In Times of Conflict, Beirut's Night Lights

As Sunnis and Shiites clash, some citizens try to have a normal night out.

ByABC News
May 11, 2008, 1:14 PM

BEIRUT, Lebanon, May 20, 2008 — -- It's easy to argue that Beirut hosts the most vibrant and original nightlife in the Middle East -- its people are famous for their unshakable will to enjoy life and each other. Historically, Beirutis hit the clubs in one part of town while bombs are hitting another.

But on a Saturday night that followed nearly a week of civil violence, Beirut's pub-lined Monot Street was empty. A few bars and restaurants entertained the trickle of those who wanted to be out when political turmoil would have kept them in.

"I wanted to go out and spend money, give Beirut a little boost," said Ghida Younis, a smartly-dressed woman in her 30s.

Younis spent Saturday night having drinks at Centrale, a bar and restaurant with a peculiar and timely history. Centrale was designed by architect Bernard Khoury as a chic living memorial to Lebanon's 15-year Civil War -- a sectarian conflict that was on the mind of Lebanese and outside observers as Sunni and Shiite gunmen clashed over the past few days of unrest.

Centrale is carved out of a shell-shocked and bullet-holed building. Khoury encased the building's remains in a metal cage for stability, then gutted the interior and replaced it with a modern leather and chrome décor. The result was an indoor-outdoor restaurant and second floor pub, housed in an exterior of immortalized bullet holes.

"There is no place like Centrale," said Younis. "It is my favorite. But you can't open the top tonight or you might get shot," she spoke of the bar's retractable roof that opens when the weather is nice.

Saturday was just the night for an open roof, a temperate and fragrant spring night. But only three of the restaurant's tables were filled, with less than half of its normal crowd at the bar.

Garo Hakimian, 27, was taking shots at the bar, hours after gunmen took shots in the streets.

"I just wanted to go beyond the reality," he said, then drinking a toast to life and to Lebanon.

Centrale was built in 2001 in a round of self-reflective Lebanese constructions. Another one was a bar called "1975," a Civil War-themed nightspot decorated with helmets and sandbags. The bar closed, presumably for lack of sufficiently nostalgic clientele.

As for Centrale, highly palatable French cuisine and the largest wine cellar in Beirut made it one of the city's most popular venues. The lentil salad appetizer and seven-hour lamb were particularly good. When in Beirut, you can go enjoy them, in times of war and peace.