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French Version

Outside merchants put down roots in BCD by catering to 'protester market'

Vendors set up shop in besieged bastion of luxury retailers

A tiny informal economy has sprouted up to serve the thousands of protesters who have called Downtown Beirut home for over a month.

Makeshift shops selling everything from warm snacks and brewed coffee to narguilehs and music have been erected in what was once the showcase of Lebanon's luxury retailers.

The epicenter for opposition shopping consists of about 10 stores lining the curving street leading from the Markazia Monroe Suites to Riad al-Solh Square. The entrance to the parking lot is flanked by a narguileh shop and a tent with two sajj stoves, as well as a row of produce and kaak vendors.

About half of the neighborhood's new commercial tenants have closed their stores in Beirut's southern suburbs in order to meet the new demand for low-cost goods Downtown. Though economic rather than political considerations motivated most merchants to set up shop amid the protesters, most also sympathize with the opposition.

Mohammad Jeber, 22, closed his Dahieh location to cook sajj Downtown, which he proudly sells to demonstrators at a fraction of the rate charged by neighboring competitors. He brings in anywhere from LL10,000 (about $6.50) to LL50,000 a day - far less than he had earned in Dahieh before sales dipped after the war, he explains.

"When [Prime Minister Fouad] Siniora goes, I go," he tells The Daily Star.

Political reasons motivated Arab University student Ali Allaw, a Baalbek native, to sell packaged food and sajj in the Beirut Central District (BCD), where he has been based since the protests began on December 1. Now he goes to class during the day, and returns to the shop in the evening where he naps in between serving customers.

Nearby, Mohammad Bitar sells music and foodstuffs. He had earned a bigger income from his air-conditioning and heater shop in Rihaab, but with thousands of Dahieh resident displaced by the war, economic opportunity beckoned in BCD.

"There's no work there, and there's work here," Bitar said.

Despite the lower sales Downtown, about LL50,000 a day, Bitar says he has made some "very good friends" over the last month and a half.

Another group of stalls cluster around the entrance to a nearly empty lot adjacent to the Beirut City Center Building, the blob-like former cinema commonly referred to as "the egg."

For many catering to the basic needs of opposition supporters is a family affair. Under the Fouad Chehab Bridge, Annaya Wehbe and her husband operate a shop from their ancient white Volkswagen van. Cotton candy hangs from the rear door, and bags of potato chips sit in boxes on the street.

Wehbe says the couple's mobile store is more successful then their Ain al-Rummaneh location. A good day brings in LL350,000, she reports.

Beirut 15-01-2007
Michael Bluhm
The Daily Star

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