Leila*, a young Lebanese woman, about 20, needs no more than half an hour to get ready for her evening in Mezyan.
Mezyan is a bar/restaurant located in the middle of Hamra Street in Beirut. On tables made of repurposed wood, conferences are held and conversation fluctuates; on one table, someone theorizes about love, while on another a discussion unfolds on the meaning of freedom and the purpose of war.
In a slightly less crowded corner, a couple celebrates the anniversary of their first date to the hum of ‘90s pop songs.
Compared to other Downtown Beirut establishments, Mezyan is relatively inexpensive. This alone is a major draw, though other factors guarantee that the bar is at full-capacity almost every day.
For those who frequent Mezyan on weekends, the notion of Mezyan as a quiet, ambient place would seem alien; they know it only as the densely-packed box of dancers, with a hint of debauchery.
The popular outfit for Mezyan-goers is jeans and a t-shirt, and for women, it’s a refreshing opportunity to forgo the perfect coif and dress, and throw out the high heels, in exchange for a more down-to-earth look.
“The place is casual enough to allow us to dispense with considerations of etiquette or appearance,” Leila says.
Khaled, the Flower Seller
As you arrive at the entrance to the bar, Khaled, a young Syrian boy carrying a bundle of flowers to sell with his sister and cousin, fishes for couples, wrangling with the young men to buy flowers for their lovers.
By now, he has become a fixture of Mezyan, having developed friendships with the regulars, such that they were saddened to learn that Khaled had been in a car accident, then subsequently elated when he resumed his position at the entrance to Mezyan.
A Social Experiment
During the weekends, Mezyan can be seen almost as a unique social experiment, drawing together a vast array of incongruous types and breeds of people.
There are those who stumble upon the place in search for a casual hook-up, while others come in to feed a hankering for dancing until the early hours of dawn.
Here, despite not being a gay bar, Beirut’s LGBTQ can walk freely without fear of harassment—in all cases, everyone is too preoccupied to notice anyone else, let alone harass them.
Unique among Arab cities, Beirut is distinguished in its capacity to accommodate extreme contradictions. From the political clashes and religious disputes—though they frequently erupt in the streets—everything is forgotten once you walk through the doors of the bar.
“When entering Mezyan, you leave your political affiliations, religious convictions, and ideological disputes at the door,” Leila says.
"When you enter Mezyan, you leave your political and ideological convictions at the door."
The Downtown Beirut bar capable of uniting foes...
Drunks, Vagabonds, Lovers, Intellectuals
“Mezyan is a great example of countering discrimination,” says Aram, a young Syrian man who recently settled in Beirut.
Aram is a major proponent of pan-Syrian nationalism, believing Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq to all be part of the geographical outlines of the Syrian nation.
“In certain parts of Beirut, I suffered from discriminatory harassment, which forced me to consider at length the identity of the places that I frequent. The first time I came to Mezyan, there was a mix of nationalities,” Aram says.
"Coincidentally, I ran into some friends from Damascus, who told me that they come here weekly. On my third visit, I came to realize that Mezyan does not discriminate between locals and foreigners, for everyone here is either a drunk, a vagabond, a lover, or an intellectual,” he adds.
He laughs as he tries to translate the lyrics of a popular Egyptian song to a British woman dancing with his friend.
Realizing how difficult it might be, he finally says: “Even those who speak Arabic fluently wouldn’t be able to explain the lyrics.”
The DJ shifts between English-language tunes to the latest Arabic hits, to meet all tastes. Then, without need for introduction, he switches to a popular Palestinian song.
Instantly, the Palestinians in the crowd break out into dance, some of them climbing up on the tables to perform their traditional dabkeh.
A young Palestinian named Bassam who regularly visits Mezyan says: “It occurs to me that these types of songs were made to inspire the willpower of the [Palestinian] people. But in a place like this, it makes us feel as though we Palestinians are an inextricable part of the demographic, and so we respond by dancing.”
‘No One Cares Which Revolution They’re Dancing For’
Prior to 2011, the songs of Lebanese singer Julia Boutros had relatively monolithic interpretations; her rebels and revolutionaries were invariably Palestinians or others standing against the Israeli occupation. The “revolution” was the dream of an uprising.
Yet, on the backs of the various uprisings that broke out across the Arab world, particularly in Syria, people were politically and ideologically divided into various camps, with each camp interpreted the words in accordance with their own beliefs.
Yet, the revolutions that seemingly tore much of our society apart were nonetheless capable of uniting foes on Mezyan’s dance floor.
“Each individual who responds to these songs believes wholeheartedly that it is being played in support of their cause,” Leila comments.
“The rebel is of the firm conviction that Julia’s songs are the songs of the Syrian revolution against the regime, while the loyalist dances with equal fervor, believing that the song is about the Palestinian revolt and the liberation of Jerusalem. In the end, it is quite clear that no one cares which revolution they are dancing for.”