In Hamra, banks and bars did not mix. During the day, banks were busy while bars were hush. At night, banks were shut while bars were high. But nightlife is not possible without money, and money is not possible without banks. The humans of Hamra were hooked on both: bars by choice and banks by force.
Until a stormy day in October, when banks closed for good, and took the good times with them. The humans of Hamra stopped dancing and started marching. They replaced raised glasses with angry fists. They were not the only ones. Waves of humans flooded the city streets. They merged into one big sea. The banks became another brick in a wall that had to fall. Humans united will never be defeated. They pushed and pulled in every direction.
For a moment, the money priests got scared and the sectarian warlords got worried. Both huffed and puffed on media pulpits about the “uncivilized” humans at the gates. When no one listened, they called in humans for hire and built higher walls. A high wall was erected in Hamra to protect Riad the Joker, who pulled all the strings.
Riad the Joker
Riad the Joker was a serious human with a serious mission: looking after the Lebanese lira. With little sweat and no blood, he closed financial deals for fat cats during times of war and controlled the money tap of the entire population during times of peace. For over a quarter century, he sat in his fortified throne at the mouth of Hamra street and opened the tap at a steady flow of 1500 liras to the dollar. Everyone seemed satisfied. The rich and powerful filled their tanks, while trickle economics took care of the rest. Or so claimed the rich and powerful. If the rest got anxious, Riad the Joker assured them that under his watch the lira will be ok. The banks were the crown jewel of their country, and he had a Midas touch.
Until a stormy day in October, when Riad the Joker repeated his joke that the lira is ok. No one laughed. The lira crashed. Lives were lost and livelihoods were destroyed. Riad the superhero became Riad the supervillain. He put on a poker face and pulled off more bad jokes. With the connivance of the rich and powerful, he transformed the country into a casino inside a circus. ATMs became broken slot machines. In the vaults of banks, the dollar became a lollar. In the pockets of humans, like Rida the Anonymous, the lollar became liras that melted into thin air.
Rida the Anonymous
Rida the Anonymous was a good listener and a hard worker. As a child, he slept between the covers of a book written by Anis the Author. Rida listened to the stories of Anis about distant memories of village life. Rida loved the countryside but lived in the city. When civil war broke out, he was too young to fight but too old to forget. He listened to the sound of bombs and the song of Ziad the Artist about the rising cost of lettuce. When Rida the Anonymous got older, he could not afford university. He worked at bars. He listened to the humans of Hamra chat and cheer while he served them food and drinks. They treated him like one of their own. But they talked and he worked. They drove and he walked. They traveled and he lived in the suburbs.
Until a stormy day in October, when Hamra felt like home. Rida the Anonymous stopped listening. He wanted to tell his own story. He would no longer be anonymous. He marched side by side with the humans of Hamra. Customers became comrades. Together, they cursed politicians, braved tear gas and dodged bullets. The revolution will set them free. Or so he thought. Soon enough, he started listening again to the humans of Hamra argue over everything. Humans divided will always be defeated. Rida the Anonymous got tired of listening. He went home and fell silent. He lost his faith in the humans of Hamra, but not his love for Rita the Rebel.
Rita the Rebel
Rita the rebel was an avid reader and a deep sleeper. At home, she grew up listening to fatherly sermons about the afterlife and dreaming of fun stories about nightlife. Like Rida the anonymous, she was too young to fight in the civil war but too old to forget. Unlike Rida, she could afford university, but barely. She could afford to travel, but barely. Hers was a generation lost. They lived in the space between the rural and the urban, the traditional and the modern, the local and the global.
Hamra was a space between. Half bubble half real. A mix of people and places that is hard to find elsewhere. Hamra had a history too. In the past, the humans of Hamra expelled occupation soldiers from cafes, hosted young poets in exile, and led student struggles in the streets. When in Hamra, Rita the Rebel spent the day in bookstores and the night on bar stools. She knew that her generation’s Hamra was a parody of the past, but a current refuge nonetheless.
Until a stormy day in October, when dreams of revolution were reignited. Rita the Rebel practiced what she preached. She stood in the frontlines alongside Rida the Anonymous rather than speak in front of the camera like Paula the Pretender or write in reactionary papers like Hazem the Hypocrite. For a moment, Rita thought that the wall would fall and Riad the Joker would be expelled from his golden tower in Hamra. But the money priests and the sectarian warlords struck back with a vengeance. The crowds dwindled, the radicals retreated, and the self-proclaimed reformers with a taste for power took center stage.
After a pandemic and an explosion, Hamra felt like a purgatory. Rita became disillusioned but never indifferent. As she roamed the increasingly dilapidated streets and looked for familiar faces, pain filled her chest and doubts filled her mind. Should she stay or should she go? She did not know the answer. But one thing was certain. She loathed Riad and longed for Rida.
For three decades, people like Rita, Rida and Riad peacefully co-existed in Hamra. Unlike Beirut’s downtown, Hamra was not reinvented as a parody of itself during Lebanon’s postwar reconstruction. Many of Hamra’s landmark cafes, bars, theaters and bookstores were shut down after the war. But in due course, others sprang up, and the area remained a meeting place for a new generation of journalists, artists, writers, activists, and after the Arab uprisings, political refugees. The leftist and middle class character of many Hamra goers also survived the postwar reconstruction – even if this character acquired liberal undertones, with civil society replacing political parties as the frame of activity and discourse.
During this postwar period, the salience of Hamra’s progressive spaces had obscured the longtime presence of private banks – most notably the central bank headquartered at the street’s east end. The October 17 uprisings brought to the fore the contrast between the two. The Ritas and the Ridas of Hamra joined forces against Riad, and the power that he represents. The moment of unity in protest that emerged held the promise of a more radicalized Hamra where discourses of class struggle beyond performative politics are articulated, circulated, and used to mobilize against banker power.
Almost three years after the uprising, this promise remains unfulfilled. The vibrancy of Hamra has faded. Pockets of social encounters and cultural activity have survived, but the strong sense of collective intimacy has yet to return. More importantly, those who experienced the uprising on the streets of Hamra also experienced the limits of imagining change in isolation of the hard realities beyond its environs. To be fair, the apparent decline of Hamra, compared to other neighborhoods like Badaro, largely an NGO town, or Mar Mkhayel, largely a party strip, reflects a deep sense of connectedness between Hamra and Beirut writ large. Hamra embodies the vicissitudes of Beirut. In that sense, the humans of Hamra, whatever their fate, will always hold one of the main keys to their city’s past, present and future.