Afternoons with the Sursocks: Sawfar & Beirut

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On the tree-lined road of Sawfar, known there as the corniche, there is a relic of the Lebanese past that people have forgotten. When asking my friends about the Sawfar Grand Hotel, most have never heard of it or its story but they know of “that big old abandoned structure off the main road of the town.”

Turns out, in the 60s, Sawfar was the happening place to be for all established families of Beirut as well as the travelers who passed through there thanks to the railway. The Sawfar Grand Hotel was built in the late 1880s by the Sursock family and was the first casino in Lebanon. Because it was built around the same time the train station was opened across the road, travelers taking the Beirut-Rayak line would stop there to stay at the hotel which was notorious for its casino, cinema, and nightclub, the Monkey Bar.

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I had always hoped to sneak onto the property and explore solo but the problem with that plan is that you never get the backstory right. You don’t know who walked the halls before you, who danced on the broken tiles under you, or who fell in love in the courtyards around you. Without the story, these structures remain unidentified bodies in the morgue, rotting down to the bone. They’re still part of what once was but they’re less human and you don’t know who they were when they were alive.

After finding out that the property was owned by the Sursocks, I got in contact with Roderick Cochrane, the youngest son of Lady Cochrane and grandson of Alfred Sursock. He was surprised I hadn’t already been to the hotel but even more flabbergasted that I was asking for permission to access the property first. That’s just not how things are done in Lebanon when it comes to the abandonment of our historical gems. Rarely do you find people who even pay attention to their existence, let alone respect their boundaries.

The hotel itself was never managed by the Sursock family and had various families (Tueni, Najjar, Rihani) renting it over the years. Government officials, Saudi kings, and other foreigners would take up residence at the hotel because it was a place they could easily get to and comfortably speak in Arabic. No need to fly to Europe. Apparently, the restaurant was a draw as well; George Rayess, the first Lebanese chef to publish his own cookbook, was a cook there.

It closed once the civil war of ’75 broke out but Roderick says that business started to dwindle a few years before that because of the proliferation of air conditioners in Beirut. Summers were bearable and less people made the trip to mountain getaways by then. After closure, it was the headquarters for the Syrian army who also contributed to the damages of war by stripping the wooden beams from the roof and burning them for warmth as well as dragging the elevator engines down the stairs, creating deeper gashes in an open wound. It, along with the Sursock’s villa there, suffered through the war and was looted by inhabitants and militias. And so, like all hotspots of Lebanon, the hotel’s heyday was in the 1960s. The more I find out about our past, the more I find myself wanting to have a Midnight in Paris trip to the days when our country was more advanced than it is today. We all seem to be enamored with the fantasy that is now long gone.


When asked why the Sursock family seems so adamant about preserving old Beirut, he replied, “it’s a special mentality. Although the Sursock money came from being merchants of cotton and wheat and things like that – things have changed. We don’t operate in that vein anymore. We don’t have money in the banks, we have it in properties.” Both villas’ gardens are used as venues for weddings and private events now. However, Roderick’s attachment to the properties is more sentimental than economical. He lives in the Beirut villa and spent childhood summers in the villa of Sawfar, named Donna Maria after his grandmother. He says,“it’s about family. If we lose our properties little by little, what will be left of us?”

When it comes to saving what is left of our architecture and history, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Laws have not changed, corruption continues, towers rise. “The Lebanese are merchants, they think about profits. They don’t think about the future. They forget about the past and they don’t think about what’s got to be good for their descendants or what country they’re going to leave for them.”  Sighs all around.

Roderick seems to have hope in the younger generation when it comes to change though. He senses their anger and understands their frustration, but commiserates with those who leave for better opportunities. “You have to survive,” he says. He notes how most who stay behind only do so to inherit family businesses since typical salaries aren’t the numbers you can build a life with.

After meeting him and talking about his family’s legacy, work toward preserving Lebanese heritage, and the summers in spent in the town above Aley, Roderick granted me my wish of visiting Sawfar and advised me to “park my car at the villa and take a stroll down through the corniche past the gendarmerie, down to the hotel across from the train station.” He also informed me that Lady Cochrane was spending her summer in the renovated servant’s quarters of their old villa and that she’d love to have a chat. A chance to talk to the woman who was there throughout the glory days of the country and started APSAD, a foundation for saving our heritage in the 1960s? Roderick was suddenly my genie and I was already somersaulting on a magic carpet.

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The delicate woman spoke of the peak of Sawfar’s summers when she was young and how things have transformed since then. Less people visit villages, more people moved to the city, and the spirit of the youth has slowly evaporated. The house had an esplanade where her mother made a floor for dancing and, before she was born, her father planted all the trees along the corniche, the trademark of Sawfar’s main road. She says, “it’s one of the only villages that hasn’t been spoilt by concrete.”


