Beirut’s people are broken. The catastrophic blast that tore through the port and surrounding areas on 4 August obliterated any remaining optimism in the city, long eroded by economic problems and regional instability. Of the 2.4 million inhabitants, more than 300,000 are now homeless. Almost 200 people died; 6,000 were injured. The cost of the devastation is currently estimated to be $15bn. Parts of the city closest to the centre of the explosion are in ruins, including the nightlife district, which has been virtually wiped out.
The city’s club culture, once the finest in the Middle East, was an antidote to the misery of an unravelling economy, and to hostilities spilling over from the Syrian civil war during the last decade. Rend Shamma, 34, art director of nightclub Überhaus, says clubbing “was one of the biggest outlets we had, to just dance it off. We had all the different religions under one roof together. I don’t know what that void will be filled with, but right now it’s filled with anxiety.”
Beirut has always been a cultural centre, a gateway between Europe and the Middle East that once had thriving disco and jazz scenes. Between 1975 and 1990 civil war raged in Lebanon, prompting many citizens to seek refuge overseas. Some returned after the end of the war, and music, art, film and theatre were all revitalised. Electronic music filtered in, with one of Beirut’s earliest club spaces, B 018, launching in 1998. “B 018 was an idea … that music could be the cure that wartorn Lebanon needed,” states the club’s mission. “It united the Lebanese underground when they were clashing on the surface.”
By the 2010s, Beirut’s club owners and promoters had cultivated a globally recognised scene building innovative club spaces – B 018’s roof retracted during the evening, so you could party under the stars – and booked international talent while nurturing local artists. Clubs such as the Gärten, the Ballroom Blitz, Discotek Beirut, the Grand Factory and AHM attracted a strong following. “Beirut is one of the most vibrant, cosmopolitan cities I’ve ever visited,” says Seth Troxler, a globally famous DJ who has played B 018 and Überhaus, adding that nightlife thrives there like nowhere else in the region thanks to its mix of religion and history. “Lebanese people live like it’s their last day, they enjoy all life has to offer with love, gratitude and hope,” he says. “When the world opens, Beirut will be one of the first places I go.” German techno star Dixon hails “the Lebanese culture, the mindset of the promoters, the energy of the people and the beauty of the city – coming once a year is a must for me”.
But Lebanese people have suffered years of being stripped of their basic human rights, with neglected sanitation systems, rubbish piled up in the streets, high unemployment, pharmacies running out of medicine, and constant blackouts due to a dilapidated power grid – hospitals would cancel operations due to power cuts, and in May, even Beirut’s traffic lights stopped working. Ali Saleh, co-founder of Überhaus, describes it as a “slow death”.
In October 2019, in the wake of forest fires and a proposed tax on WhatsApp messages, people snapped and took to the streets, embarking on what they called a revolution: essentially demanding regime change and an end to the corruption that has ravaged the country’s economy. Lebanon saw a huge, forecasted drop in the value of its currency – government debt had increased, making it the world’s third most indebted nation. During the revolution banks froze accounts and established “capital control”, drip-feeding people their earnings every month; GDP and public finances shrunk, poverty increased, though many of the wealthy were insulated. Foreign currency was made inaccessible, only available on the black market at extortionate rates. Clubs couldn’t afford to book international acts and many people couldn’t afford to go out.
“Booking an artist for €10,000 used to cost me 15m Lebanese pounds. After the revolution and the economic collapse, that ended up being 150m pounds,” says Saleh, one of the city’s key players. Normally mild-mannered, his simmering rage is audible. Since the blast hit, he’s been volunteering and is now communications director at Beirut Forward Emergency Room, the official entity managing the crisis. He has lost two of his clubs, a large portion of his hotel and his home. “I am still in shock, I have tears in my eyes every day,” he says. “I watch the news and the politicians aren’t even taking responsibility. I cannot comprehend what’s going on.”
The collapse of Lebanon’s economy paralysed nightlife businesses but some managed to cling on during the difficult winter months. Then in March, the pandemic swept in. “Even if we wanted to rely on local and regional talent, Covid came along, which meant we couldn’t even open our doors,” Saleh says. “Not because the government told us, but because we have a social responsibility.” After a few months, restrictions relaxed as the number of daily cases came down. Promoters held open-air events on beaches and in the mountains. But it was a shortlived revival as the explosion dealt a final, fatal blow to Beirut’s nightlife.
