TRIPOLI, Lebanon: The bars in Tripoli issue their last call at midnight, but the patrons linger behind as they tell stories about what the city’s nightlife used to be like.
University professor Leila Dib lies back on the couch and recalls Tripoli’s once-bustling nightlife, which lives on only in the memories of those who knew the city in its glamorous days. While Tripoli has drastically changed, longtime residents say its alleyways and corridors once hummed with late-night revelry.
“This generation has not lived through the passion for life as we did in Tripoli, you have missed out a lot,” Dib tells The Daily Star with a laugh.
For her, Tripoli was an adventurous and loving city, contrasting sharply with its current reality.
“But us, we lived our teenage years as we should,” she said.
Following the rise of co-ed educational institutions during the 1960s and 1970s, the city’s youth were for the first time able to live freely, which, in turn, was reflected in the nightlife.
At that time, pubs were but part of a thriving Tripoli that was full of vitality: The city was a landscape of construction projects, prosperity and progress which produced great economic wealth.
Its residents lived in a sphere of modernity and development, which allowed a nightlife to flourish.
The first such establishment to open its doors in 1961 was the Cheval Blanc in Al-Tal Square, close to the Inja Theater, where patrons became accustomed to long nights that would conclude during the early morning hours.
This was followed by the opening of Negresco, a Parisian-style sidewalk cafe with an underground hall that was used for parties, made famous by its tango dances.
The opening of the cafe was followed by the launch of a number of other venues and nightclubs, including La Barrique, Pinky and Condor.
The city also saw the development of several beach clubs such as Al-Jazeera in Mina, which was always fully booked, and Plage Hakim, where famed singer Sabah as well as Syrian artist Sabah Fakhri sang until the early hours of the morning.
“It was a storm-filled life for us by all standards,” Dib said as she drank her last glass of wine, recalling a love interest she once had.
Despite the deteriorating security situation in Tripoli, many are still intent on partying and clubbing to keep the life-loving heart of their beloved city alive, while the push to do so might very well be mere nostalgia, the longing for a past that is now long gone.
A security plan was launched earlier this month with the aim of ending the rounds of violence between the mainly Alawite neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen, whose residents support Syrian President Bashar Assad, and the mostly Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbaneh, where people sympathize with the opposition.
More than 200 arrest warrants have been issued for fighters from both neighborhoods.
Beginning 2005, nightlife had been on the rise in Mina’s Dr. Raymond al-Labban Street – popularly referred to as Minot – as pubs began opening their doors and gaining a sizeable clientele in only a few weeks. The establishments were frequented not only by residents of north Lebanon, but also by people from outside the area. The street bustled with pubs and clubs again, but soon after the activity receded.
While most pubs in the street remain closed, in the past few weeks, the area has begun to regain some of its energy as a nightlife spot.
At the entrance of the street, some pedestrians make their way toward the Radish cafe, whose unique decor was designed by artist Mario Saba.
While the Radish offers a unique experience, its neighboring tavern Ca Va has not only maintained its elegance, but its owners have even resorted to expanding the space to fit more people.
Ca Va started out as a cultural arena, attracting poets who held an open mike night every month. It now hosts parties that play both Western and Eastern songs, lasting until the early hours.
Mina’s bars still do not witness noticeable activity during the week, where only a few people, usually all acquainted with each other, frequent.
As for Mike’s, once a small market turned into a popular pub brimming with partygoers, it is now mostly empty. In that bar sits Gaby Srour, famed for his Tripoli accent and strong laugh.
“[Drinking] is usually nice and good for the health. The person feels that he is alive, he is joyful and listens to music and sings. There is nothing in this city that is as gratifying in light of the frail security situation,” Srour says of the Tripoli nightlife.
Sipping a full glass of whiskey, Srour adds that the city was one filled with zest. Now, with the situation fragile, he still resorts to the pubs to enjoy his time and write.
Srour asks the waiter for more nuts to go with his drink, and tells The Daily Star that he would follow up on news of the ongoing clashes from inside the bar, even though he lives in the Zahirieh neighborhood, which has been the scene of several rounds of the conflict. “But I insist on living as I please and I don’t want to change my habits,” he adds.
According to Srour, one of the greatest challenges Tripoli is combating the prevalent mentality of people who believe things should be done in secret, the proof of which is drinking alcohol, which many do but not publicly.
“There are many who don’t drink in public places, and they even don’t go to bars and cafes in Mina, but instead go toward noisy Beirut, as if there is more to enjoy there.”