A streetcar named nostalgia: reminiscing about Beirut’s defunct tramways

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Downtown Beirut in early 1970 after the Beirut tram was decommissioned. AFP

By: Hadeel Farfour

Published Saturday, December 6, 2014

The frames hanging on the walls are painful to look at. The photos documenting life in Beirut before the 1960s, when the city had tramway lines and running tramcars, remind viewers – who have grown up in the shadow of the faded color of the concrete jungle – of the soul they sorely miss in Beirut. It is now captured in front of them in black and white.

From under the big tree near the main gate of the American University of Beirut, tramcars once rolled towards the university and the terminus at the Manara station, and towards the American University Hospital, from Graham Station. Pictures taken in 1960 show crowds of people stacked in the streetcars, some hanging their bodies out from the seats, others laughing and smiling. Some people sat under the shade of a tree nearby, perhaps waiting for the next car. In the pictures, there are no traffic jams like the ones blighting Beirut these days.

“The tram was never late,” says Abu Haitham, 84 years old. The man, who was a regular of the streetcars in Beirut, explains how very punctual they were. “I would calculate that a trip would take half an hour, and always arrived on time.” Abu Haitham, like many others, used to set his clock according to the tram schedule.

The last four tramway routes (Horsh-Doha; Furn al-Shubbak-Manara; Foch Street-Port-Train station; and Patriarch Howayek Street-Port) operated from 6 am to 12 am, serving Beirutis and their various schedules around the clock.

Tramways: The city’s pacesetter and artery

There were times when there was great pressure on tramcars, especially at rush hours, peak times after the end of film screenings in the cinemas of downtown Beirut, and during holidays when a lot of people went out to cafes and theaters. Back then, the city was open to all its residents, long before its cafes became exclusive and its landmarks were privatized.

Beirut’s Tramway was the city’s vital artery, according to the anthropological research group Ensan, which is organizing an exhibition showcasing Beirut’s defunct tramway system. The exhibition started on December 4.

The maps prepared by the organizers show that all police precincts and government departments fell along the tramway lines, in addition to schools, universities, places of worship, cemeteries, cafes, cinemas, and theaters.

“The tramcars connected all areas of the city, and linked trains and markets, and faraway residents to workplaces,” says Moheb Nader Chanesaz, professor of anthropology at the Institute of Social Sciences at the Lebanese University and the supervisor of the research group. Chanesaz pointed out that the tram was the core of the city, adding that urban organization was based on the tramway lines.

An introduction to the public sphere

“For leisure, we would ride the tram to tour Beirut,” Abu Haitham says. “The Ras Beirut-Port line was amazing,” in reference to the long route that was enough to make one riding the streetcars feel as though they were seeing all of Beirut. “Tickets were cheap, the seating comfortable, and the weather was nice,” he adds with a laugh.

The seats on the trains were wooden and came in two forms: “upholstered” seats that cost more, and ordinary ones. The difference between the ticket prices was almost two-fold. “The non-upholstered seat cost five piasters while the upholstered one cost 10.”

Civil servants and students received exclusive passes for tramcars. “AUB professors rode the tramcars too,” boasts the octogenarian man. “The tramway company gave ‘privileges’ to VIPs in Beirut as well. It is said that Bechara al-Khoury and Riad al-Solh had free lifetime tram passes.”

Among the achievements attributed to the tramway system was that it helped electrify Lebanon. Indeed, completing the first tramway required laying out electric connections between the regions.

A solid achievement of the tramway system is that it laid the foundation stone for civic principles and behavior in the capital. “Using the public space (i.e. tramcars) was subject to general rules and etiquette, setting the pace for people and their activity in accordance to specific timetables and geographically specific stations,” according to Ensan.

In other words, it was the tramway system that introduced the idea of a public sphere, a space for people to meet and get to know each other as they shared this urban feature. This is corroborated by the developments that followed the decommissioning of the tramway system and other forms of public transport, with the absence of the benefits associated with using public transport, at the civic and urban level.

