Lebanon's Beit El Hamra is a home away from home

Beit El Hamra is located on the ground floor of a 1950s yellow villa. (Supplied)
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Updated 13 December 2019

Lebanon's Beit El Hamra is a home away from home

  • The latest addition to Kamal Mouzawak’s mini-empire offers tranquility in one of the city’s busiest areas

BEIRUT: You get a sense that Kamal Mouzawak, one of Lebanon’s most fascinating social entrepreneurs, doesn’t like to stand still for too long. Since founding Souk El Tayeb in 2004, he has built a small but precise hospitality empire, one that has sought to transform people’s lives through food.

Originally a farmers’ market, Souk El Tayeb has grown to encompass a network of restaurants (called Tawlets) and guesthouses (Beits), and works to promote and preserve the culinary traditions, rural heritage and natural environment of Lebanon. It’s a mission that has proved extremely popular, particularly the Tawlet element, with its constantly changing menus and rotation of chefs.

In comparison to the other elements of the organization, Souk El Tayeb’s guesthouses are relatively new. The first — Beit Douma, a traditional 19th-century Lebanese house high up in the mountains of Batroun District — took three months to renovate and was opened in 2015. Beit Ammiq and Beit El Qamar followed the same year, but it was at Beit Douma that Mouzawak first combined architectural preservation with culinary tradition.

From its eclectic artwork and vintage furniture, to its original fabrics and confidently colorful wallpapers, it is a triumph of interior design. (Supplied)

Now Beit El Hamra, the latest addition to Souk El Tayeb’s collection of guesthouses, has opened in Beirut’s most cosmopolitan neighborhood. Located on the ground floor of a 1950s yellow villa, it has added a distinctive dose of style not only to Baalbeck Street but to Hamra as a whole.   

Much like Beit Douma, Beit El Hamra is exceptionally well curated. It has an attention to detail that is hard to find anywhere else in Lebanon, let alone in Beirut. From its eclectic artwork and vintage furniture, to its original fabrics and confidently colorful wallpapers, it is a triumph of interior design. There is not a single desultory object to be found and its two en-suite rooms have been adorned with carefully chosen ornaments. “It’s the small details that make a difference. It enhances the experience,” Mouzawak once told me.

Beit El Hamra is the latest addition to Souk El Tayeb’s collection of guesthouses. (Supplied)

Who would have thought that a color spectrum driven largely by dynamic yellows, reds and greens would be so homely? Who would have thought that two guest rooms lying in such close proximity to Tawlet El Hamra, the newest of Souk El Tayeb’s restaurants, would work? Yet they do. And they do so largely because, much like the organization’s other guesthouses, Beit El Hamra has been designed as a home away from home, not simply as a place to eat and sleep. That’s why fresh flowers and plants are dotted throughout, why a fireplace keeps you warm in the colder months, and why a courtyard garden provides a sense of serenity in an otherwise lively neighborhood.

There is also an enduring sense of space. The ceilings are high, the rooms large, the terraces long, and the garden expansive. There is a sense of grandeur, too, although the hustle and bustle of Hamra does occasionally creep in.

Beit El Hamra opened in Beirut’s most cosmopolitan neighborhood. (Supplied)

At the heart of it all, of course, is food. It’s almost impossible to separate Beit El Hamra from Tawlet El Hamra. They are, in essence, one and the same thing. Which is understandable considering Lebanese cuisine is central to everything Mouzawak and Souk El Tayeb have ever done. There is something wonderful about the original Tawlet in Mar Mikhael, which all but shuns the staples of popular Lebanese cuisine, favoring instead the food of the home. Its dishes are regional, seasonal, simple. There are stews and salads, pastries and desserts, all served as part of an all-encompassing daily buffet.

At Tawlet El Hamra, it’s different — although the commitment to taste and quality remains. There is no buffet, just an à-la-carte menu offering some of the finest food in Beirut. That means everything from eggs cooked in clay pots to batata harra, kibbeh batata, and oven-baked chicken with potatoes. Everything, as expected, tastes wonderful.

You get a sense that life is just as it should be at Beit El Hamra, and a large part of that is thanks to the staff. Friendly and attentive, yet quiet and unobtrusive, they are universally exceptional. It’s to them that Souk El Tayeb should doff its hat. 

UK-based Arab film festival to go digital due to COVID-19 pandemic

Updated 13 August 2020

UK-based Arab film festival to go digital due to COVID-19 pandemic

  • ‘SAFAR From Home’ to feature films from Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, and Tunisia

LONDON: The SAFAR Film Festival, the only dedicated biennial pan-Arab film festival in the UK, is to take place digitally in September, the Arab British Centre has announced.

The changes come in the wake of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, which has forced multiple cultural events in the UK and elsewhere to be cancelled or postponed.

Scheduled to take place from Sept. 13-20, this year’s edition, titled “SAFAR From Home,” will be the fifth edition of the festival and will offer five free screenings, available to UK viewers, and five live events, available worldwide, featuring leading figures from the filmmaking industry across the Arab world.

The move to take the festival digital was funded in part by the Council of Arab Ambassadors and the British Film Institute’s COVID-19 Relief Fund.

Curated by Rabih El-Khoury, the festival will explore Arab cinema through the theme of journeys (‘Safar’ is the word for journey in Arabic).

It will feature films from Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, and Tunisia, with additional panel discussions on topics such as migration and life in the Arab diaspora.

On Sept. 20, the Arab British Centre will also host a panel of festival guests to discuss the growth of SAFAR since 2012 and the evolution of Arab cinema over the past eight years. 

El-Khoury said: “In a year when travel became impossible, we wanted to offer viewers the chance to travel to the Arab world and beyond through their screens at home. And while this program is an invitation to imaginary journeys, the truth around the protagonists of these films is far from being a fictitious one.

“They defy their harsh realities. They question bewildering surroundings. They face unconceivable challenges. They lead quite impossible journeys. Yet through courage, resilience, but also a lot of inspiration, they give a sense of meaning to their journeys,” he added.

Amani Hassan, the program director and also the acting executive director of the Arab British Centre, said: “We are very happy to announce the ‘SAFAR From Home’ initiative today. Following the difficult decision to postpone the in-person festival until 2021, we’re marking what would have been the landmark fifth edition with this alternative, virtual edition as a way to bring our audiences together and support the industry during this unprecedented time. 

“Since quickly pivoting our programs online in March, we’ve seen the thirst of people to connect with their culture, and with culture in general, and we hope that despite the physical distance, this program will offer SAFAR’s usual, unique space to appreciate, reflect upon, and celebrate the cinema and filmmakers of the Arab world.” 

The film and events program will be announced shortly alongside the festival’s new website. Information about the program can be found by emailing the organizers at www.safarfilmfestival.co.uk.