Beirut – A bored soldier, with his machinegun hanging from his shoulder, feeds bread to fat pigeons in Nejmeh Square in downtown Beirut, the Lebanese capital.
Not far from here, the Chabaro and Saab families, Beirut’s oldest working coffee roasters, once had a busy store – but today, few in the area can even remember their names. Beirut’s downtown has morphed into something of a ghost town, with flashy, high-priced shops and posh restaurants that often sit empty.
“But downtown was not always like this,” said Rajab Chabaro. From 1922 to 1975, his father and grandfather – with whom he shares a name – ran the downtown shop, which “was always packed with customers”.
In 1922, when Beirut’s central district still was the beating heart of the city, three ambitious Lebanese businessmen – the elder Rajab Chabaro, Abdul Qader Saab and Jamil Davoud – opened a small shop to sell freshly roasted coffee and spices. However, for reasons that the family cannot recall today, the three partners eventually split. While it is unclear what became of Davoud, Chabaro and Saab moved into two separate shops located near each other in the central quarter.
“I remember my grandfather’s shop,” Rajab, 61, told Al Jazeera, his face glowing. “All the racks were wooden, and the colour of spices and coffee beans made it beautiful, very beautiful. It was a small shop, but with the mirrors covering all the cupboards, it looked a lot larger.”
Adnan Daou, 81, a loyal customer of the Chabaro family, also remembers the shop. “I always had to wait 15 minutes for my turn, because there were lots of customers buying coffee,” he told Al Jazeera.
In 1955, Daou went to Chabaro’s shop for the first time. “I was working in an electrical shop, and one day my boss sent me to Chabaro’s shop to buy coffee for him. Since then, I was a regular customer,” he said.
In 1975, however, Lebanon’s civil war broke out, and the fierce fighting in downtown Beirut forced Chabaro’s shop to shut down. Four years later, Rajab’s father started from scratch, opening a new shop on Mar Elias Street in western Beirut. He died of natural causes just two months after the opening. “I was the eldest child, and I had to take over the family business,” Rajab recalled.
At the time, he had just graduated from university with a degree in business and computers. “I didn’t know anything about this job, and I had some other plans for my life,” he said. “I learned everything on my own; how to find the best beans, how to roast them, and how to grind them. For me, the most interesting part is the roasting. That’s like the magic.”
Two doors down from Rajab’s store, another shop offers roasted coffee beans in the same style. Saab’s grandson, Mohammad, runs this one. When a new customer enters, Mohammad asks: “Do you drink coffee with or without sugar? And do you prefer black coffee or brown coffee?”
He carefully listens to the answers, then starts blending the coffee, before asking the final question: “With cardamom or without?” He has filled up the pages of a notebook with the description of his loyal customers’ tastes.
Small wooden camels standing on a desert of brown coffee beans decorate the showcase in Mohammad’s shop. The camels came from his grandfather’s shop in downtown Beirut, which was also shut down in 1975 after the civil war broke out. Mohammad’s older brother set up the new showcase in 1982, before the Israeli occupation of western Beirut.
“When this phase of the war started, my father … rented a place in the mountains and we fled our home,” Mohammad told Al Jazeera. Days later, a neighbour went to the mountains and informed Mohammad’s father that their new shop had been damaged in a fire ignited by the ongoing battles.
“That was the second time that my family lost the business in war,” Mohammad said. “The shop was partly destroyed and most of the stored coffee beans were stolen.”
Mohammad’s father and elder brother brought the family business back to its feet again, at the same location on Mar Elias Street. But his brother soon opted to leave Lebanon for Europe, prompting Mohammad to step up and become his father’s right-hand man.
The shop was partly destroyed and most of the stored coffee beans were stolen.
“My father taught me all that he learned from his father, from the secrets of roasting to the rules of keeping the customers loyal,” Mohammad said. “The most important lesson is to never cheat on your customer with the quality of the product. The second is to use your hands and honest feelings to examine the quality of the roasted beans.”
The third generation of the Saabs and Chabaros are still in the same business, but with fewer and fewer customers, they are far removed from the successful days of their grandfathers. Even Amin Younes, whose family has been in the coffee business since 1935, knows nothing about the two families. “I’ve never heard of them. Really, from 1922? What were their names?” he asked.
While the Younes family has gone through similar experiences and losses amid the protracted conflict in Lebanon, they have had a different fate. Prior to the civil war, they opened a second branch in the Hamra district. While their downtown branch was destroyed in the fighting, the second branch continued to thrive. Today, Cafe Younes has become a franchise of western-style coffee shops in Lebanon, with a branch in Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh.
“If I had continued the business in the same way as my father and grandfather, I would never have been able to compete with the big names in coffee shop franchises,” said Younes, who travelled to Italy to take courses in coffee shop management. “I kept our tradition of roasting, and I enhanced it with the new concept of coffee shop franchise.”
Younes wrote the stories of his regular customers, describing what they had lost in the war. He also wrote about the influx of foreign journalists into Beirut and about the displaced residents of southern Beirut who sought shelter in Hamra.
By the end of the 33-day war, Younes stopped posting. “There was no need to write any more. The war ended,” he said. “That’s enough.”