April 21, 2009

Growing Up on Hamra

Kids on Hamra

H. needed summer shoes, and cousin O. wanted to help her pick them out for her. And there they went, two jumpin’ jacks, scurrying between the cars on Hamra street. Oblivious of the history of this street, this neighborhood, and the direction in which it is/may be going.

And I was thinking, what great it is to be able to grow up on/near Hamra.

I think the majority of Lebanese would disagree with me. Hell, half of them are trying to get out of this place, joining the million(s) that already managed/were forced to escape this place. But I like this place. I like Hamra, and its neighborhoods. I tried other neighborhoods in Beirut, but the moment you move into a single-sect area, this place can get really nasty. Hamra is soft and chaotic. Hamra is love and let live (well, most of the time).
Hamra at night (Not my picture. Click on picture for source.)

This place is divided in Hamra haters and Hamra lovers. And then there are those that were once Hamra lovers but deplore the demise of the once hippest street in Lebanon now that Wimpy and Modca have closed down. I’m a Hamra lover. Never knew the pre-war Hamra, but it was love at first sight with the post-war version. Over 1 kilometer long, named after the red soil (Hamra = red) that paved the path a long time ago, I don’t really have an explanation as to why I like this street so much. Maybe because of its mixture of east and west? It’s a bit run down, commercial, and borders on the seedy in some places. But Hamra is cosmopolitan and Hicksville in one, chic and sleazy at the same time.Colorful Hamra (Not my picture. Click on picture for source.)

Look how this street inspires me, and all this because we had to buy shoes this afternoon in Hamra Street. How lyrical.
Somebody needs to write a song on this street.


Karim said...

Interesting post. Nice to see I am not the only one who still loves Hamra.

But for the sake of historical accuracy, Hamra was not named after the red soil, but after a Lebanese family who lived there decades ago. There was an old woman named Mme Hamra who lived in a villa on the street when it was still rather desert, and that's how it became known as Hamra Street.

Leila Abu-Saba said...

I have never spent as much time in Hamra as I wanted to, but it has always felt like my kind of place. My American hubby liked it immediately upon his first visit at age 38.

Long ago in Egypt my friends used to tell of a legendary 60s film titled "Cats of Hamra Street." It was about dissipated Lebanese hippies who did raunchy things and came to a bad end. I hope I get to see it one day.

I can remember driving in to Hamra street with my father, from Saida, in maybe 1972 or 74, and seeing one of my cousins just hanging out at a cafe. He had gone to Beirut via service taxi from our village, just to hang around Hamra for the evening. Movies, coffee shops, chatting, girl watching. We leaned out the car windows and gossipped with him. There's nothing like driving in to the big city and running into your relatives in the heart of town; makes the cosmopolis seem like it belongs to you.

Last year when I tried to get somebody to drive me from my village (a mile from Saida) to visit a friend in Hamra, they all acted like it couldn't be done. The taxi driver, in his forties, who drives to the airport daily and goes to Jounieh and Byblos every week - the driver said he wasn't sure how to get to Hamra. !!! Since my parents lived there from 1993-2002, I said I would try to help navigate.

I was really disgusted at how silly everyone was being. They acted as if going to Hamra was dangerous or scary. They go to Nabatiyeh or Marjayun to buy bread and yogurt, but Hamra? Frightening, hard to reach. Grrrr. A Hamra-residing, leftist friend says it's the sectarian division left over from the war.

Of course, from the freeway, there's a giant exit sign that says: HAMRA. You really can't miss it. Getting back on the freeway is more challenging, however; we were on the lighthouse end but still managed to miss the on-ramp and end up on the corniche. Oh well.

Hamra forever!

Leila Abu-Saba said...

PS yes my parents lived in the Daouk Building for 9 years and loved it. I wish I could live there, too, for a few months. My hubby would enjoy it - plenty of manaqeesh and coffee and shawarma and wifi, what more does a man need?

Helen said...

I loved Hamra the first time I visited Beirut & despite playing around with CBD, Ain El Mraisseh and Byblos since, I always end up back in Hamra. I'll be there again next month and your post just made me even more anxious for the 3 weeks in between to fly by

Anonymous said...

Yes, you have "frenchies" and internationals...
Usually, the french are more attracted by less english speaking zones, like ashrafieh etc., but none has the real life of Hamra.

I don't think the name of the street is related to one family, because it's really old ; and the colour of the sand is famous since BC...

As for the song, we should write one about you, S...
(working on it, not easy... still not having or finding out the real and original trademark & terrible cause of your coming here).

But no fear, it's not about the shoes you know, it's just four planets on the same zodiac point in aries these days, putting everything on fire, you know...

