BEIRUT — While for most of the population daily life today in Lebanon is filled with checking exchange rates, queuing at the bank and cutting grocery expenses, there is a small segment of society who have been busy splashing cash in Beirut’s nightclubs and bars.
In recent months, the nightlife and entertainment industry has seen crowded nightclubs and a growth spurt of bars and restaurants, all with a summer season of parties and events still ahead.
In certain neighborhoods of Beirut, phones ring off the hook at bars and restaurants for reservations, cars head north up the highway to the party hotspot of Batroun, and queues form outside nightclubs like Ballroom Blitz, Grand Factory or Soul Kitchen.
The reawakening of Lebanon’s nightlife after periods of quiet induced by the COVID-19 pandemic and economic decline has allowed a small pool of the population with access to US dollars to tap back into the famed party scene, which Lebanon has been known for since before the Civil War.
At Grand Factory, one of Beirut’s largest clubs and the spearhead of the club and events group Factory People, it has been non-stop since the venue reopened last December after months of renovation following the Beirut port explosion, head hostess Mary Bastoury told L’Orient Today.
However, with Lebanon’s median household income at just $126, the option to go out remains a privilege of the estimated 15 percent earning salaries in US dollars, or as Bastoury has witnessed, Lebanese expatriates returning for vacation.
At Grand Factory, seats around VIP tables sell for between $40 to $90 for differing levels of exclusivity and the price of entry-on-the-door ranges from zero to $10.
In April, partygoers paid $65 per ticket at the door to be one of thousands watching German techno DJ Boris Brejcha play his famed high-tech minimal set at Forum de Beyrouth.
Letting off steam
Though the demand for high-end partying seems incongruous in a country where the majority earn wages in Lebanese lira and are struggling to meet basic needs, is letting loose a response to the anxiety of living through the crisis?
“We have a sad life, but at the same time you have the nightlife where we can se défouler,” Bastoury said, using the French word for “let off steam.”
According to psychologist and president of the Lebanese Psychiatric Society Dr. Joseph El Khoury, partying is a defense mechanism to the difficulties and losses people in Lebanon have witnessed in the past few years.
“From a Freudian perspective, we have two types of defense mechanisms: what we call a mature defense mechanism and immature defense mechanism,” El Khoury said.
“Partying hard or taking drugs is an immature defense mechanism…but it depends how it’s balanced with other things,” he said, before cautioning that it is not wholly negative if supplemented with actions that arouse positivity.
The country’s tumultuous events have put people into a survival mode, which can push some people to seek out things they can control, Dr. Brigette Khoury, clinical psychologist and professor in the department of psychiatry at the American University of Beirut, told L’Orient Today.
“There are a lot of things we cannot control, like the government, the banks, the money etcetera. But what we can control are things related to our life: which are outings, socializing, having fun — so this is also a sense of regaining some sense of control and saying: ‘I can do this and this is what makes me feel good.’”
A support network
According to DJ Chloé Atallah, known professionally as Klôrofil, “it is not just rich people or the middle class” who are going out during the crisis.
“It’s everyone. Even if they don't have money anymore, they are used to going out,” Atallah, who plays at Ballroom Blitz, told L’Orient Today. She said that people “always find a way.”
Among them is 29-year-old nurse Melissa Ghoussoub.
Clubbing “is a need more than a want,” Ghoussoub told L’Orient Today on her day off from working at a Beirut hospital. Parties have become more valuable to her since the onset of the crisis, she said.
But that outlet is more difficult now. She has watched in despair as her monthly income has shrunk to less than half of its previous value, to around $650 today.
She still manages to attend her favorite nights out, underground techno events — though down from weekly to monthly — thanks to “the help of friends.”
“We're a very small community,” she said of the underground scene. “So you get to meet a lot of people, you get to be very close to the people, [like] the organizers.”
She described the scene as a support network, where friends help cover the costs of going out.
“In every [friendship] group, you're going to have someone who's super struggling, and then you have someone that is not struggling as much and still would pay for that person,” Ghoussoub said.
According to psychologist Brigette Khoury, these types of party networks can keep people afloat.“I think part of what you see is actually social support; social fabric that keeps people together, and this has been proved to be one of the most preventative factors in terms of mental illness and suicide.”
Spend now, save never
Still, partygoers are racking up huge bills.
Ralph Nasr is a co-founder of Lebanese music and events collective Retrogroove. He said that though the market is volatile, people are simply spending more money on fun.
“Even though they’re not making so much money, they're going out and spending the money rather than putting it on the side…it doesn’t make sense to save up,” he said.
El Khoury, the psychologist, also noted increased risk-taking by some people since the onset of the crisis, as banks essentially liquidated people’s life savings.
“Those who saved money, those who had stable government jobs, those who actually lived on pensions, who relied on these things, are the ones who lost,” he said.
“Everybody has been saying it was the risk-takers who did fine.”