BEIRUT: Lebanon’s markets are slowly dying due to the severe economic turmoil, which reached its peak during the last three months. The antiques market thrived for decades, even surviving the civil war and its horrors, but it has faltered in the face of the country’s dollar crisis.
In Beirut’s Hawd Al-Wilaya District, narrow streets criss-cross and stores display antiques, furnishings, paintings and carpets at their entrance. The market, which for decades has been known to Lebanese and foreign customers, stands empty with no customers or even passersby.
Mohammed Mahmoud Hammoud, nicknamed the Pasha, is the oldest shop owner in the market. His grandfather had the title “Pasha” during the Ottoman rule of Lebanon. He inherited the antiques trade from his father and opened his own store in 1957.
He sits at the entrance of the market on a wooden chest inlaid with copper. The market is empty. “It is true that we sell luxuries, but these goods attracted people from Marrakech and the Arabian Gulf states as well as foreign ambassadors, Lebanese political figures, and intellectuals, all of whom wanted to own masterpieces,” he told Arab News. “But now nobody comes here because $100, the price of an old lamp, for example, has become equivalent to LBP800,000, which is more than the salary of an ordinary employee, and tourists have not returned to Lebanon.”
Faraj Ammar, who has an antiques shop in the market, said about 80 shops faced the threat of closure. “The owners of these shops inherited the profession from their grandparents,” he told Arab News. “During the Ottoman rule, the Wali (ruler) of Beirut lived in this locality, which attracted foreigners and high officials, who visited the surrounding shops to buy souvenirs for their home countries.”
The market developed as a result of the Palestinian displacement to Lebanon in 1948, internal migration to Beirut from other parts of Lebanon, and people selling the old furniture they owned or inherited, he said. There were also ancient families who loved antiques and old furnishings to decorate their palaces in Beirut.
“The antiques trade developed, and traders started buying these pieces from India, Iran, Turkey, and European countries to sell them in Lebanon. Princes from the Arabian Gulf states used to visit these shops to buy pieces to decorate their palaces in summer regions in Lebanon or in their home countries. They haven’t been visiting Lebanon for 7 or 8 years. Among the items we sold were ones worth $50,000 and over 400 years old.”
Ammar said that the profession had been affected during the war, but it had not been devastated. “We maintained our solidarity and disassociated the market from what was happening around it, despite that we were close to the lines of contact created by the war. We survived, and the market flourished in the 1990s following the war and the appointment of the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Today, due to economic conditions and lack of tourism, we have a feeling that the market is breathing its last.”
Eyad Khabbazeh rents a store in the market and sells modern art paintings by Lebanese and Syrian painters. “I closed my store two months ago with the rise of the dollar exchange rate because I could no longer afford to pay the rent nor the electricity and other bills,” he told Arab News. “People no longer buy art because it is considered a luxury in this difficult time.”
He went to the market every day and could sell some of his goods from home if he had a customer. “I have given up so many things so that I can continue to live. I canceled my health and car insurance.”
He knew of six stores that had closed and their owners, most of whom were tenants, were doing other things like selling vegetables.
“The antiques market never closed before 8 p.m. but today, it is closing at around 4 p.m. in light of the blackouts and scarcity of customers.”
Youssef Ammar said that goods used to be shipped from Europe but this practice stopped two years ago as purchasing power had declined. “People now cannot absorb what happened,” he told Arab News. “When we say that an item is worth $50, the customers are convinced, but when they convert it to Lebanese pounds, they find it very pricey and they leave. What was for $1,500 meant LBP1.5 million before, but now it means LBP8 million. If we sell in pounds, we find ourselves losing the next day as the dollar exchange rate continues to soar in the black market. Now we take life one day at a time, and we do not know for how long we will survive.”