Beirut is the kind of place you spruce up for. Its glittery nightlife is deserving of equally glitzy patrons with a cultivated sense of vogue. It is a town you make a date with and dress accordingly for, a town that makes your palms itch for the chilly sweat of a gently perspiring martini glass. Saturday night, then, required my very best: crimson lips, a high bun, and a low-cut dress. Sally donned a tiny dress, Laina a skater skirt with a midriff-exposing top, and Loraine a bright top and a billowing skirt. If we’d been in Manhattan, we’d be toting Cosmos and fending off Sex and the City fans all night.
We’d spent the day in the caverns, so a night on the town was required. It began with a second failed attempt to dine at Ta Marguta, the reputable mezza place that had greeted us with crowded tables the previous night and a closed door this night. Undeterred, we turned back down the road and settled for a little place called Mezyan that offered plates of hummus, tabouleh, fetoush, lettuce, and baba ganoush. And libations.
There, we met up with Eric and Zeinab, a New Orleans-born pair who’d met in Cairo years ago, carried on long distance, rejoined and got engaged recently, and moved to Beirut. Loraine, Sally, and Laina all knew them quite well, but I did not and kept to myself, trying not to get parsley stuck in my lipstick. Instead, I chatted to a girl named Kate, a friend of Loraine’s who had a long braid and wore tortoise-shell glasses. In addition to appearing intellectual, she seemed pretty cool.
Surrounded by good company, we made off for Osama’s second bar Cle, a very hip little bohemian joint in Hamra with very Greek blue doors, an artsy vibe, and lots of wrought-iron and wicker. We arrived just before the bar crowds, and were told by an apologetic host that alas, all tables were reserved.
Enter Sally, our resident Arabic speaker. In addition to speaking a lilting Egyptian Arabic, Sally is a beautiful – and very well-dressed, especially on this occasion – Mediterranean goddess type of a girl with a charming smile. I only understood a few words – one, that’s it, no more – and the extent of the host’s smile, but it was enough to assure me we’d snagged a table.
“Just for one drink,” Sally repeated in English, as the host set our menus down. “I told him we’d be out before the reservations arrived.”
Impressed, we perused the menu, quickly spotted thyme gimlets, and ordered a round before the obliging host could change his mind. It was a balmy Saturday evening, and we were all feeling pretty high in spirits. Kate had gone off to some other bar, and everyone was chatting breezily. It would have been the perfect night, save for one tiny, insignificant, nagging little issue that had been pestering me all afternoon.
I wanted to go to B018.
It started the previous night when Osama mentioned the place, worsened when Kate validated Osama’s claims about the bar, and really flared to a head when I pinged off a quick Google search earlier that afternoon.
“You’re obsessed with this,” Loraine had remarked. “I’m a little disturbed.”
And perhaps she had every right to be, but really, this bar was not to be missed. Before I detail its every perk, I need to provide some small context, for fear my readers will think me morbid and tasteless.
In a previous entry, I quoted an article from Vice citing partying and nightlife as an effective outlet for the tumultuous and often violent aspects of life in Lebanon. Partying through a bomb scare isn’t crass, said the interviewee, but cathartic.
B018 caught my attention as soon as Osama mentioned that it was built at the site of a massacre…or so he thought. It was the latter part of his sentence that entrapped me. I love folklore. I love stories. I love the history behind a place. Here, there was mystery. What exactly was this place? The more I researched and asked around, the more convoluted and richer the story became.
“B018? Oh, you mean the Bunker?” Eric asked at a rooftop bar in Gamaze later that night.
“Sure? What’s the Bunker?” I asked.
“They say it’s an old bomb shelter,” he told me. “Really it’s an after-hours club. It’s pretty cool to visit.”
Really, it sounded like no one knew for sure what this place was about, which was why I had researched it a few hours earlier. We’d been sitting in the living area after the grotto, relaxing before getting ready, when I blurted out something about the bar, much to Loraine’s chagrin.
“You don’t even know if it’s open,” she told me. “You might need a reservation.”
Determined, I Googled the bar, a part of me silently wishing that maybe it would be closed, that perhaps there was no mystery at all, just a prosaic, unremarkable story about its origins.
I was wrong.
First, I discovered a slew of websites offering slightly different accounts of the bar’s creation:
B018 was the secret code needed to gain entry to an exclusive party.
B018 referred to the grid information on a map that provided the location to the exclusive party.
B018 was the entry code to some guy’s apartment.
It was an old bomb shelter.
