MINA, Lebanon: A small cobblestone street in an old souk is one of the few places that offer a welcomed break and an alcoholic drink in a constantly evolving Tripoli. Nicknamed Minot, a play on Tripoli’s Mina and Beirut’s Monot, the street’s real name is Yaacoub Labban.
It is a respite from the northern capital’s reputation of being a hotbed of social conservatism, where cold beers are shared by a small community of faithful customers. They are a combination of idealistic intellectuals and old-timers who stubbornly hold onto their haven on the edge of an increasingly conservative city.
But the regulars are dwindling by the month in an ever-growing conservative Islamic and impoverished enclave known for frequent outbreaks of sectarian strife. On a winter’s night, where five years ago the street would have been full of people off to their favorite pub, the strip was empty with only the sound of the lone pedestrian’s boots echoing on the sidewalk.
“Tripoli was making a comeback. There was a cosmopolitan spirit, and now we’re losing it again,” says Elias Khlat, co-owner of Mike’s Place, one of five pubs on Minot Street, once home to over 20 similar establishments.
He says he was attracted to the old souk and the “the open spirit of the neighborhood” that reminded him of the old city of Damascus, which until the outbreak of unrest in Syria two years ago was booming with restaurants and bars renovated from old houses. When he opened nearly five years ago, he envisioned a similar atmosphere for his bar on Minot Street, a nickname he shuns because he insists the area is nothing like Beirut’s Monot Street. He likes to think of his street as having a more authentic character, even if that means less hype.
“It’s our only escape,” says Khlat, who opened his bar in May 2008, the same day sectarian clashes broke out in Downtown Beirut while several people were also killed in Tripoli. The country’s security situation has always affected his business, but it wasn’t until last spring that profits started turning into losses. As his neighbors closed shop, his own business was affected by a loss of foot traffic. Now he says he’s looking into opportunities just south in Batroun, which has also suffered from Lebanon’s security and economic downturn over the past several years.
In addition, bar owners blame municipal authorities for allowing the street to decline by not deploying policemen in the area at night to protect pedestrians. Meanwhile, a nearby boutique hotel that once served alcohol was bought by Tripoli native Prime Minister Najib Mikati as a house for his guests, and locals say the establishment usually remains empty.
The owners and staff at Savannah’s, a tiny bar that opened seven years ago, remember customers standing outside waiting to come in. Now, they say a lack of police in an area that has seen heightened tensions prevents potential customers from going out.
Mohammad Mir Jarrah opened Bells just a year ago, when the street’s decline was already well under way. He remembers people asking him, “What are you doing? Other people are closing.” But he would always tell them: “I want to do something I love. This is a place where everyone in Tripoli can enjoy themselves. But it’s being destroyed.”
“The street used to be packed. It used to be so crowded it was hard to cross from one side to another,” recalls Nizar Najjar, a native of Tripoli and one of the last regulars of Minot.
Riad Kurdi is a waiter at Cava, a dimly lit pub that features classic American and French rock. He says that these days it’s not uncommon for him to serve just one table a night. He worries about business, and he also says he worries about losing a gathering space where secular intellectuals can be themselves. He points to his ponytail, goatee and his ear piercings, noting that his look is unlike most men in central Tripoli.
“Maybe I look weird here. Maybe I’m supposed to have a long beard in Tripoli,” he says, sitting by the heater of the cozy pub, pondering the future of his and his friends’ treasured street. Despite the dwindling business, he says adamantly, “I’d rather work here than Beirut. This is my home.”
The sentiment is echoed by people who appear to be running out of reasons to keep their establishments open, despite their love of the area.
There seems to be one exception of the evening. At Taverna, a fish restaurant that serves a range of drinks, middle-age men fill the tables, singing and clapping. The longtime friends are happy to welcome a new visitor and talk about their favorite spot.
“It’s a mixed area – like us,” says Michel Razouk, referring to Mina’s reputation for more religious and social tolerance than Tripoli proper. “But the street is dying.”