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LEBANON: Game over for Beirut's famous Gemmayzeh Cafe

January 7, 2011 |  1:52 pm

Lebanon-glass1

It could be a smoky space at times, with seemingly every man and woman holding a cigarette or a water pipe mouthpiece to their lips.

The live music, the cacophony of conversation and the clatter of men tossing dice onto backgammon boards could create an awful racket.  

But it was gorgeous, the floors covered with art deco tiles, the ceilings crafted ornately, the huge windows letting in crisscrossing beams of light that gave the place an otherworldly feel, like something out of an old movie. 

On Monday, a veritable Beirut institution -- the Gemmayzeh Cafe, often called the glass cafe, is to close its doors after some 80 years, having survived as a recreational refuge even during the country's 1975-1990 civil war.

Lebanon-glass2 The East Beirut cafe, which served an assortment of liquor and Lebanese foods as well as hot drinks in an atmosphere that recalled the Ottoman past, was a victim of Beirut's skyrocketing rents.

According to local reports, the landlord was demanding rent of $150,000 a year, while the cafe owner could only afford $50,000 for the space, located on a prime commercial strip that is in one of the centers of Beirut's famed nightlife. 

The cafe owner fought hard to keep the rent down, taking the landlord to court, but ultimately lost.

During the war, the cafe served as an escape for those hoping to duck out of the fighting for a bit of civilized conversation or a solitary drink.

More recently, it became a bastion for artists and Bohemian-types seeking a taste of the authentic in a city whose traditional architecture is being destroyed to make way for bland modern high-rises.

Locals gathered Wednesday night for a farewell bash. Newspapers offered fitting tributes.

"The history of this cafe is closely intertwined with the history of Beirut," Angele Abi Haidar, whose family has operated the cafe since the early 1950s, told Agence France-Presse. "Every inch of this cafe carries a story."

-- Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Upper photo: Regular customers of Beirut's iconic Gemmayzeh Cafe prepare to play a backgammon game during a farewell to the cafe organized by the "Save Beirut Heritage" group. Credit: Cynthia Karam / Reuters

Lower photo: A barwoman pepares drinks behind an old radio at Beirut's iconic Gemmayzeh Cafe on Dec. 29, 2010. Credit: Joseph Eid / AFP/Getty Images

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