Loyal customers return ‘home’ as Ta-Marbouta reopens

BEIRUT: In the heart of Hamra is a cafe that features an Arabic letter as its name. As cafes and pubs boom in the area, the unusually named Ta-Marbouta is attempting to reshape the street – returning it to the spirit of cultural activism which dominated the west Beirut district of Hamra in the ’60s and ’70s.

Many wonder about the cafe’s name, which sticks out in the midst of the other Western oriented names that dominate Beirut’s restaurants and drinking holes.

“I thought of an Arabic letter that would be symbolic to our culture and can be easily made into a logo at the same time,” explained Bilal al-Amin, the owner of Ta-Marbouta.

The much-loved cafe has recently reopened in a new location after a year shuttered, and Amin recently looked back at the place’s short but eventful history. He was originally scheduled to open on July 18, 2006, a week after the war with Israel broke out.

Despite delaying the opening, the war ended up contributing to shaping the pub’s activist identity, bringing in those who would become loyal customers during the month-long conflict.

Kitchen equipment was installed and chefs were ready to go in early July, said Amin.

But with the war in full swing, various nongovernmental organizations working with the displaced needed an operating base. So the cafe quickly became a hub for volunteers making hundreds of sandwiches a day for the needy.

And in time, Amin said, “those volunteers were soon to become our customers” when the place officially opened several months later.

The war isn’t the only challenge Ta-Marbouta has faced. While searching for a venue years ago, Amin ran into a friend of his father who owns the Pavillion Hotel, an old hotel in Hamra.

The owner agreed to rent Amin space on the hotel’s first floor. But four years later new owners bought the hotel, intending to renovate it, and displaced the cafe.

So it closed in April 2011, and re-opened in its current Hamra Square location a year later, earlier this month.

During that year, Amin would run into his customers, who he said would complain “we are homeless!”

One afternoon earlier this month at the new space, many loyal customers had clearly returned home.

Patron Jamal Awar, 22, said he used to study at Ta-Marbout during university, calling it “a blend between coffee and arts.”

Sahar Assaf, an old customer who was visiting the new venue for the first time, screened a short film she made at the cafe several years ago. And musician Jamal Abdel Karim emphasized the place’s unique musical identity.

“It’s the only place where you can hear both Abdel Halim Hafez’ famous work ‘Qariat al-Funjan’ and jazz,” he said.

Many loyal customers emphasized the sense of belonging to Ta-Marbouta. “You don’t need to bring your friends, your friends are always here,” said Farah Awada.

And despite the yearlong break, most customers said that while they enjoyed the old venue, the new one has its benefits, including an open-air space.

It also boasts a library, a study area, and several backgammon tables.

Earning its moniker as a cultural hub, Ta-Marbouta used to host of book signings, poetry evenings, film screenings, and live music. So although its reopening has delighted customers old and new, it doesn’t yet have the sound equipment to completely return to its former glory.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 25, 2012, on page 2.




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