Beautiful Hamra Belongs to all of us

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A couple of nights ago, while having a drink in Hamra, a friend of mine said, “What’s nice about this place is that it’s always there when you need it.” There’s something soothingly constant about the seemingly ever-changing Hamra Street that we’re losing elsewhere in Beirut. While the public conversation about Hamra has lately been about its alleged transformation into Beirut’s ‘Little Syria,’ the truth is that it still remains what it always has been, a place that allows you to belong.

Unlike other parts of Beirut, Hamra is welcoming. It takes you in like a blind fool in love — with all the entailed positive and negative connotations. It is a sincere place; we are the ones trying so hard to make it ugly. We should be looking for places like Hamra, and trying to understand, instead of defame, them. Tearing down its old buildings to build tasteless outposts of consumption is an insult. Hamra’s cafés are being extinguished to make way for clothing retail chains that blast electronic music and excessive air-conditioning. And if you think that’s too nostalgic of me, take a walk in Hamra, and you will be sure to find at least one building being stripped of its wooden, green abajours, and iron balustrades, waiting to be demolished.

It’s not nostalgic to want to maintain what you have until you can do better. Instead of being improved, Hamra is defaced on a daily basis, and yet, somehow, it remains. Articles and television specials about how it has been invaded by a peculiar brown, alien [non-Lebanese] race are as catastrophic to the city as their bulldozer friends. Pseudo-journalistic “oeuvres” that depend on racism for wages, controversy or ratings demolish Hamra, and any sort of association to these “journalists” is an embarrassment. It is in a manner almost surreal that Hamra manages to survive this mess. Sometimes it’s nice to think that it probably survives because we need it to, just for those moments of desperate alienation, when we require something unfailingly familiar.

Unlike the predominant, unsettled emotion some Lebanese citizens get in Lebanon, Hamra actually feels like home. At its essence, Hamra is a sequence of scenarios that never fail to comfort and amuse, inviting steadily more characters to take part. By allowing different people, with a certain familiarity with each other, to do different things, it is akin to a village that symbolizes an arms wide-open urban affair. But it is also like that mother you never had, a mother that doesn’t really taunt you about the other kids getting better grades at school, one that lets you eat that extra piece of candy before bedtime. Healthy or not, Hamra does not care how you look, where you’re from, your history or the color of your skin.

Though Hamra is a Lebanese product, it still confuses the Lebanese racist. It’s exciting. How can a racist citizen deal with a confusingly non-racist street? Bewilderingly, they seek to demolish it. But Hamra is not easily demolished. I like to think that it merely sheds layers of skin off the same glorious flesh. Universal Snack, a popular restaurant in the area, aptly affirms the constant underlying character of Hamra with its slogan stating that, “Your grandparents and parents ate here, so will your children and theirs.”

Hamra’s spirit transcends its space to make way for a changing people. This sense of belonging demonstrates how the spatial identity of a place affects the behavior of the people that inhabit it. Otherwise mundane matters are dealt with collectively in Hamra. The baristas at the café I work from, for example, are helping me transition from cow milk to soy milk, because I told them that cow milk makes me sick. Walking in Hamra is like traversing a gigantic corridor within a big beautiful house,
with every cafe or bar a vibrant living room. Every space is filled with people you know, and people you don’t know who you still feel compelled to greet because, like Hamra, they’re always there and they’re smiling back at you because they feel the same.

It’s beautiful. A city should do no other thing than make its people more human, and should expect nothing less from them in return. The growth of Hamra into what it is today is due to many factors. The establishment of two of Beirut’s major universities in its vicinity, as hubs of constant cultural exchange, is a major influence on the area. The street’s eventual commercial growth and the numerous subterranean theater halls in the basements of its modernist buildings give it an eclectic, dynamic flair.

Whoever is bothered by Hamra’s current state should know that Hamra organically grew to be the place that it is today. It is a melting pot of this explosive, disquieted region, even if newly established Gulf states in shining armor are claiming the space as their own. Hamra is irreplaceable, because it doesn’t ask you for a résumé before it allows itself to love you. It’s a real neighborhood, not a corporation. It does not shy away from feeling, and does not converse with its population based on their income or race. It makes do, so sometimes it smells like sewers, and once in a while you may stumble on piles of abandoned garbage.

And that’s where you make do. You can keep walking or pick up that piece of trash. You can pretend Hamra is being infested by ‘others,’ or you can realize that the mere thought of people as ‘others’ renders you unfit, not them. Hamra’s current state is something to be proud of. It’s a safe place where people can be people. Spaces that do not allow that are the places we should worry about and investigate. Hamra, meanwhile, is alive and well.

Raafat Majzoub is an architect, author and artist living in Beirut

Comments

I've kept a home in Hamra for 10 years now and this article reflects my general feelings about the place. everyone is welcome in Hamra, which is a lot more than can be said about lots of other places.

Golden Tulip Serenada Hotel Hamra Beirut - the ceilings are magnificent.
They rebuilt the Martyr's Square
Throughout the Middle East there are / were might be more correct - so may brilliant old buildings - Iran has quite a few. It is hard to know what to keep & what to let go of - to refurbish everything would cost the earth & some buildings must go because they are ugly or ruins.
All that history - lives lived & time had - it is sad to look at yesterday gone by.
I love looking at pictures, but I must go to bed.

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