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Hamra Street – Al-Hamra – The Red

Less than one hundred years ago the area southwest of Beirut was almost a desert, sandy and practically uninhabited. There was just one quarter surrounded on the north side by Bliss Street and the American University, on the south by the Sanayeh (Arts and Crafts), and on the west by the Lighthouse and the sea. The Hamra district commences to the east a hundred yards from the Murr Tower and Kantari Street.

Did this area get its name from the reddish sand? Or from the dunes which advanced from Ouzai eastwards and which under the regime of the administrators known as the Mutassarefs were largely planted with pine trees to prevent the sand drifting into East Beirut? After all, places often receive names indicating colors, for example Hamra, Sawda, Safra, and so on. There is Deir al-Ahmar (The Red Monastery), Red Square, Kornet as-Sawda (the Black Summit), and Kornet al-Hamra. There is a fictional relation or twinning with Al-Hambra in Granada in Spain, that luxurious palace out of the Arabian Nights with fairyland gardens. Does the color red act as an incitement to splendor, to riches, to the fierceness of fire, or to Byzantine opulence?

Hamra Street or Rue Hamra as it is given officially on the Survey is marked as street 31. In the years between 1960 and 1975 it became the great pole of attraction for both commercial and cultural activities, the meeting-place for intellectuals and artists, and the publishing center for the offices of the important newspapers and reviews of Lebanon as well as for the book publishers.

I got to know this area in the early nineteen-fifties, when it was beginning as a hive of activity. There was the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, the religious house and school of the Capuchin Fathers, and nearby the Residence of President Emile Eddeh adjoining the Sanayeh hospital and the School of Arts and Crafts.

The alarm was sounded and the miracle was produced: a new Beirut rose upon the two sides of the roadway through Hamra.

I well remember how we used to walk in sand from Hamra to where the Ministry of Education and UNESCO Palace were being built. There were just a very few old houses here and there, a shop, and some trees – fig trees, olive trees, wild orange trees, and above all some cacti. There was little water, no irrigation and no infrastructure.

Then from one day to the next there was a new first morn of creation. Hamra Street became famous and was the focal point of Lebanon’s capital Beirut. Its development was rapid, with the appearance of commercial, sports, cultural and tourist centers. Outstanding were the theaters and Beirut’s largest cinemas, with the offices of major companies, banks including the Central Bank, restaurants, open-air cafés, night clubs, large hotels, press and other media agencies, newspapers, bookshops, ministries, studios, art galleries, luxurious medical facilities, hospitals, department stores and, nearby, universities, schools, and faculties.

Hamra Street became a landmark and a meeting-place, full of life both day and night, with neon lighting and flashing advertising. It was compared to the Champs Elysées and the great squares of the European capitals.

Then in the nineteen-seventies came the tragic events that tore Lebanon asunder. Hamra was transformed and lost its dominant position. Rue Verdun replaced it on the Western Side while Kaslik, Monot, Gemayzeh, Badaro and Ashrafieh became the centers on the Eastern Side. Hamra had lived its Golden Age between 1960 and 1975, but its glory had been ephemeral.

It is now a comparatively small area that can be crossed on foot to reach the American University, the American Hospital, and the Ministries of Information and Tourism, all within a few minutes of each other. In it all the religious communities are to be found whereas once it was a zone exclusively Christian.

The region is slowly returning to the role nature intended for it. Activity is reviving, shows are put on, and people return to meet. Exhibitions are being organized again. There are many visitors and sightseers and festivals are coming back organized by the ministries and companies in order to restore life and breath to this street.

Each year the Autumn Festival is patronized by the Prime Minister to show the cultural and artistic diversity of Lebanon. It comprises many different activities with many participants, including a large number of musicians, a carnival parade, flower floats, dances, the different orchestras of Beirut, the Fire Brigade, the Red Cross, tankers, beasts of burden, and vehicles with various vegetables.

Concerts are given by professional gigs, with Rock, Blues, jazz, Rap, electro, and oriental music. Stands put on show various arts and crafts featuring jewelry, printed T-shirts and handwork.

There are photographers, painters, ceramists, film-makers with their works both short and long, shown competitively to reveal the very best. Go to Hamra on foot on days when it is reserved for pedestrians.

Neither street nor alley ever dies in Lebanon, particularly when it is a matter of such an important avenue as Hamra. It will always be there, full of life, a center to welcome the young and the avant-garde.

Text: Joseph Matar - Translated from French: K.J.Mortimer

- Hamra Street: >> View Movie << (2016-05-28)
- Hamra Festival: >> View Movie << (2016-05-28)
- Hamra Festival: >> View Movie << (2016-05-28)
- Hamra Festival: >> View Movie << (2016-05-28)
- Hamra Festival: >> View Movie << (2016-05-28)



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