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Beirut Bids Farewell to Iconic Cafe

Images of historic Beirut buildings flashed on a large screen at Café Gemmayze on its last night. Save Beirut Heritage volunteers said some were buildings the organization had saved, and others had been destroyed.

This week, Beirut said goodbye to an almost century-old coffee house that survived civil war, regime changes and countless political crises. Activists say it was one of more than a thousand historical landmarks that have disappeared from the city’s landscape in the past 15 years.

The party organizers billed the event as a "funeral," but the atmosphere was anything but somber.

At the closing night of Café Gemmayze, also known as Ahwet L-Ezez, or The Glass Café in English, a man sung in praise of the restaurant, now closed after 90 years as a Lebanese institution.

"Beloved ones, we came to the café to party," he sang. "By us the cafe grew better."

Other locals and long-time customers read poems, lamenting what they call the "death" of this Beirut icon.

Not far from the front lines of the battles that devastated Beirut in the 1970s and 80s, Café Gemmayze remained open during the civil war and steadfast during the remodeling that has changed much of what remained in the years that followed.

Café owner Angele Abi Haidar says, during war, the café was a safe haven for beleaguered locals. Many families fled the area, but those that remained found camaraderie and relative safety inside the restaurant. Regulars came daily and played cards or backgammon, while drinking coffee and smoking argile- otherwise known as shisha, or hookah.

"They came each day- everyday- from seven- eight o’clock to seven in the evening, and whenever a bomb or a shell came, they went to the kitchen and continued their day. [It was] very, very cool," said Haidar.

"Save Beirut Heritage," the group that organized the café's last hurrah, says in the past 15 years, about 1,300 historical buildings have been torn down in Beirut, and several iconic coffee houses have shut their doors. Giorgio Tarraf, one of the founders of the organization, says since they opened nine months ago, they have connected with more than 7,000 supporters on the Internet and successfully lobbied for the preservation of all or part of 50 buildings.

"We want to preserve Beirut’s old houses and try to protect our architectural heritage, and, more importantly, our human heritage," said Tarraf.

Although the Lebanese Ministry of Culture has guidelines that restrict the destruction of historical buildings in Beirut, the actual laws concerning the issue date back more than 80 years, says Tarraf. He says they need an "urgent update."

Activists say the fact that Lebanese politicians often own the development companies that profit from replacing old buildings has made it harder to fight for the historical landmarks.

Save Beirut Heritage volunteer Gus Naamani, says destroying buildings in Beirut is robbing the city of its history, and of its future as a tourist destination. Naamani says the organization threw a farewell party for Café Gemmayze because in the past, when other historical landmarks have been shut down, no one knew, and no one protested.

"They shut down without anybody saying anything. Now that we’re here we are not going to be quiet about. We are going to say, 'No, we don’t agree with what you are doing,'" said Naamani.

For Angele Abi Haidar, who said goodbye to the café her family has owned for more than 60 years this week, the parting was bittersweet. The widespread closing of historical landmarks in Beirut makes her sad, she says. But, she adds, it makes her more determined to make the new café she just opened remain traditional, and uniquely Lebanese.