Marillionlb said...

I have very found memories of Hamra from childhood. Toyland, the Latin church at the beginning of the street the express cafe, and most of all the lighting of the Christmas decoration. Although it has hanged it still holds a special place in many Lebanese's hearts

Anonymous said...

Oh Hamra,

Well I grew up in Hamra in the 60s and early seventies. Hamra was the place to be back then. It was very cosmopolitan and pretty much the entertaiment center of Beirut. In addition, business activity was thriving. At the time lots of europeans and americans lived there, as Beirut was the ME regional office for lots of multinational corporations. They would bring their families to live there as well.

During the tourist season, most hotels would be fully booked for months.

Christmas time was glorious.

My favorite time was Sunday morning, as it was very very serene after the mad rush of Saturday night. Some Saturday evenings, it was tough to walk the sidewalks, as there were so many people. Locals always complained about that. I know my mom did.

Went back for a day visit in 2001 after all these years, and I was quite dissapointed, as the buildings were not being kept up, and lots of nice places I grew up with had closed.

Now, I have a quiz for you Hamra lovers. In the early sixty, there was a small farm that was located about four blocks from main street Hamra that had milking cows. Can you guess where it was. The winner will get two free tickets to Saroulla movie theater (if it's still there) haha.

nicolien said...

Exactly my kind of street as well. And there is a song about it! It's called Share3 el Hamra (obviously), sung by Khaled el Haber from the communist party. (Can't find it online anywhere, but I should have it on cd somewhere if you want it.)

And anonymous, my boyfriend's mom says the farm you mean was probably the one close to Blue Note? Although they got their milk from a farm opposite to Goodies, in Verdun... (I wish i had been here at the time to see that!). Well?

Anonymous said...


Kheireddine said...

There was farm land near Sadate Street

I was born in Ras-Beirut, on Sidani st. (Khalidy clinic) and remember well pre-war Hamra. I used to buy my toys from Teddy Toys near Abou-Taleb, and go shopping with my mon at Bayoud supermarket and Takla. My first Job was at Credit-Libanais at the corner of Pavillon st. I love Hamra and Ras-Beirut :)

Anonymous said...


The farm was about 2 blocks SW of Commodore Hotel. Next to the huts of the cows, was a large plot of land that was still planted in the 60s at commercial level with eggplants and zuccini. The owner at the time was old but still farmed and was from the Chatila family. Not that he needed the money, as they owned lots of other plots that he sold to developpers.


These are some old photos of Ras Beirut. They look great. talk about empty space.

Anonymous said...

Incredible Hamra...
Suddenly so many toys, the farms, the planets, the shoes, the cows, and all the mothers!
I bet there's a trick.

Kheireddine said...

My father's first job was in the Domtex bldg corner Abdel-Aziz in 1947. He told me that it was the first commercial building built in Hamra. The Itani,Chatila and Chehab families used to own most of the Land. Before Hamra, the area near Bliss (AUB), Jeanne-D'arc, Makhoul and Manara were urbanized since the early 20th century.

Hamra was very trendy in the late 60's early 70's. Check this report written in 1970:

I also invite everybody to check the old pictures I posted on Skyscrapercity.com


Kheireddine said...

Not to forget, Hamra had the best movie theaters in the world: Piccadilly, Colisée, Eldorado, Cinéma Hamra, Strand, Etoile etc...
Seitske, I love the paved street; until the 60's, the main streets along the tramway lines like Weygand, Gouraud (Gemmayzeh), Basta, Matryrs' sq, Georges-Picot (Now Omar Daouk), Perthuis (Now John Kennedy) were paved like that.

Anonymous said...


You seem to have just as much passion for Hamra & Ras Beirut as I do from that period of time.

You mention all the movie theaters. Well I have a couple of good ones for you that were not mainstream. One is LeBaron that closed in the early seventies that was my favotite as 9, 10 & 11 year old. Admission was only 25 piastres (exchange rate at the time was around 3.25 lebanese pound to a dollar). They played all the Karate and western movie. The audience was like 90% kids (Ras Beirut was extremely safe back then). The other was Eddison by the AUB, that catered more to the university students.

We used to take the tramway to the souks in old downtown, and come back loaded with fresh fruits/vegetables, fish/meats you name it. The cost was 5 piastres. They eliminated the trams under heavy pressure from car drivers & service, claiming that it severely slowed the flow of traffic. Go figure!


I think the Latin chruch you are referring to was the Cappucien church, where they lit up their big natural Xmas tree Xmas time. Unless you're referring to the Maronite church of Wardieh (but that was a block away from Hamra st.)