Lady Cochrane’s family is a multinational smorgasbord. Born in Naples to a Lebanese father and Italian mother, married to an Irish nobleman, and relations to French, American, and Canadian in-laws, it is quite the compliment for such a worldly woman to say that “Lebanon was one of the most beautiful countries you can think of when I was young. Beirut, you would never believe it but, Beirut was simply beautiful, one of the most beautiful cities of the Mediterranean.” After all, she would know.

As she speaks, I can’t help but feel guilty for not pumping my own grandmother for stories like this. She’s 10 years younger than Lady Cochrane (who’s 93) but doesn’t reminisce; she’s more concerned with electricity cuts of the present. As if she heard my thoughts, Lady Cochrane then mentions her plans to have windmills installed in Sawfar so the village can have an alternative electricity supply. She may be aging, but she’s still leveraging her influence. On top of that, she studied town planning for 7 years but never got her degree because she couldn’t make the last term move abroad since she was married with children by that time. “We’ve ruined our mountains, our cities, everything. We should make an island and put all the skyscrapers there and rebuild Beirut the way it was before. We create Beirut as it was, with lovely buildings and green spaces.” So who’s got a spare island? Maybe Dubai can lend us one and we can supply the towers.

“Everything good in Lebanon was suppressed. But there it is, we still have a few places left in the mountains.” She feels it’s too late to save what is left of Beirut; I hope, for Lebanon’s sake, that she’s wrong.

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Taking a Walk in Mar Mikhael

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As part of the In Mar Mikhael event, two walking tours were given this weekend. I went along for the afternoon activity this Saturday thinking that I knew a lot about the neighborhood I spend so much time in. Seriously, Google thinks I live in Mar Mikhael because I’m in Ashrafieh (work and play) so much. Turns out, there’s more to this place than I thought.

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The beginning, EDL

The tour began in front of Electricite du Liban where we were divided into 3 groups departing every 10 minutes. Since I opted for English, Elisabetta was our guide, and started with a brief intro about the Brazilian-influenced EDL building. It was built in the mid 1960s, designed by a Lebanese architect, Pierre Neema.

From EDL walking toward the rest of MK, there is a new geometric modern building with a green wall on one side, home to Gallery Tanit. This building is the only one that respects urban law because of the existence of a sidewalk. Most developments disregard this and it results in what I call “l’extinction du trottoir,” leaving us to navigate between parked cars hoping we’re not pummeled by a service driver. From this spot, you can see the three different forms of architecture found within MK: 60s, modern, and classic French. Across from this mammoth is an old house of two architectural styles conjoined with a common stairwell, a practice that shows there used to be consideration for economy of space.

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Tobbagi Gardens

Behind these lovely old homes is the Tobbagi Gardens, a private space that is open to public visitors. It’s made up of terraces and planting areas and is the biggest green space in MK.

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Mr. Tobbagi talks to us about the Fouad Boutros Highway Project

Sadly, the gardens are now at risk. If the Fouad Boutros Highway Project is implemented, the gardens will be destroyed; the neighboring building next to Mr. Tobbagi’s has already been expropriated. The only other green space in MK which is across the road has also been bought and will soon be gutted & developed. Besides the fact that these buildings are solid representations of our heritage but are being knocked down like stacks of Jenga pieces, the Project’s urban planning is outdated, inefficient, and unwanted to begin with. For now, the Project is on hold because of the local and international media coverage but no one knows how long that will last.

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Massad Stairs 

The walk continued to the colorful Massad stairs that were featured on Vogue.com the other day. This staircase, painted by the Dihzahyners a few years ago, are semi-private semi-public and the place where a Save Beirut Heritage sit-in was organized. I hate to say it but the stairs have undergone a lot of weathering since their first coat of paint. Besides being a site for activism and artistic expression, the stairs also serve to connect the residents of upper Ashrafieh with Mar Mikhael. For example, St. Georges Hospital employees and visitors can use it to jump into a bar for happy hour after a long week since the hospital sits up the street from the top of these stairs. Be careful at night though; sometimes there are punks chucking eggs at unsuspecting pedestrians below.

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Vanina

Mar Mikhael used to be a predominately Armenian neighborhood. In the 1920s, the Armenian population shifted over from Qarantina and still make up a big portion of the residents living there now. The area is in full gentrification with the arrival of the new generation who are transforming Mar Mikhael into a bustling creative hub. Of course, with them comes the gastropubs and boutiques that the artsy crowds with purchasing power attract.

