TYRE, Lebanon: On any given day, Abu Robert, 79, can be found entertaining guests outside his port-side restaurant, Sidewalk Number 11. It’s an unusual crowd – the port’s sun-kissed fishermen talk politics over backgammon next to a group of Ray-Ban-wearing foreigners chowing down on fish and mezze. Inside the modest restaurant, the jovial Abu Robert shows his polyglot guestbook and collection of old postcards to those who care to listen to him. They are messages from around the world, tributes to a man who is at once a fisherman, restaurant owner, friend of those who pass through his humble establishment and witness to the many difficult periods his hometown of Tyre has gone through.
“When people talk about Tyre they talk about it like it’s the country of bombs and violence ... but really whoever comes to Tyre for the first time loves it and comes back again and again,” says Abu Robert.
In many ways, Abu Robert is a testament to the steadfastness of a city that has been beaten down by bombs repeatedly over the last 40 years and where peace is considered only a reprieve.
Against the odds, Tyre’s economy is dynamic with sectors constantly shrinking and expanding in size. Hotels and restaurants dot the seaside where a rusty boardwalk marks its contours and retail stores line the streets where electric cables dangle from poles.
Like many Lebanese areas outside the capital, Tyre suffers from disproportionately high fuel and electricity prices as well as an ailing infrastructure. But there is one setback that makes it distinct from other peripheral cities: the stigma of danger that comes with its proximity to a major regional fault line, the southern Lebanese border.
“Our security situation plays a huge role. Anytime you go on the Internet and look for Tyre you’ll find websites that warn against traveling there, against traveling south of the Litani River,” says Hasan Dbouk, Tyre’s municipality chief.
A historical city that Alexander the Great once famously laid claim to, Tyre is also a high-risk zone, according to some major foreign embassies in the country. Some embassy officials are barred from visiting the city.
Such assessments take a major toll not only on tourism but also investment.
“Like the rest of Lebanon, peace usually ends before infrastructure gets fixed,” adds Dbouk.
Traditionally, Tyre is an economic center of south Lebanon, owing to the presence of many state bureaucratic offices. Villagers from the surrounding areas converge in the city to purchase supplies and to shop from the inner-city’s variegated clothing stores.
Beirut has been slowly reviving since the end of the Civil War in 1990, but Tyre hasn’t been able to depend on this advantage. Southern traders and consumers opted to travel to Beirut instead and ease of transport meant that villages could establish relatively autonomous economies. Tyre leaned back on its tenuous relationships with tourism and a struggling but age-old fishing sector.
In an ironic turn of events, the city saw a relative boom after the July 2006 war with Israel which saw the deployment of over 12,000 additional international troops and civilian administrators in the southern district.
“Some of the [UNIFIL] battalions, typically the Italians, decided to buy locally which triggered greater activity in trade,” says Lebanon Central Bank Financial Operations director, Youssef Khalil, who is also a native of Tyre.
Tyre’s municipality reports that more than 200 UNIFIL employees took up residence in the city since their deployment in 2006. The effects of this are most pronounced in the hospitality sector and real estate, with rent prices being driven up exponentially, making them comparable with Beirut.
Apartment currently cost around $5,000 per square meter.
“Everything post 2005 is correlated with U.N. activity,” explains Khalil.
Attacks on UNIFIL stations over the last two years have, predictably, exacted a price on Tyre’s economy, with troops now barred from leaving their barracks. The foreigners who frequent bars, hotels and restaurants, like Abu Robert’s, now consist entirely of civilian employees.
In 2011, Tyre was dealt another blow. Three attacks targeted bars and liquor stores and a cloak of uncertainty has once again fallen on the city.
Residents say that they are used to this. “What stability? We don’t really know stability here,” says one restaurant owner.
Patrick Kattoura, owner of the attacked liquor store, told The Daily Star he has lost over $10,000 in stock.
“Last New Year’s Eve was less active than most of our regular weekends. People were too afraid to enjoy it outside,” reports Dbouk.
Still, the resilience of the city is palpable. Restaurant and hotel owners say they will not be deterred by the bombings, the motives of which remain a mystery. One young person The Daily Star spoke to reports that the bombings were an incentive to open a new bar and that he is in the early stages of establishing it.
“I’m opening this bar because I don’t want Tyre to turn into another conservative, alcohol-free city. ... I don’t want those behind the bombings to achieve their goals,” said the young person, who asked not to be named.
Dbouk agrees that Tyre should remain free of restrictions on alcohol consumption, suggesting that this is the mark of a pluralistic city – the city is home to more than four religious sects – that has been friendly to tourists.
“Our successes in this city are linked to the number of religious sects that live in it,” he says.
He adds that Tyre has fared better than the other major southern city of Sidon in terms of tourism because of its lax attitude toward social practices. Few locales in Sidon, an overwhelmingly Sunni city, sell alcohol. Dbouk points out that Sidon, which is economically better off than Tyre, only has two small hotels, while Tyre has six.
Asked what keeps business going in Tyre, in spite of the frequent interruption of violence, Walid Salha, owner of the Bed and Breakfast Al-Fanar, that sits at the tip of the old Christian quarters of the city, answers simply: “Hope.”
“[Our presence] is a kind of resistance, a fight ... We Lebanese are giants. We believe in better days.”