It was a refugee camp.
It was actually code for “BOAT” (B, O, 18 sounds like B, O, A, T.)
The information was overwhelming and enticing simultaneously. With a breath, I opened each page separately until I could piece together some of the scraps and come to this conclusion:
Whatever it was, B018 was unique, macabre, eccentric, and absolutely worth a visit. During the Lebanese civil war, someone named Naji Gebran decided that the best way to cope with the instability and the violence was to seek solace in music, so he started throwing semi-secretive parties, which eventually became so popular that he had to relocate them to a warehouse.
Enter Bernard Khoury, 1998, architect hired to build a proper and permanent space for B018. Supposedly, Khoury chose the neighborhood of Quarantaine for the location since it had suffered some pretty horrific incidents during the war. (This would substantiate Osama’s story about the massacre.) Khoury, apparently to link drinking and partying to a more solemn remembrance of the war and national identity, designed the club underground so it would resemble a mass grave, shaping the club itself and the seats inside like a coffin. The subterranean club would also bear a closed roof that, during the night, would open much like a coffin to reveal the starry firmaments above while people drunkenly swayed and hip-checked each other to techno beats below.
Whatever obsession I had prior to reading this quickly transformed into feverish ambition. This was a place I couldn’t miss. What’s worse, the club’s Facebook page proclaimed its opening hours were on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, meaning that night was my final chance to visit.
“Right, man,” Loraine started. “I don’t want to go there. It’s not even going to start until two.”
We were crowded around a picnic table at the rooftop bar, surrounding squat glasses of vodka cranberry, and I was trying not to be disappointed. Beirut had other bars to contest with what I’d taken to calling “the coffin bar,” but much like my heart had been set on Jingshan in China, it was now set on B018.
It wasn’t until after midnight, after multiple passionate rounds of HeadsUp and three rounds of vodka cranberries staring us down in the form of empty glasses, that we decided to leave. I meekly suggested B018, but knew that it was a lost cause and tried to figure out what I wanted to do instead.
“Nicole,” Laina said suddenly. “Let’s go. Let’s go to B018.”
“Come on. You’ll only be here once and you want to see it, so let’s go.”
This was completely unexpected and absolutely euphoric at once.
“You’ve been there before,” I started. “You don’t have to go because of me.”
Laina shook her head. She had gone to the place in the past, but had apparently arrived well after hours and had promptly fallen asleep on one of the coffin benches.
“Technically I didn’t see it,” she went on. “So let’s go.”
Thrilled, I immediately sought out an ATM, called the place, and, after procuring an exorbitant amount of money I am ashamed – but so very unregretful! – to share here, Laina and I hopped in a cab and drove off.
The first thing you notice about B018 is that there’s nothing really there. It’s like Fight Club; you don’t talk about it. Our cab driver dropped us off in a parking lot just on the outskirts of town, a move that was not entirely unexpected.
“A Scottish comedian does a bit about B018,” Loraine had told me earlier. “He said after he performed in Lebanon, the crowd wanted to take him out, so they put him in a car and took him to B018. He wasn’t sure it existed and he was in the car for a while, so he thought he was being kidnapped.”
I didn’t think it was too far of a drive, and parts of the city face the parking lot, never leaving you entirely without the reference of tall, bright buildings or windows or recognizable corporate logos. But still, you are, at the very essence of it, in a parking lot.
The only way you’d know it was a bar was if you knew it was a bar. Sure, there’s a velvet rope meant to corral rowdy crowds, but no one was queuing up so Laina and I approached a larger man standing near the rope post, which turned out to be the top of a staircase descending into the ground. From below, the indiscernible thumping of techno music blared up at us. We were here.
With our $20 came two plastic silver cards guaranteeing us two cocktails, which we promptly collected from the bar before retiring to some wooden bench seats at the back near the bathrooms. Excited, we took turns snapping photos of each other until, without warning, a meaty hand forced itself between my camera lens and Laina.
“No photos,” came the gruff voice. Uninterested and convinced he was a sleazy guy hoping for some conversation, I shoved him away.
“No photos,” he repeated.
“Sure,” I told him, rolling my eyes. But he was persistent, and finally we got to the crux of it: he worked there, and photos were not allowed. This was quite frustrating, as the bar was unlike anything I’d seen before – much like the grotto, where photos were also not permitted. I quickly began to think that Lebanon was the Bigfoot of the Middle East, a formidable and extremely interesting country that was determined to keep its existence secret.
