for comment, he is easy to find. The good news is you don’t need to make an appointment. Simply stop by the bar to say hello and have a drink. Seriously, order something. This is not a library. Buy a book from Adib and read it at the Captain’s Cabin.

But what about the people who regard Hamra as their home and where pleasant nostalgic moments are made with friends and family?

One person I know shared his thoughts and the impression Hamra has left on him since he was a kid. Rabih Mattar, an engineer, revealed his opinion about why Hamra stands out among other areas of Beirut like Badaro, Monot, and Gemmayzeh.

Mattar said, “What attracts me to Hamra is my childhood memories and the type of people who go there. I am an AUB graduate, so, I literally spent most of my childhood and teen years in Ras Beirut and particularly Hamra. It feels like a second home to me and where everyone knows my name.”

“What attracts me to Hamra is my childhood memories and the type of people who go there. I am an AUB graduate, so, I literally spent most of my childhood and teen years in Ras Beirut and particularly Hamra. It feels like a second home to me and where everyone knows my name.”

Indeed, at times, it feels like Mattar could be the unofficial mayor of the place. You can find him easily in the company of comrades and smiling faces at the Hamra Express off Makdessi Street. He told me, “I often frequent places like propaganda gin bar, Ferdinand near the Duke of Wellington, one of the oldest bars in Ras Beirut parallel to Hamra Street. Prices in Hamra are also more reasonable than other areas around the city.”

Affordability is definitely a factor in ciphering why Hamra wins the crowds. Nevertheless, there is so much more to it than that. Hamra is a city within a city. It is a place that inspires the mind and encourages the soul to go on when things get tough. If Beirut is a body, then Hamra is the heart. And this heart beats from its people.


* The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Raseef22




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