Tuesday 11 September 2012

When Beirut’s old Bliss Street epitomized the Arab world

The late Nadia Tueni

Each street in Beirut has a story to put across and the older the street the more stories it can pass on.
Beirut was best described in a poem written in French by Nadia Tueni (1935-1983).
Born to a Lebanese father and a French mother, she was the 1973 Académie Française poet laureate. Lines I paraphrased from Tueini’s poem titled “Beyrouth”:
… In Beirut, each idea lodges in a house
In Beirut, thoughts and caravans are disgorged…

Whether she is a nun, a witch
Or both…

Whether adored or cursed…
Whether soaked in blood or holy water
Whether she’s guiltless or murderous
Phoenician, Arab or a touring car…

Beirut is the Orient’s last sanctuary
Where Man can always don the color of light
No place in Beirut is a greater repository of “thoughts and caravans” than Bliss Street of old. Its nerve center was the modest Faisal Restaurant. The now-defunct eatery was indeed the “last sanctuary” for the pan-Arab intelligentsia.
The street is named after Dr. Daniel Bliss, the American missionary who founded the American University of Beirut in 1866. It runs in a straight line for hardly a kilometer along one side of the AUB campus. It starts at the university’s Medical Gate, goes past its Main Gate and ends at Ras el-Khatt, or “end of the (tramway) line.” But the tramline connecting Furn el-Shebbak to Manara at the tail end of Bliss was discontinued in 1963.
The Bliss Street marker for nearly 50 years was Faisal Restaurant. Its fame peaked between 1950 and 1970, when it became the unbound melting pot for the cream of Lebanese and Arab society. Students, activists, scholars, intellectuals and politicians all met unhindered at Faisal’s (frequently in my presence and involvement) to debate cataclysmic events swamping the Arab world. Among them:
  • Fallouts of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and exodus of 750,000 Palestinian refugees to neighboring Arab states;
  • Assassination of Jordan’s King Abdallah (1951);
  • Death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdelaziz Al Saud (1953), ouster of King Saud (1964) and his replacement by King Faisal;
  • Accession to independence of Libya, Oman, Sudan, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Kuwait and South Yemen;
  • Military coups in Syria (1949 through 1970), Egypt (1952), Sudan (1958, 1964, 1969), Iraq (1958), Yemen (1962), Algeria (1965) and Libya (1969);
  • Rise of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel-Nasser (1952) and his death (1970);
  • Nationalization of the Suez Canal (1956) followed by the Suez Campaign;
  • Algeria’s War of Independence (1954-1962 );
  • Revolt in Lebanon and US Marines’ deployment in Beirut (1958)
  • Birth and later (1961) collapse of the merger between Syria and Egypt in the United Arab Republic;
  • The Arabs’ loss of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), Gaza, Sinai and the Golan Heights to Israel in the 1967 war;
  • Birth of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1960 and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) four years later;
  • Egypt's military adventure in Yemen;
  • Election of Yasser Arafat as PLO chairman (1969) and “Black September” (1970) in Jordan;
  • “War of Attrition” (1968-1970) between Egypt and Israel along the Suez Canal;
  • Sequels of the 1955 “Baghdad Pact,” the 1957 “Eisenhower Doctrine” and the 1970 “Rogers Plan.”

