Fighting for the Right to Party in Beirut
We talked to Lebanese club promoter Yousef Harati about nightlife in Beirut, including declining tourism's effect on clubbing, canceling pop-up parties due to suicide bombers, and why valuing parties in a tumultuous city isn't as superficial as it may...
Lebanese partygoers at club Decks on the Beach in Beirut. Photos by Zena Shahin
Despite its political climate, Beirut has maintained an irreverent and thriving party scene for years. Rooftop nightclubs adorn the coast of the Mediterranean, bohemian districts cater to tourists and local artists, and bars offer coke-fueled benders down the street from Hezbollah headquarters. It doesn’t get more scenic.
The juxtaposition of political tension and flagrant partying is not the only clash of interests in Lebanon. The New Jersey–sized country is one of the most religiously diverse in the Middle East, offering representation to 18 different religious sects and all the divergent political ideologies that come with them. But nothing has survived civil war, foreign invasion, 800,000 refugees, and a regular stream of targeted bombings quite like Beirut’s club scene.
This disregard for the violence that surrounds Beirut is not apathy. Partygoers are all too aware of the country’s political turmoil but stay within its imploding borders to seek a better alternative. In that respect, nightlife has become yet another medium in the culture of dissent. But the influx of Syrian refugees and the encroaching threat of the Islamic State has made tourism plummet by 40 percent this year, with hotels and airlines lamenting up to 60 percent in revenue loss. To many, it seems like Beirut’s revelry is doomed, but not to Yousef Harati.
A big name in Beirut nightlife, Harati is the creator of Behind the Green Door, L’Epicery, Decks on the Beach, and several other pop-up venues and beach clubs. For him, there's no question whether Beirut’s nightlife can sustain the security threats—nightlife is the only outlet for people weary from conflict. The impious all-nighters are more than nihilistic; they're a necessity. We talked to Harati about declining tourism's effect on Beirut clubs, canceling pop-up parties due to suicide bombers, and why valuing nightlife in a tumultuous city isn't as superficial as it may sound.
VICE: How did Beirut become such a hedonistic city?
Yousef Harati: The fact that Hezbollah is next door is why we party so hard. It’s the fear and frustration we have from not knowing what is going to happen tomorrow that pushes us. In other countries, people go see shrinks and do yoga. We deal with it by partying in spite of the bombings, and it has created this surreal energy.
When things are going well, and there haven't been bombings in a while, everyone is happy. But if there is a bomb on a Wednesday, we’ll still schedule a party for Friday, because we’re used to it. It might attract less people, but those who do show up are there because they need to be. And then there are the people who go out on the night of a bombing. It doesn’t get more “Beirut” than that. This is the only escape sometimes.
When did you realize that people needed this kind of outlet?
About six years ago, some friends and I asked a hotel if we could borrow their lobby for a speakeasy party. We invited 60 friends; 300 showed up. We held regular parties there for three months, but eventually they had to kick us out. Between the weird costumes and latex outfits, the booze and the partying, I think we frightened the hotel’s clients.
But that’s when it became obvious to me that there was a community in Beirut that needed something different, so I opened Behind the Green Door. The name comes from an old 1972 cult porn flick, and it has a red, velvety, boudoir feel. Not many people caught on to the porn reference, so we could get away with it.
I think people initially indulged a lot because we weren’t given enough cultural options. Beirut has a lot of worldly, intelligent people, and there wasn’t enough theater, music, or other creative outlets. Our best option was to get fucked-up. Now there are more activities on all artistic fronts, but nightlife is still part of Beirut’s tradition.
How often do politics interfere with your event planning?
Often, but we’re used to the challenge. I tried to hold an open-air festival this summer, with live music and movie screenings. The night we were launching just happened to be the night there was a suicide bomber in the hotel some distance behind our venue. The smoke was billowing from behind the movie projection.
It’s really hard to quantify fear. I can’t tell people not to worry about the suicide bomber and to come watch a movie anyway. I canceled the event and moved on. But this is why pop-up venues are doing really well here. They are a perfect way to party in an unstable country.
Lebanon’s tourism industry is reporting up to a 60 percent decrease in revenue this year. Has this affected you?
We get better rates in hotels! There are pros and cons. Yes, we’re affected by fewer tourists, but part of our success is that we cater to the local crowd. It’s a crowd that travels often when they can, and have friends flying in from out of town. If Lebanese politics weren’t as fucked-up as they were, we would have grown exponentially. But instead we attract the kind of people who don’t give a shit.
Last week, we had the Rapture perform here. They broke up some time ago but are still doing DJ sets. Some artists are afraid to come here, but the ones who do are surprised by how much Beirut has to offer.
You don’t feel like your lifestyle is threatened by any of the political activity in the city?
Well, it’s simply that we don't feel it in Beirut. Most of the hot spots are in Tripoli or on the borders with Israel and Syria, but in Beirut we feel isolated from the fuss. Incidents are usually so targeted that there’s no need to slip into widespread panic. Hezbollah is here, but we’re not under their jurisdiction. Beirut has always had a history of being tolerant to the various political ideas, and if they had any say we wouldn’t have a nightlife to begin with. Luckily, they don’t have any say.
Does ISIS pose a greater threat?
They’re a whole different story. Nightlife would be over, as would a lot of things. They are a threat to our daily lives in general, but to be honest we’re still trying to take it lightly. We’ll joke, “ISIS will never make it here; they’ll get fed up with Beirut traffic.” Nobody wants to accept that it’s a possibility.
Reports seem to believe that it is a possibility, and more militants are entering Lebanon.
We talk about these things all the time, but we never know what to expect. There is fear that ISIS will show up, but the Lebanese aren’t ready to let that happen. It’s bizarrely one of the things that have united the Lebanese most. Our country has been fragmented for so long, but Christians, Muslims, Druze, Jews, everyone is against this.
But for now, is it safe for tourists to continue visiting?
I wouldn’t encourage it if you’re worried, but things are disturbingly normal for us here. We’re used to bad things happening on a daily basis. It shocks me sometimes to see how easily we can forget that there was a recent bombing. It can be very surreal at times, but we can’t let ourselves get paralyzed by these incidents. We have to continue living, and trying to live well.
What do you want people to think of when they think of Beirut?
I can’t change what they think, but I would like them to feel the same things that bound me to this place: a comfort in the chaos, a lack of regulations that somehow makes life easier. As crazy at it sounds, it’s soothing to not worry about the First World regulations. Clubs like ours would be so much more costly in New York, licenses would have been a nightmare, and we wouldn’t have the same amount of impact on people’s lives as we do here.
I know this might sound superficial because I’m talking about nightlife, but our lifestyle is important because it’s giving people an outlet and something to look forward to. The Lebanese work hard, and there was a time when there wasn’t much to work hard for. People used to have to leave the country just to enjoy something lighthearted, and not everyone can travel. We provide that here in Lebanon, and it’s unique to the region in many ways. Offering this kind of livelihood in a more stable country would not be as gratifying.
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