BEIRUT: Revelers across the capital came together New Year’s Eve for a night of merrymaking, defying speculation that the city might tone down its festivities in light of the car bomb targeting Downtown Beirut Friday.
Tuesday night, people crowded the streets in Martyr’s Square to watch Downtown’s annual fireworks, filled the pubs on Uruguay Street and flooded the Phoenicia Hotel’s five or so different parties – all mere blocks away from the explosion that killed former Finance Minister Mohammad Shatah days before. But from the crowded butcher shops in the Southern Suburbs Tuesday afternoon to the sold-out pop star performances, the message on NYE 2014 was that the shows must go on.
One of the most anticipated – and expensive – events Tuesday night was the annual NYE concert featuring Haifa Wehbe and Assi al-Hellani, who performed at the Forum de Beyrouth on the eastern outskirts of the city.
In interviews with Al-Jadeed after the show, both stars were defiantly patriotic.
“Like you’re seeing today, there is a big turnout and people are happy,” Hellani said. “The people who are trying to deface Lebanon, they’re not Lebanese, they’re scum. There is nowhere better than Lebanon. We don’t want to think just about what’s happening because the people who are doing this to Lebanon, who are destroying Lebanon, are not Lebanese – they’re evildoers.”
Wehbe attracted some social media buzz for coming out on NYE with red hair in that often-regrettable shade of deep burgundy – though fans seemed to like her new ‘do.
Her performance was full of the glitz and showmanship she is known for. At one point, Wehbe was hoisted on her back by a team of dancers while dressed in the usual cascade of sparkles and glitter. One of her show outfits was a glittery dress from Zuhair Murad’s fall-winter 2013 couture collection – the very same one Murad’s devotee American pop star-actress Jennifer Lopez wore to the 2013 American Music Awards in November.
Speaking to Al-Jadeed, Wehbe said the Lebanese needed to share joy in defiance of attacks on the country.
“It’s sad, therefore we should stand by it and be sad with it. But also nothing should stop us as Lebanese. The least thing a person has a right to is to be happy, this is every person’s right, every citizen,” she said. “For the Arab world, it’s clear what we wish for: peace for the Arab citizen, to live in security, to not be afraid of tomorrow.”
Facing the Forum de Beyrouth but a world away, BO18 took its New Year’s guests on a virtual trip from Paris to Las Vegas, Honolulu, Hong Kong and Rio de Janeiro.
In a last-minute party announcement, BO18 alluded to the explosion Friday, calling on Lebanese to commemorate the happy moments in spite of the painful ones: “2013, with its share of good times but also painful moments, deserves to be closed with a commemoration of the happy moments and experiences we’ve all had throughout the year,” the club said. “And what better way to escape reality for just one night, than to travel to five different exotic locations.”
Highway billboards had originally advertised Bassem Feghali as the third act at Forum De Beyrouth. But the dazzling cross-dresser brought his boas to the Phoenicia Hotel instead and opened for city’s other big Arabic music show, featuring Wael Kfoury and Iraqi superstar Kazem al-Saher.
The majority of the country’s pop stars booked NYE gigs outside the country, mainly in the United Arab Emirates. Nancy Ajram played in Amman.
In Mar Mikhael, a youthful hoard flooded the streets in droves so large they clogged road traffic and turned the sidewalks of the east Beirut neighborhood into a de facto block party. Twitter and Instagram pictures showed partygoers dancing and costumed wags traveling from bar to bar in defiance of brooding policemen.
Popular Lebanese blog Ivy Says tweeted from Mar Mikhael’s busy streets and echoed the defiant sentiments of Hellani and Wehbe: “We’ve come to [sic] far to give up who we are.”
“This is how we respond to terrorism,” she wrote in another tweet next to a blurry photo of partygoers decked out for the occasion
The scene in Mar Mikhael showed just how much nightlife had grown there in 2013: from a handful of expat-filled watering holes to a bustling strip of pubs, elegant cocktail bars and a diverse range of restaurants.
In central Beirut, throngs of families congregated outside the Parliament building armed with sparkly cotillion, as children strained to see the annual fireworks over the Downtown high-rises.
Nearby at the An-Nahar building, swankier revelers at Iris club’s winterized rooftop heralded in 2014 in 1920s style. The flapper-inspired dinner party got front row seats to the fireworks that burst from Martyrs’ Square around midnight.
Despite a crime scene still fresh only blocks away, Downtown saw more foot traffic this NYE than any year since reconstruction started after the Civil War. In addition to the rise of Mar Mikhael in 2013, Uruguay Street saw a blossoming of bars and small clubs, which people spilled out of by the dozen come Wednesday morning.
If there was one part of town that lost its luster this New Year’s, it was Hamra. Young men with no real destination overtook the neighborhood, which is usually bustling with nightlife on New Year’s Eve. They occupied steps, loitered between pubs and trolled the streets in mobs looking for girls to ogle and hassle.
Perhaps last year’s celebrations in Hamra forecast the deterioration to come, as the bar-studded Alleyway became a sanctuary for unwanted guests hoping to take advantage of the party mobs spilling out into the street.
This year, bouncers filtered clientele more strictly and the streets were noticeably sparser than in 2012 – though a bit more hostile. The tension in the neighborhood also caused police to monitor parked cars, a number of which valet services were asked to move for security reasons.
The revelry spread far beyond the champagne-popping central city. Preparing for gatherings at home Tuesday afternoon, clientele at Wehbi butcher shop in Choueifat were engrossed in tugs-of-war over the best cuts of meat. And just outside, stands had popped up selling sparking hats, small fireworks and noisemakers.
Private celebrations rung in the New Year all around the city. Blaring dabke and pop music could be heard on the streets of Geitawi in east Beirut, and fireworks persisted from 5 p.m. until well into the night.
“This is the Lebanon we want,” Hellani said. “The Lebanon of joy; the Lebanon of peace; the Lebanon of civilization; the Lebanon of art; the Lebanon of culture; the Lebanon of beauty. ... This is Lebanon and there’s nothing better than Lebanon when it’s like this.”