The research team concludes that with the death of the tramcars, the system that regulated the pace of the city, and founded its civic behavior and the concept of public space, disappeared. In 1964, the Lebanese government decommissioned the tramway system in Beirut, replacing it with a bus system, and sold the tramway cars and lines, which had had a special significance to Lebanese people for more than 25 years, as scrap to junk dealers.

Chanesaz believes that that era dictated linking Lebanon to petroleum, the Gulf, and the US sphere of influence, with one inevitable outcome being the adoption of imported cars and buses. He also links the decommissioning of the tramway system to the political developments that followed the US military intervention in Beirut in 1958.

Some also believe the absence of the tram is part of the policy of the Lebanese regime, which seeks to eliminate everything that is shared among the Lebanese. “They want to divide us and destroy everything we have in common. After the tramway, Muslim-Christian mingling was greatly reduced,” says Abu Haitham.

A sixty-something woman at the exhibition comments, “Anything that travels in a straight line in this country is inevitably removed.” Her words echo a famous song by Omar Zaani eulogizing the tramway: “They removed you because you were straight, and travelled straight on a line.”

Graham Station

A short distance before AUB wall’s on the eastern side of the campus, tramcars bound for Ras Beirut once stopped. When trams reached this station, the ticket collector would shout, “Graham!” This is the story that explains why that stop was called Graham Station.

In reality, Graham was a medical doctor at the American University Hospital. His clinic was near the tramway stop. It is said Graham used to pay the ticket collectors a tip every day to say his name as some sort of advertisement, so people would become familiar with his name and seek out his services.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


My name is Isahak Barsoumian ,born in Beirut/Al Achrafieh 1947, an Armenian who grew up in the downtown Beirut , and fortunate to witness > Trams in action < for almost 17 years ?? When in mid sixties public transport switched to SCANIA Buses?! or as we , young generation then ,called it , if you excuse me repeating it >> JAHSH el Dawla meaning ( The Authority s.. MULE ) << as it caused double traffic jams than Tramway carriages .. ever Did ! Many were the journeys i made by Trams, mostly in 1959-1961, as my Armenian Adventist School was in Khalil Badawi / Camp Hajjen and my house in Khandaq el Ghamiq / (close to the downtown B.) / in .those days, Also my Sunday visits with my late Dad to see my relatives , they were in DOWRA./ Bourj HAMMOUD . Fares were Reasonable /Cheap.. but sometimes too long waiting s or sudden power cut delays..sometimes switching carriages for mechanical reasons but passengers took the whole mishaps ..EASY !! Even i saw with my own eyes , Thoroughly Missed by all of us, The late Sheikh Pierre Gemayel >> (Lebanese Phalange Party Founder/ Also was a M.P)<< ascending /descending from ..IT?! This shows his Modesty + Also shows how convenient was TRAMWAYS for ALL, no 1st or 2nd or 3 rd classes . And sometimes victimized SUCH AS ..during 1958 s Lebanese Civil Unrest, IT S been attacked /burned/ even worst .. blown up ,by devices hidden under passengers seats?? Allow me to say A BIG THANK YOU to them all , still with us or passed to the other side ones too , employees drivers /fare collectors on Tramways GOD bless you all!! By the way I did Email Blog BEIRUT report last week on the same Tramways subject ,you may view it if you would like. ?? !Yes i am in London /U.K since 1979 .. but my memories of such , let s assume as HAPPY DAYS never ..Fade or worst..ERASE off my heart /mind/ or soul !!

* The Sydney tramway network once served Sydney, The capital city of New South Wales. Australia. In its heyday it was the largest in Australia, the second largest in the Commonwealth of Nations, after London, & once the largest in the world. It was extremely extensively worked, with 1.600 cars in service at any one time at its peak in 1930. The system was in place from1879 until its winding down in 1950 & closure in 1961.
* Years ago I heard on a program on ABC RADIO NATIONAL 621 ( a most reliable news network at the time) that the reason the tramway network in NSW was shut down was because there was a deal struck with the makers of auto rubber tires to scrap the trams in favor of bus' so as to make a killing in investments in the rubber tire business.

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