Lebanon News

Extending the heart of Hamra

Chez Andre hosted a night of free food and drinks for friends and family Dec. 14 to celebrate the official opening of its “new wing.” The enormity of this event is difficult to convey, as is the importance of the little bistro to its customers.

“Chez Andre?” smiles Iain Watson, a quantity surveyor with Dar al-Handasah. “Cramped, convivial, and conducive to imbibing.”

“For me,” nods Phil Brigly, a contracts administrator from Groupe Eco International, “the main feature of the place is its timelessness.”

Of course, Chez Andre is not timeless. It was founded by Andre Aredjian in 1969, when the troubles of 1958 had receded into memory, and the troubles beginning in 1975 were not yet on the horizon.

It was a time when Hamra was still the pearl in the art deco jewelry box of Beirut. As with all things art deco, there was more image than substance here. In those days, government was run by wealthy thugs, which made the lives of many Lebanese miserable. But somehow Hamra made all that redeemable.

The eyes of marketing consultant Naïm Rammal actually become animated for a second. “I think Chez Andre is the only place to spend time where they know you as a person, not as a money machine,” he says.

Consultant Ma’an Barazy hesitates a moment, then smiles, “Chez Andre’s a place where you can never have just one drink, or just one friend.”

Old Hamra, they say, was Lebanon’s popular parliament, the place where the politicians rubbed shoulders with the artists, intellectuals, and revolutionaries. Chez Andre  ­ original capacity 20, if you didn’t mind standing ­ was not just a bar, but a sort of metaphor for Hamra, for what Lebanon might become. Old André and his nephew Arthur Chirvanian, the current owner, have presided over the intoxication of personalities as varied as Camille Chamoun, Georgina Rizk and Ziad Rahbani.

The bar, like Hamra, remained open throughout the war. Like Lebanon itself, Hamra declined as the conflict dragged on. Early in the reconstruction-era she was a fallen woman ­ not the “model for civil society” that had charmed western academics.

“Chez Andre” says as-Safir’s Amru Saad al-Din, the smile fading from his mouth as he speaks, “is a place where you can live your loneliness.”

“In metaphorical terms,” muses Beirut social historian Jens Hanssen, his index finger stroking his nose, “extending Chez André is nothing less than an extension of Beirut’s once thriving critical public sphere.”

Such extensions can be jarring. Given the number of cigarettes smoked in those once-close confines, and the sheer quantity of shajouk that’s been fried on its grill, no new addition could live up to the ambiance of the original space. But there’s nothing wrong with giving a few more people a place to sit. Perhaps the same could be said of Lebanon.

Arthur crushes a cigarette end into an ashtray. “I’m optimistic that Hamra will return to what she was,” he says, pausing to give his pack of Gitanes a twirl on the bar. “We’re not what we once were, but already things are better than they have been.”

 

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