“Our summer club, AHM, has been destroyed, plus our offices, and Grand Factory is 45% destroyed, too,” says Jade, owner of the two clubs. “It’s a huge catastrophe for morale.”
“Seeing the future right now is impossible,” says Joe Mourani, co-owner of the Ballroom Blitz club. “Some families are deciding not to rebuild their houses because they’re so afraid of another blast or attack. Every time we take a step forward, the next day we’re several steps back.” Fears about insurance companies going bankrupt, the lack of aid from the government and general uncertainty have muted any thoughts of rebuilding other clubs. Even if they receive enough aid to start again, or there’s a miraculous payout from insurance companies, the idea feels impossible amid Covid and economic disaster.
“It’s left us with very little hope,” says Ronald Hajjar (AKA Ronin), DJ and booker at Ballroom. But the unity once witnessed on dancefloors, and shown in the human chain protest that stretched the length of the country in October 2019, is now being replicated in the wake of the blast. “People from other cities in Lebanon were coming to Beirut to help out,” Hajjar says. “This is a huge moment that is really unprecedented. It’s transcended any political or religious allegiances.” The Ballroom Blitz, which opened in 2018, is one of the few clubs to still be standing relatively unscathed and operational. As well as donating to charity, Mourani and his team have repurposed the venue into a co-working space and a temporary broadcasting station for radio hosts who have lost their studios, or lack electricity and good wifi.
That unity has translated into renewed anger, and activism. Nightly protests began in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. Witnesses say private security services fired on protesters with live ammunition. “We’re not able to claim our basic human rights, we’re not able to stand against corruption, and when we protest they’re shooting at us,” Jade says. “We need protection. The whole world needs to know we are hostages of this fucked-up regime.”
Überhaus talent booker and logistics manager Ralph Nasr stopped working when the club closed during winter, and lived week-to-week from DJ classes. Now he has no income and has moved back in with his parents. “The cherry on top for me is that I got shot by the police during a protest last week,” says the 27-year-old, who was left with shotgun pellets in his arm and thigh. “Every time you say it can’t get worse, it gets worse. I don’t know how we’re still standing on our feet.”
Romax Naurer, 45, is resident DJ at Überhaus. He moved to Beirut from the Netherlands in 2004, becoming immersed in the city’s nightlife. The explosion has left with him with a fear of sudden loud sounds. “I feel numb. I’m in between sadness and anger, which is a place I’ve never really been before.” Like many of his colleagues he now has no income and is taking things day by day. “It’s really tough not having income and not being able to find something. You feel lost, down and anxious about how you’re going to manage,” he says. But Naurer also acknowledges that there is currently no place for partying. “Rebuilding the city is the most important thing right now.”
“It’s hell. No matter how I turn it around in my head, it’s hell,” Ziad Nawfal, 49, confides. He started out as a radio host in 1993 and has been involved in Beirut’s alternative scene ever since, launching a label, Ruptured, and co-running Irtijal festival. He says there are few professional recording studios in the city, so musicians work from home – the blast has now destroyed these workplaces. His former partner at Ruptured, Fadi Tabbal, now runs one of the city’s only studios, Tunefork, which has set up a relief fund for musicians. But as Nawfal says: “Some people will have recovered equipment, but will they recover their will to create?”
Other fundraisers have been launched by numerous musicians around the world, including Lebanese techno star Nicole Moudaber and pop star Mika. Saleh says international assistance like this is critical. “This is not the time for pride: we need help. We have nowhere else to go – do you know how hard it is just to get visitors’ visas to go to Europe and the US? And how would we be treated in these countries?” But money alone offers no tonic to the sense of hopelessness. As Nawfal says: “This is the first time in my personal history that I can say that I don’t know how we will recover from this.”
Half-Palestinian and half-Lebanese, Shamma luckily also has a US passport, and now wants to leave. “You feel like you’re just giving up on your people and leaving them in the dump. It feels so unfair and so heavy.” She says she doesn’t want to listen to club tracks any more – it’s as if the blast has drowned out music itself. “So many people say it’s hard to even listen to music now. The few times I’ve tried, it doesn’t feel good. I drive in silence.”