“I’m going to the bathroom then,” Laina said, discouraged. She had just disappeared down the stairs when I looked up and found that the roof had, as anticipated, swung open like two cellar doors, revealing a clear, starry night.
“Of course I missed the roof opening,” she sighed. Undeterred, we sat together on the coffin bench in deep conversation, longing for better music so we could dance.
It was a bizarre place with odd and inexplicable rituals. For example, dancers would sway and bob to techno music until, for no reason at all, they would erupt in a raucous cheer, as if a celebrity had entered or a favorite song had come on, only it couldn’t have, because techno is all the same.
Additionally, about a half an hour into our visit, a man came over and motioned for us to get up.
“We need to close the seats,” he told us gruffly, pulling the wooden lid down over the black cushions.
“Why?” Laina asked.
“These seats are reserved.”
“Well…are the people who reserved them here yet?”
“So…can’t we still sit here?”
“Yes. But you have to pull the seat down.”
Bewildered, we made our way to the bar for a second cocktail, which quickly escalated into a farcical conversation with a slightly pushy man. Uninterested and intoxicated, I quickly introduced Laina as a Canadian named Robin (I’ve watched too much HIMYM), prompting her to reveal me as her equally Canadian friend Michelle. Whatever conversation we had basically revolved around the fact that we were Canadian and enjoyed the types of pastimes and culinary delights that all Canadians did, such as syrup and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
While Laina carried her conversation convincingly – our new friend asked her how she could support Toronto when they were so terrible, to which she replied, “I’m not a fair-weather fan” – I took the opportunity to apparently shout out random words I associated with Canada, like “Tim Horton’s!” and “Hockey!”
At one point, the man was so taken with our company and Canadian flair that he told us to order some shots, on him, and that he was just off to the bathroom.
“We’re not getting shots,” Laina said. “He just left. What if we order them and he doesn’t come back and we have to pay for them?”
She had a good point, one that would become painfully evident the following day when we calculated the amount of money we’d spent, so we headed out and left the bar for a bright white shisha garden that our cab driver dropped us off at around three in the morning. There, for over an hour, Laina and I enjoyed a comfortable heart-to-heart, she with her shisha and I with my small bottle of water.
Laina and I had already shared about two hours of bonding earlier that afternoon when we found ourselves watching and painstakingly criticizing Nancy Drew, an activity that united us based on our low tolerance for and high amusement toward terrible films. But under the open sky in Beirut, over shisha and water, we enjoyed a good hour of conversation that hit all of the necessary parameters.
We left the place for our hotel after five in the morning, attempting to hail a cab but halted by a man on the sidewalk who, upon hearing our destination, promised us it would be easier to walk. This we did, and found ourselves lost at a different hotel on some side street. Tired and in need of the bathroom and directions, we sauntered in and asked at the front desk in English, French, and Arabic. None of the languages seemed to work.
“We’re looking for this hotel. Do you know where it is?”
“What about this other hotel? It’s across the street from ours.”
“Okay…it’s on the Rue de Leon. Any idea?”
“Rue de Leon? No.”
“Right. Where are we now?”
“Where are we now? Do you know what street we’re on right now?”
Even to two slightly intoxicated foreigners, this seemed incomprehensible. How on earth did a hotel not know on which street it was located? Disgruntled, I stumbled outside to write down the street number and come back. (On the following morning, Michelle, another Lebanon-based friend, told us that street names and numbers don’t really matter here. In fact, they’re so insignificant that most people don’t know them. In this way, they seem much like the human appendix: no one really knows what its purpose is anymore, yet it remains with us anyway.)
After much discussion and multiple scourings of a map, we decided to use the nearby mosque to navigate our way back – and did so successfully, though I’m not sure how. By the time we arrived back at the hotel, it was close to six and I was certain that Sally, who was sleeping on the couch and therefore on let-the-stragglers-in duty, would sleep through our knocking and we’d have to sleep in the hallway.
Remarkably, Sally was up after the first knock, letting us in so we could wake Loraine with our loud ramblings. It wasn’t until we had successfully woken Sally and Loraine to the point that they were able to engage in clear conversation that we felt it was the appropriate time to go to sleep. It was six in the morning, so rare an occasion that I can’t even remember the last time it happened.
And, despite the ridiculous amount of money we spent, the lack of sleep we had that day, and the amount of pretending to be Canadian that we had to do, it was worth every penny, every minute of sleep, every ‘aboot.’ If there is any city in the world in which to relive your reckless, university all-nighters, it’s Beirut.