Elissar and Another Story of an Exorbitant Rent Hike

February 12th, 2012

 

Today, Beirut’s physical history and its people’s livelihoods, the very beauty of a city – its old shops, bookstores, cafes, old, old buildings, all having been beds of so many stories of this city whose history is anything but forgotten – are being traded in for high rent. The latest victim in Hamra that I discovered, when I saw “Liquidation” on its shop window, is Elissar and Other Stories.

The family-owned shop on Abed El-Aziz Street, or “University Road,” in Hamra is filled with clothing and home artifacts designed by Lebanese owner, Elissar W. Haikal whose “other stories” are her sisters, and co-owners of the shop. I’ll just quote Timeout Beirut, who describe her unique and striking pieces as being inspired from “Istanbul and Sufi costumes and literature.” And, while “[c]rafting garments and jewellery herself, Elissar uses raw silk, brass, silver, tribal metals and vintage fabrics.” I’ve sauntered into the shop on many occasions, usually early in the afternoon on my way to work, admiring the many uncommon shapes and colors side by side: Huge Sufi-inspired jackets and sherwals hang around the periphery of the shop, handmade by Elissar herself. There are also items she’s found around the world, such as an orange pitcher and cup set from Mexico (I once got for my friend for a wedding gift) next to Moroccan tagines or tea sets from Poland. The most common shape, the Khamsa, you’ll find as silver amulets pierced into squares of olive oil soaps, dangling from handmade earrings and necklaces, or decorating the handle of a silver chalice.

The Hamsa (Khamsa: “5” in Arabic) is also called the Hand of Mariam, the Hand of Mary, and the Hand of Fatima – by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, respectively. It is a universal sign of protection. However, Haikal’s frequent use of the symbol in her pieces has less to do with its meaning and more to do with the aesthetic and Moroccan influence it had on her.

After 6 years in business, Elissar and Other Stories is closing. The landlord of the building recently broke the news: If you want to stay, your rent will increase to $50,000 per year. What was the rent, you ask? $20,000: a 150% increase. But only days after he broke this news, he sent further news through his concierge that for 89 meters-squared, he would sell the space for one million dollars – he had changed his mind about renting it out. Nadine, Elissar’s sister, was incredulous, but matter-of-fact: “There’s no rent law. He can raise it as much as he wants.” Meanwhile, a customer within earshot in the shop chimes, “I’m a landlord, and some of my tenants pay $100 per year! I can’t get rid of them.” Today we have these extremes.

 

A 5-kilometer drive away, you will find people just outside of Beirut proper who are getting 3 hours of electricity per day, paying generator fees to mafiosa-types who turn them on when they want to because they’re saving diesel while still charging their flat rates per month.  Many of these people may still pay “old rent,” ranging anywhere from $66 to $1000 per year. Until the laws are changed, the only way for landlords of old rent tenants to get paid today’s rates (not pre-civil war rates when the dollar equaled 1.5 Lebanese liras compared to today’s 1,500 Lebanese liras!) is to buy out the tenants (at least $100,000) or sell the building — because he/she cannot afford to maintain it or buy anyone out — to a detached (foreign, money-driven, or from outside the neighborhood) wealthy investor who will then proceed to buy out the tenants and, most likely, tear down the building to replace it with an equally unforgiving high rise, which will not only demand enormous rent which most people cannot afford, but also block people’s sunlight, air, and forgiving views of the sea. The recent demise of the infamous Achrafieh building is a result of a combination of this. This blog has a few conspiracy theories.


The resulting disparities in rent prices, neighborhood quality, and environment (and, ultimately, people) are not mainly because one neighborhood is impoverished and one is not, as Robert Fisk focuses on in this article.  It’s because Beirut has become a playground for capitalistic adventurism. In other words, when a building filled with families crashes to the ground, leaving 25 people dead, I don’t think that it was because they were poor and therefore couldn’t have their building repaired. I think about the influenza of greed and corruption they were victim of — in a country where the people’s health on all its levels never tips the scale when weighed against piles of new money. As one can see from the video above, in which President Michel Suleiman gives the advice that municipalities and building owners should regularly check on their buildings and repair them, the politicians are seriously detached and denying the true problems – which they are, firstly, responsible for solving.

 

Aren’t you angry? I asked Nadine.

 

She shrugs! “I’m used to it.” She describes how she had a chocolate shop just a way up the street on Abed El-Aziz where the same thing happened – that was in 2009 and the landlord increased the rent 100%; he gave her a 24-hour warning. I couldn’t believe she said “I’m used to it.” That’s what people say about the erratic electricity, the corrupt politicians, the killer-in-you-inducing traffic… That’s what people say when they’ve given up.

 

“I will never rent again,” she explains how on top of the exorbitant rent prices, one must pay the Baladiyeh 10% of the rent; and then you’ve got the generator, electricity, water, and these are all besides the expenses for the shop. Nonetheless, she did search: 45 meters-squared in Hamra goes for $45,000 per year; a shop in Achrafieh runs around $7,000 per month; and, Solidere is asking for $100,000 per month. I will repeat: $100, 000 per month. And I’m typing this from my grandmother’s village where I’ve unplugged and re-plugged the refrigerator at least 4 times today in rhythm to the switch between generator electricity versus government electricity. I’ve sat in the dark on 3 different occasions tonight when neither was “working.”

 

Where do you think this is taking Beirut?

 

“Beirut will end up restaurants and cafes… They’re ruining it. Every year is going backwards. It used to be ‘wow’. Look at Café Younes – he pays $65,000 per year next door.” She continues: “The target of the owners and landlords is the Khaleej [the Gulf]…Those people who can pay.”

 

All this to say that Elissar and Other Stories, a Lebanese-made place filled with inspired work, and others like it, are victims of not only greed and oh-so-shit government, but people’s detachment. The obvious apathy for preservation and connection to our environs is a prescient warning: the more we outsource for quick gain, the less we’ll eventually have. Since I arrived here 4.5 years ago, I’ve seen 5 independent bookstores shut down; watched chains such as Caribou Coffee, Gloria Jeans, Krispy Kreme! pop up in place of locally-owned businesses; heard too many buildings bulldozed; had plenty of friends worry about rent and where they would live if it were raised. Mazen Khaled, one of the owners of Bardo, a local pub/restaurant, recently pointed out how he and the other independently-owned businesses  on the same block have linked to one another – that their livelihoods have nurtured and supported each other, formed a strong chain of purpose and mission. This is how you create a city – and preserve it.

 

Again, I ask her, But why aren’t you angry? Don’t you want to do something about this?

 

“We can’t complain. To who? He’ll tell you, wait.”

Elissar's last day will be April 30.

 

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One Response to “Elissar and Another Story of an Exorbitant Rent Hike”

  1. vicky says:

    This is too sad…but don’t get me started! The essence of Hamra is being shattered brick by brick. Oh you Lebanese, what about your posterity?! I am sitting in Amsterdam at this moment, thinking of the contrast between this city and Beirut. Here, the government insists old buildings are preserved. Yes, you come across quite a few buildings leaning slightly forward, propped up by scaffolding, but they are precious like teeth…and the Dutch know to pull out, only if absolutely necessary

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