Bardo's closure spells end of era for Beirut's queer scene
The renowned Beirut bar Bardo closed its doors with a final party on October 31, after fifteen years of being open on Mexico Street in the Western part of the city. Far from being just another place closing down for financial reasons amid an intense economical crisis, Bardo was the symbol of a whole generation as well as a part of the queer community who had found a safe space to call home.
“Bardo was a safe space where I’ve been going since it opened in 2006, it’s where I met everyone in the [queer] community,” musician Vladimir Kurumilian told The New Arab. “I could go there alone and there was always someone I knew, as well as the staff who were like family.”
Kurumilian was also a DJ at Bardo for the past ten years, and its closure has made him feel powerless: “The team has already gathered to see what we can do, to see if we can reopen somewhere else, but it’s hard to imagine. Everyone already feels the impact of ruining such a place. Sure, most places are more or less inclusive and you have safe places like clubs to go party, but it’s not the same as a place you call home and chill.”
"The idea behind Bardo is more than just a LGBTQ+ place, it’s safety"
Bardo’s shutting down was an indirect consequence of the financial crisis and private interests coming into play. The building’s landlord started rationing the electricity at night despite the bar being opened at that time, eventually going as early as midnight at the bar’s peak hour, then asked for fresh dollars and a rise on the rent, which the partners couldn’t afford.
Fresh dollars are wired or cash USD money received after October 17, 2019, in the Lebanese banking system, implemented in order to counteract the worsening economic crisis that the country is going through, illustrated by a drop in the Lebanese currency value and inflation that is still rising sharply.
One of the consequences of this crisis is the shortage of electricity and fuel, which pushed many businesses to close down because of their inability to keep the light on, or their fridges running.
“With the incessant degrading economic situation, Bardo was just able to support itself for the past two years, it wasn’t making profit but we decided to keep it open because it’s a community first and we believe it is important for Beirut,” Mazen Khaled, one of Bardo’s owners, told The New Arab. “But with the electricity rationing we just couldn’t make food anymore so we lost more income, and the last requests from the landlord just made it impossible for us to keep open.”
For Khaled, what happened to Bardo is a symbol of what’s happening to Beirut and more largely to Lebanon. “This house has a history, it was a guest house that opened in the 1940s. It was called the Myrtom house from Myriam and Tomas, a Jewish couple who turned it into a guest house and restaurant,” Khaled recalled. “We took it in 1996 and worked on it a lot. By the time we opened Bardo, the street was very alive, things were opening up including Marsa health centre, but it has degraded so much. The street is not alive anymore, it’s just a sign of what the country is going through.”
Bardo had stayed open for fifteen years and was the successful example of a queer business thriving in a political and social environment not so open to LGBTQ+ expression.
“I would say that this closure is one in a series of governmental neglects, which puts here a queer business in a precarious situation when it was already vulnerable financially and politically before,” Rasha Younes, an LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The New Arab.
“Now we face a compounding crisis that has reduced drastically the number of places where the queer community can meet safely. There is no recourse towards the government to protect such spaces and private actors are in charge of the market, so vulnerable communities are more at risk to lose businesses and spaces," Younes concluded.
"More than just losing a place, the closure made many of the queer community rethink their relationship to Lebanon"
Bardo was much more than a bar and a business for both the team involved and the regulars who were spending most of their nights there every week, sometimes just to talk to people.
“The idea behind Bardo is more than just an LGBTQ+ place – it’s safety,” Khaled told The New Arab. “There was never a bouncer at the door and everyone was always welcome in this beautiful melting pot.”
The bar was hosting drag shows but also featured a lot of artists through readings, concerts and various events that engaged the local creative scene.
Now, regulars of Bardo feel like they lost their landmark, like Lebanese comedian Lary Bs. “It was my “go-to” place, I would usually start my night there,” he told The New Arab. “I feel lost and clueless, it was a kind of home for me, I even played there sometimes.”
More than just losing a place, the closure made many of the queer community rethink their relationship to Lebanon. “It made me realise that this country wasn’t for me anymore” the comedian added. “Whenever I would feel down, I would go there but now it’s gone and nothing is going to replace it. It shaped my personality in some way, I really feel lost in a country that feels hostile to me.”
It also brings questions about how far can this crisis affect Lebanon and its people, including its vulnerable communities.
“It’s really important to have a multiplicity of queer spaces in a city and there was always a lot of pressure on all those spaces in Beirut, but if Bardo can be affected by the change, is there anything that is safe for queer people in Lebanon?” Tarek Zeidan, the executive director of Helem, a Lebanese LGBTQ+ rights organisation said.
“It’s a significant moment, as it highlights what is left to queer artists and people. It’s the end of an era and announces a very sombre and hard future in Lebanon, and not only for the queer community.”
Florence Massena is a freelance journalist based in Norway after six years spent in Lebanon. She reports on the environment, women's issues, human rights, and refugees in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe
Follow her on Twitter: @FlorenceMassena