It is claimed that if someone asked for directions to the Main Gate, the answer came, “Facing Faisal’s.” Another legend suggests that when Gamal Abdel-Nasser in his heyday wanted to gauge the Arab street mood, he would ask to be briefed on the atmosphere at Faisal’s.
Throughout the Fifties and Sixties, center stage at Faisal’s belonged to the soft-spoken Monah el-Solh, Lebanon and the Arab world’s tireless éminence grise.
The late Nabil Khoury
No writer captured Faisal’s relevance to the Arab world better than Nabil Khoury (1929-2002). He was the brilliant journalist, communicator, essayist and author next door. In the midfifties, he and his wife Marcelle rented a flat right above ours in the Faddoul Building close to the Commodore Hotel in Ras Beirut. I was still at university then, but he was already working his way up to become head of programming at Radio Lebanon. He set up and edited a women’s magazine, al-Hasna’, and served as editor in chief of Lebanon’s leading political weekly, al-Hawadeth, before moving out to Paris. In 1977, he launched from Paris a prestigious pan-Arab magazine, al-Mustaqbal. I saw him last when I visited his plush Paris offices around that time.
Shortly after the Lebanon civil war brought down the curtain on Faisal’s in end-June 1978, Nabil Khoury wrote a succinct commentary of fewer than 200 words. It read more like an obituary of the Arab world than a graveside eulogy of the restaurant.
My translation from Arabic of Khoury’s piece titled “Faisal Restaurant”:
Freedom of Speech was the favorite food at Faisal’s…
Reading a book was immaterial. More important was to hear what was said about it at Faisal’s…
No one was judged an author or journalist before being recognized as such by Faisal’s inner circle. It was easier to win a degree from AUB across the street…
You entered Faisal’s as a student, spending your first years as a listener before you were allowed to join the dialogue
Dialogue in the morning…
Dialogue at noontime…
Dialogue in the evening…
All the paradoxes of the Arab world, all its [political] parties and their ideologies, and all its VIPs… used to hang violence [in the cloakroom] alongside their coats before entering the civility of dialogue
You met a hundred people in Arab capitals who would tell you, “I know you from school or university”…
You met a thousand who would say, “ We know you from Faisal’s”…
It was the Arab world’s biggest [political] party…
It was the Arab unity that foundered…
It was the pan-Arab parliament… that is now on its deathbed
It was the unborn Arab democracy
It was the backbone of a nation stretching from the [Atlantic] Ocean to the [Arabian] Gulf -- a place where the revolutionary rested and the big shot dropped a size
So long as you were outside [Faisal’s] you dreaded speaking, but once inside… you were secure
It’s the Arab world that slipped away with no one present to bid it farewell…
No one hurled a funeral flower at its internment because most were either faraway or exiled…!
But tens of thousands mourned it with tears
It was the last bridge, the bridge of no return.
Tewfik Saadeh founded Faisal’s around 1919. He was a native of Ain Saadeh, a village in Lebanon’s Metn district.  The name "Ain Saadeh" refers to the town's natural spring and means "Spring of Happiness." On his death, ownership of the restaurant passed to his son Farid.
The night of Gen. Fuad Chehab’s election as president of Lebanon on 31 July 1958, ending by it the 1958 uprising, Farid invited me for a drink in Brummana. On the way back to Beirut in his car, we were stopped at a militia barrier near Sinn el-Feel and asked for our IDs. The militiaman who checked Farid’s ID told him, “You can go.” The one who checked mine told me, “You’re under arrest.” An exchange between the pair then went like this:
-- “Why are you arresting the passenger? The driver (Farid) is Christian and from Ain Saadeh.”
-- “This one here is Moslem and from Mazraa and you want me to let him go?”
-- “We leave together or stay together,” Farid told the men manning the barrier. A typical Lebanese compromise was reached: we would be escorted together under arms and placed under house arrest at the nearby home of Farid’s widowed mother. After 18 hours there, the Lebanese army took over and dismantled militia barriers throughout the country. We were free to go.
Farid married and settled late in life after living for several years in a first floor flat almost above Faisal’s. He was a charming bon viveur. He liked his liquor, enjoyed card games (Bido, Poker and Quatorze), appreciated sports cars (he drove a stunning 1955 Ford Thunderbird convertible) and loved Spanish women, which is why he was so fluent in Spanish. Funding that lifestyle drove him to sell part of Faisal’s title to George Baroody, who steadied his hand. The latter also took over the day-to-day management of the restaurant with help from his brother Elias Baroody and a quasi-accountant, Emile Shu’aib.
Faisal’s four lasting waiters were an ageing Michel, a burly Ameen, a wily Nayef and an amusing Anwar. They were the AUBites’ friends, consultants, food advisors, and small moneylenders on occasion.
One sidesplitting story about Anwar: He was serving three regulars sitting around a table for four. All asked for Turkish coffee. One wanted it “sweet,” the other “medium” and the third “without sugar.” Anwar disappeared for a few minutes and came back with three cups and one cezve (ركوة). He served the student who wanted coffee “without sugar” first. He then shook the cezve gently and served the “medium” before giving the cezve a good shake and serving the “sweet.” He explained later that he did not stir the sugar at all when preparing the coffee. He thought it was easier to let the sugar settle at the bottom of the cezve and control the degree of sweetness with a shake.
(More faces and places on the old Bliss Street in the next post)