Lebanon: Can Tyre Hold its Liquor?
By: Patrick Galey
Published Sunday, April 29, 2012
South Lebanon’s Tyre has suffered a string of bomb attacks, seemingly targeting premises selling alcohol. Responses from sellers vary from fear to defiance.
Tyre, Lebanon – Beshara Kattoura was woken by his father one November dawn and did not immediately understand what he was being told.
“He told me the shop had been blown up,” Kattoura recalls. “I just lay with my mouth open. I couldn't believe anyone would do this.”
He slipped on his sneakers and followed his father down the concrete steps outside their house in Tyre's old town, padding through the unlit streets to the liquor store on the edge of the quarter's ancient fishing port.
“The explosion happened at five in the morning,” Kattoura says. “We were there two minutes later.”
The father and son clambered through the hole the explosive device had blasted in the shop's northern wall as the dust was still settling. Fragments of plaster and stone were strewn across the floor, mixed with shards of glass.
The family had received threats about their selling of alcohol for a number of years. They never thought anyone would actually attack.
Nor did Kattoura and his father realize that they were now embroiled in a series of possibly connected bombings targeting premises selling alcohol in the southern port town. A steakhouse on Tyre's Corniche had been hit by an explosion five minutes earlier.
In late December, as the town's restaurants were preparing for New Year's Eve, another bomb detonated outside Tyros, a large, marquee-covered premises on the edge of the seafront.
“It took out a whole section of wall, our PA system, our instruments, the stage, tables and chairs,” one Tyros waiter told Al-Akhbar.
Last week, yet another alcohol-serving restaurant was targeted when an explosive device shattered windows in the upper deck of Noceans, a popular eatery housed in the same squat complex as the town's McDonalds. Five were wounded.
No group has claimed responsibility for any of the attacks, and opinion on the street over who is responsible for the attacks varies between a handful of culprits. But what can be known is the effect the bombings have had on a town that relies on tourist dollars to employ hundreds.
“Of course we are scared,” said one restaurateur, who declined to be named given the sensitivity of the topic. “These guys [who carried out the bombings] are not finished. One faction is trying to force its way of life on the whole of the town.”
He added, “They are operating without any respect for the importance of tourism and without respect for anyone's beliefs. I don't think [the attacks] are going to stop.”
According to statistics made available by the Ministry of Tourism, the number of visitors to Lebanon declined by 25 percent in the first nine months of 2011. It continued to fall this year, with a 9 percent drop in tourists in the first quarter of 2012. Following the twin bombings of United Nations peacekeepers last summer, several countries revised their Lebanon travel warnings, advising citizens to avoid the south entirely.
Those who work in Tyre's hospitality sector know this summer, coming as it does after a spate of bombings, is unlikely to buck the downward trend in visitor numbers.
“Tyre is such a seasonal town. It needs its fishermen and it needs its tourists,” said one restaurant owner. “[The bombings] are forcing not only international visitors away but are also keeping the Lebanese away...If they want to do away with tourists in Tyre, they are going about it in a coward's manner. They're showing no respect for the town, for the country, or for themselves.”
A Tyre hotelier, who also asked not to be named, said the attacks could be the final straw for the town's already struggling hospitality sector.
“We are all scared, of course. I don't want to say that we might be next, but we are obviously aware that these attacks have been targeting places like ours,” the hotelier said.
Politicians of all stripes have criticized the bombings. Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud said they were part of the “spread of fundamentalism in the Middle East”. While all alcohol sellers contacted by Al-Akhbar condemned the attacks – their response to such intimidation has varied greatly.
Noceans, the most recent bombing victim, will reopen, but its proprietor has indicated the restaurant will in future be a dry establishment.
The owners of Don Eduardo’s, the first place to be bombed, have yet to reopen more than six months after the attack. Fresh panes of opaque glass do little to hide the obvious aftermath of a blast, with debris cluttering the floor inside still visible from the street.
Zuheir Arnaout, the eccentric businessman behind Tyros, not only vowed to hold a 300-guest New Year's banquet as planned after the attack, he also went on national television promising to provide partygoers with free alcohol all night.
As for Kattoura, he reopened the next day.
“In all, the bomb probably caused more than one thousand dollars worth of damage,” he says. “But we started work again the day after to tell these people that they cannot intimidate us. We are not going to be scared of anything and we will still sell alcohol.”
Kattoura, 27, has worked since his mid-teens in the liquor store his grandfather founded by selling whiskey and ice to Tyre's fishermen more than 40 years ago.
At the entrance of every client, he springs up to help, wrapping a lager can in a paper coffee sack for one, memorizing the particular brand of a wife's favored Prosecco for another. When a fisherman, barefoot, asks for some Heineken, Kattoura fills a black plastic bag with ice and six cold ones for the road.
Though Kattoura puts on a defiant front, the creeping nervousness felt in the town's tourist hotspots cannot be ignored.
In Tyre's harbor, fisherman in paint-spattered overalls sip from a bottle of whiskey as the sun goes down. They sit on plastic chairs and only look to hide their drinks when certain cars pass by.
“I have always considered Tyre to be a very respectful place,” says one restaurant owner. “But this is changing now. People are forcing others toward their way of life. It's hypocrisy.”
For Kattoura, the culprits of Tyre's alcohol bombings are unlikely to be caught. They are also unlikely to stop until they get what they want.
“The question is not who is doing it but more one of timing,” he says. “There are many organizations with the capability and motivation to bomb [liquor outlets]. But why now?”
Before he can answer his own question, Kattoura bounds across the shop and rummages between two rusting shelf stacks.
“Black Label,” he tells the customer, handing him a dark, rectangular box. “You'll need some ice with this.”