In calmer times, Arabs from across the region would flock to indulge in Lebanon’s glitzy rooftop bars and mega-clubs. The Arab Spring and the violence that it sparked in its wake has forced those clubs into decline. A sudden drop in wealthy Gulf citizens arriving every summer as well as lengthy political and economic gridlock in Lebanon, combined with over 1.5 million Syrian refugees were all factors in a monumental shift in the city’s nightlife scene. The rooftop madness has quickly transformed into subterranean, truly underground scene reminiscent and heavily influenced by cities like London and Berlin.
Lebanese people’s joie-de-vivre is a stereotype many citizens wear proudly. Artists visiting Beirut are told that the crowds here have a reason to party, and that every party might be their last given the turmoil in the region. The reality is a bit more complicated than that slightly facile explanation. Clubbers in Beirut don’t go out at night because they’re worried about ISIS or an Israeli invasion. They go out because it has become part of their identity. Clubbing is no longer just an industry that caters to wealthy foreigners.
The real challenge facing the nightlife industry was how to cope with the sharp decline in Arab expats willing to purchase tables for tens of thousands of dollars in clubs that tied fireworks to the dozens of champagne bottles they’d parade to the table with the largest tab. In a country crippled by economic challenges, high unemployment rates and an unprecedented and underfunded refugee crisis, not many locals can afford to splurge like their oil-rich Gulf counterparts. Something had to change.
Perhaps nowhere is this sudden change more obvious than with Sky Bar, Lebanon’s legendary, ultra-exclusive rooftop club on the shores of the Mediterranean and overlooking a rebuilt Downtown Beirut. In 2010, the club would open and fill up 6 days a week. This summer, the club lies in ruins after a fire devastated the venue. No plans have been announced to restore what was once seen as the crown jewel in Lebanon’s tourism sector.
Just a stone’s throw away though, a different kind of club fills to the brim every weekend with thousands of clubbers. The Gärten/überhaus is one of a series of clubs that have opened since 2011, cementing the shift from exclusive and expensive, to inclusive and affordable. They’re clubs designed with the Lebanese clubber in mind, not foreign big spenders. Club owners focused more on the music and experience, not the pre-arranged list of premium alcohol to be purchased if you expect a reservation under your name.
Promoters and clubs like überhaus and C U NXT SAT now operate four nights a week, with thousands of revelers choosing the night that caters to their specific musical taste. The underground scene in Lebanon has been alive and well since the early 1990s, with clubs like B018 and The Basement making sure that clubbers that don’t feel like dressing to the nines and spending their entire month’s salary on a four-hour party on a rooftop, can have a subterranean venue to seek refuge in from their turbulent lives.
As happens the world over, the underground’s become the mainstream. Folks that wore dress shirts to at Sky Bar, still do when they come to The Garten. The inclusiveness of that scene meant that a lot of the hardcore fans who grew up and refined their musical taste in abandoned warehouses and disused factories yearned for that esoteric feeling when going clubbing.
That nostalgia—coupled with a several massive festivals being abandoned due to travel warnings from European and American governments back when the conflict in Syria started escalating—is what forced the city’s private party scene to evolve.
These events are usually invite-only and free to attend. They aren’t advertised; you won’t hear a 45-second movie-trailer voice on the radio telling you four times every hour that it’s going to be the best night of your life. You just get invited, with a +1, and show up. These parties have fully equipped bars, state of the art lights and sound systems. It’s not just someone’s phone plugged into an aux cable anymore.
A good example of such parties are the Fantome de Nuit (FDN) showcase nights. The Beirut based label are at the forefront of the private party revolution. The appeal for the partygoers—apart from the sheer pleasure of being ‘in’ enough to be invited—is the sense of familiarity revelers feel amongst one another. The fact that there’s no door charge, and profit isn’t at the top of the agenda, means that collaborations between rival promoters and artists are common at these gatherings. In a matter of months after first taking place, these were the it-parties that everyone heard about but not everyone could attend.
Exclusivity isn’t the purpose, though. These private parties championed by the likes of Nesta (aka Technophile) are the test tubes where up and coming local artists can get familiar with the crowd, and vice versa. A headlining artist at an FDN showcase will probably be opening at The Garten or B018 that same week, meaning the effects of these nocturnal incubators are always reflected in the overall nightlife scene in Beirut.
Perhaps the last reason why these private parties have been on the rise, is constant persecution from Lebanon’s corrupt police force. Clubbers are often the targets of “random” stop-and-frisks in an attempt to score a bribe from members of society seen as “not conservative enough”. This has emboldened the clubbing community and made it more tightly knit. In these private parties, the sidelines are often folks sipping on their drinks and discussing the situation in the country and how to fix it. Human rights, LGBT rights, gender equality, free speech are all topics no one ever expected clubbers to care for. The political and security situation was what people tried to forget at night while partying, but now, they know that unchecked political corruption endangers their way of life. So much so, that several clubs encouraged their patrons to participate in pro-reform protests across the country, even offering a free cocktail for those that had protested before going out clubbing in true Beirut style.
In other words, the nightlife scene has also become a powerful lobby of liberal, tolerant, young Lebanese born after the country’s devastating civil war. For example, C U NXT SAT welcomed election campaigns by a list of candidates that included some of their usual patrons, alongside a campaign to gather warm clothes for refugees throughout winter. What used to be a scheme to make money off of wealthy tourists, has transformed into a subculture that yearns for change and is working on it during the week before they hit the clubs on weekends. It might seem surprising or odd, but there are few spots in Lebanon where you will see Christians, Shiites, Sunnis, Druzes, Copts, Yazidis, Syrians, Iranians, Saudis, Palestinians, European and US expats together having a good time and keeping their sectarian and ideological differences at the door, hoping for a better tomorrow—albeit with a monumental hangover caused by decades of unrest and wars.