Lebanese cafes become workplaces

The music is soft and the atmosphere studious: for customers who frequent Beirut’s cafes the most important thing today is good lighting and an effective Wi-Fi connection.

This is because, today, for many these sites have replaced offices and other workplaces, due to power and internet outages as a result of the severe economic crisis in Lebanon.

Aaliya’s Books, in the heart of Gemmayzeh, once the legendary center of the capital’s nightlife, is one of these new sanctuaries.

“When I come here, most of the time it’s because I don’t have electricity at home,” confided Maria Bou Raphael, huddled on a sofa.

The power cuts, which extend for up to 23 hours a day, and the covid-19 restrictions have left many without an office, leaving them with no choice but to telecommute from cafes throughout the day, especially since they have better quality of internet connection, which has also almost collapsed in some parts.

Portable generators — which have emerged as the only way to keep devices charged and connected — are expensive for many Lebanese as they face an economic crisis that has caused the local currency to lose more than 90% of its value. value on the black market in recent years.

Therefore, cafes are one of the few businesses that have resisted to a certain extent this crisis, which has been fueled by corruption, capital flight and the reluctance of potential donors in the face of such a scenario.

Niamh Flemming Farrell, manager of Aaliya’s Books, said that during the week the store is more like a co-working space than a café, with some of her customers staying there all day.

The sense of community created by the service it provides to the neighborhood revives a café culture that had been all but lost in recent years.

This café, which also doubles as a bookstore, takes its name from Aaliya Saleh, the main character in “An Unnecessary Woman”, a novel by renowned Lebanese-American writer Rabih Alamedinne, published in 2014.

The narrative revolves around a 72-year-old woman confined to her apartment in Beirut, with her books as her only company in the context of the 1975-1990 civil war.

– ‘Relaxed place’ –

“We found that (…) our clients began to work additional hours in our premises, opting for those that provide greater comfort,” said a spokesman for Café Younes, a group with ten coffee shops, mostly in the capital.

The company opened a large branch a year ago in Beirut’s central Hamra neighborhood, which has a multi-purpose room with large desks equipped with electrical outlets.

Barzakh is another one of the multi-purpose cafes recently opened on the first floor of a popular building in Hamra.

This district embodies in Beirut the culture of cafes, which reached its peak in the 1960s, but which was gradually banished by bars, which favor a more noisy form of socializing.

“I can see people running and screaming (outside), but here I am sitting quietly, in a relaxed place,” says Mustafa al Sus, a clothing design student, sitting by a large window.

This young man sees in Barzakh a refuge from the pessimism that has taken over all of Lebanon in recent years, but also as a place where he can work.

The tables at this cafe are cluttered with notebooks and laptops, while charger cables tangle on the floor, threatening to trip waiters.

“Originally, we wanted to ban the use of laptops” here, recalls with an incredulous smile Mansur Aziz, founder of the café-cum-library, which also hosts live shows in the evenings.

Many here were driven from their homes by the electricity supply crisis, and now rely on cafes for a social life, especially those who currently cannot afford to party at night.

In Barzakh, customers frequently nod at each other from across the room, gradually getting to know each other.

“I am a particularly sociable person,” says Mustafa. “I like it when people come up to me to ask what I’m working on,” he adds.



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