We must have been very close in location. Our place was by Commodore hotel.

BTW, I checked your photos of old Manara and Ras Beirut & they look great.

Take care.

Sietske said...

Haha Kheireddine, I bet you didn't know this one: I met my husband at Bayoud! I married him 12 days later. Bayoud is gone though, and so is Takla, but Teddy land is still goign strong, at the end of Abu Taleb.

Leila Abu-Saba said...

OK I don't have photos of me on Hamra Street, but here I am in Martyr's Square in 1970 with my dad:


Another day when we just drove in to do something or other.

The Daouk building looks out over the WEiner Haus Hotel, and at least in the 1990s they kept a really cool old car, like from the 30s, a kind of wagon with wood sides, parked downstairs.

Speaking of that Latin church, my driver was extremely happy to see it last October (remember, he is 45, a taxi driver between Mieh-Mieh and the airport, and he'd never been to Hamra before in his life). We were stuck in traffic so he asked somebody about the church but they knew nothing of it and wouldn't chat.

I have only spent a total of a week living in Hamra Street but if you dropped me off anywhere I could find my way to AUB, to Daouk building, to the Corniche; my Arabic is good enough that I could catch a cab and go anywhere I wanted. I feel absolutely at home in Hamra. Now you're making me want to plan my next trip!

Kheireddine said...

Bayoud and Takla gone :(
Anon, we used to go to Cinema Edison to watch Charles Bronson vigilante movies :) Fauteuil club seats were at 3 LBP...then we used to eat ice cream and ghazl el banet at Tarazi (facing IC on Bliss). Oh I missed Beirut so much!

Kheireddine said...

We used to live on Nagib Ardati St in Manara from 1966 to 1974 facing the Mokhtar Itani cofee house and in Itani bldg! http://www.wikimapia.org/#lat=33.897354&lon=35.4744512&z=18&l=0&m=a&v=2
There were gardens with orange and citrus trees between the buildings. Behind us, facing each other, were Chatila mosque and St. Rita church. Those were happy days :))) Then we moved to Ain El-Tineh in 1974.

Anonymous said...


Why did you move to 3in el Tineh ya zalameh? You had a great spot already, with a commanding view. Just kidding.

Now that you mentioned Edison, do you remember this old beautifull house that was close by that had the giant bamboos? As kids we went fishing down by the AUB beach using the stairs by IC to get there and were always fascinated by the big bamboos as they they much larger than our poles. We had debates about it, the smarter ones took the position that they are too heavy and tall and we couldn't handle them. Other where looking for workable solutions like suggesting getting the young shoots. At the end of the day we settled for what we had.

We used to catch fish, but we could have caught more if we didn't get distracted and spent our time jumping from the rocks into the sea, and doing it over and over and compete as to who had the best jump. Before you know it, dusk was showing up and we had to gather our shxxt together and head home before we get in trouble with our moms.

Kheireddine said...

Of course I remember the old house with bamboo trees. There was a 60's Jaguar MK2 always parked under the trees. Seitske told me that it got demolished a few years ago. We had a great view on the sea from our balcony in Ain El-Tiné, however I always preferred Ras Beirut because our street (Schubert) was essentially residential, while Nagib Ardati st. was commercial on the ground, so we had everything nearby.

Anonymous said...


That's sad to hear that the old house got torn out. It was architectually beautifull.

Sad part about Ras Beirut is that these old beautifull Ottoman time houses with yards had no chance competing against land values for appartment buildings. Even in my time they were lost one after the other. Wish there was a historical society with some muscle that can save the remaining ones.

Anyway Kheir, where do you live now? hope you're doing great my friend and have a beautifull life. As for me, I have hang my hat around SF, CA for over 20 yrs. I have similar stories of SF, but I can tell you that I Left My Heart in Ras Beirut.


and thanks Siestke for hosting us. S, I know you too love Ras Beirut with all of its ups and downs. I can tell from your posts.

Kheireddine said...

I left Beirut 18 years ago with my family and never went back. I live in Montreal :)

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RollingMano said...

i LOVVVVVVVVVE hamra myself!
my parents dont seem to understand though.
they started hating it ever since the war began...

Anonymous said...

I am not Lebanese but I lived on and around Hamra for more than 5 years when I was a student at the AUB.
My favorite stretch starts from around the old Horsehoe at one end and ends at a little falafel place we called Abu Taleb!
I still call the place my very own on earth!
Long live Hamra!

Anonymous said...

Great post! I moved to Beirut about 4 months ago and I was in Hamara last night with some friends. We were talking about how some of our absolute best and most relaxing times are spent on this street. I love it!