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Historic cafe in Beirut closes down after more than 80 years in business

posted 9 Jan 2011, 05:23 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 9 Jan 2011, 05:26 ]

The Cafe Gemmayzeh, one of the oldest cafes in Beirut, closes down to make way for a bank, leaving regulars ruing what they regard as a loss of history in the rapidly developing city.

BEIRUT, LEBANON (JANUARY 5, 2011) REUTERS - Customers bid farewell to one of Beirut's oldest cafes, which recently closed down to make way for what would possibly be a bank.

The Cafe Gemmayzeh, open since 1920, has lived through much of Lebanon's history -- even through the 1975-1990 civil war.

It was given an emotional farewell as it received customers for the last time on Wednesday (January 5). Hundreds of people gathered inside the dim lit interior of the cafe to have one last cup of Turkish coffee, play one last game of checkers and listen for the last time to the songs of the cafe's well-known singer, Joseph.

Gemmayzeh is one of the neighbourhoods in Beirut where residents say its historical buildings and heritage are being compromised by the onslaught of construction of new high rise buildings.

Buildings in this area, including Cafe Gemmayzeh, or the Glass Cafe as it is sometimes called, date back to the Ottoman Era.

Asaad Abu Shakra, 85, is one of the oldest customers of the cafe. Born near the cafe itself, Abu Shakra said he has been frequenting it since 1943. The cafe was popular both during the daytime, where visitors could drink tea, have some food and play cards or board games. At night, it was popular for its live music and renditions of old Arabic and Lebanese songs.

"If I have three years left to live, that would be reduced down to one year due to anger and frustration over the closing," Abu Shakra said.

Meanwhile, the cafe's manager, Angel Abi Haidar, who has looked after the cafe for many years, said she hoped the Lebanese people would pay attention to what she regards as the loss of their heritage.

"It's not only the protection of cafes like this that is needed. What I want people to know with this event is that they should be aware of what's going on around them. Many important landmarks in Lebanon, more important than this one, are being lost. This is a small thing compared to the other things that are happening. We are losing many things in this country," Abi Haidar said.

Cafe Gemmayzeh has opened in a new location just outside Beirut, in the area of Antelias. The cafe was closed in Gemmayzeh because a deal could not be reached between the cafes owners and the owner of the building on the renewal of rent.

Lebanese media said the cafe will be turned into a bank, although this has not yet been been confirmed.