The walking tour’s sole purpose was to show us that Mar Mikhael has different facets but it was originally a residential village. If you walk into the alleyway where Vanina has opened its first shop, you can continue into an open courtyard of neighbors that still live like the days of old MK. Some buildings have been restored (mainly to be home to new restaurants like Les Fenetres) but the majority of property owners find it easier to sell than to salvage and/or fight the developers. That, and it’s more profitable for them on a personal level.

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Pharaon St

We popped out from the Les Fenetres entryway to walk down the Internazionale alley. Nasawiya’s old location is where In Mar Mikhael is having their Behind the Object exhibition till the 24th of this month. After making this quick stop, we walked down to Pharoan St. Don’t feel bad if you have no idea where this is because I didn’t know it had a name either. Pharaon St. is the street where PaperCup and Frosty’s Palace are. If you’ve ever been to Mar Mikhael, you probably know which street I’m referring to now. If not, you should check out both places. The owners are sisters. Have a coffee and grab a book then walk across the street to inhale a burger and milkshake.

This strip of shops and specialty bookstores make up the “creative cluster” where all owners have made a joint decision that no bars will open on the street there, keeping it quieter than the other crevices of the neighborhood. Next to Papercup is the Maroun Naccache Theatre, the first in Beirut and where they put on Moliere productions. The church on the same road is where the neighborhood got its name. The church was originally in Qarantina. The women felt uncomfortable by the presence of soldiers there so they relocated to its current location in 1855 and, like much of Beirut, it was destroyed then reconstructed several times to make it bigger. The last works date back to 1972 and it has been the main place for community congregation ever since.

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A facade leftover to be incorporated into a new tower

Train Station and Bus Warehouse

Mar Mikhael is also home to one of the main train stations that was used when we had a railway that ran along the coast to the north. Rather than create museums or public spaces out of relics that link back to our past, it seems we only know how to reinvent our dilapidated public transportation systems into nightlife venues. After the old train station of Mar Mikhael was used for multiple DJ events, it was morphed into a high-end bar by BO18 management. The abandoned bus graveyard/warehouse is Uberhaus’ station for their indoor electronic raves while Garten is closed until the summer.

Vendome Stairs

Collectif Kahraba’s Aurelien Zouki met us halfway up the Vendome Stairs to talk about Nahna wel Amar wel Jeeran, the yearly festival that happens there. With a name meaning “us, the moon, and the neighbors,” the festival is comprised of visual/musical performances and public interventions in a public space. Through this, they promote collaboration between different fields who join forces to create a neighborhood event. The collective sees itself as a theatre company that puts on free accessible cultural events that involve the residents of the neighborhood in the planning and whole production. For example, Nawal and Camille, two old neighbors on the Vendome Stairs, participate by composing songs and cooking food for the audience and host guests. Once, a puppet performance was done on the building rooftops; the puppets were based on the known neighborhood personalities like Nawal and Camille.

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Nawal and Camille

All these attempts at inserting cultural practice into our daily lives is at risk when homes are replaced by towers. The way the community interacts changes because they function like a village. Breaking this dynamic through modern urban development kills the human aspect of the community.

One intervention done is the bench found at the halfway point of the staircase. Designed by Christian Zahr, he saw that there was a need for a “break” on the way up the steep climb, especially for the elderly that live in the homes of this part of Ashrafieh. The bench that is built like a staircase itself pokes fun at the fact that there’s no public institution taking care of the residents’ needs or the public space of the city.

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Grande Brasserie du Levant

Located on the Badawi half of the area, the Brasserie opened in the 1930s and was the oldest brewery in the Middle East. It was where Laziza Beer was made. The brasserie as “La Grande Brasserie du Levant” was closed in 1995 but an entrepreneur used it to produce a beverage at a later stage. With little success, it finally closed in 2003. There have been talks to transform it into lofts or a cultural center but no official decision has been made due to a dispute between the owners. This was where GAIA Heritage held an exhibition last July featuring the work of 15 creatives.

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Other MK Fun Facts

  •  The graffiti portrait done by Phat2 at the Mar Mikhael Gas Station is of his sister
  •  Internazionale was a garage between 1954-1970s
  • The army barracks facing the Grande Brasserie were built by the French
  • Brut l’atelier is an open workshop where you can go use their tools and workspace to collaborate and/or assist on handmade projects
  • Across from the Brasserie is a colorful staircase leading back up to an alley by the Vendome Stairs. There used to be a festival there every year until the organizer passed away.

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Going Off-track: Rayak Train Station

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After a day at the AUB farm (AREC DAY), a few friends and I took a detour to the Rayak Train Station, located in the Bekaa Valley past the Rayak Air Base. Rayak (pronounced Riya’) is home to one of the many abandoned train stations (and a factory) of Lebanon. The line, that used to run from Beirut to Damascus, was the 1st railway built in Lebanon back in 1891. This was before the country was “independent” and was still under Ottoman rule. The dilapidated remains of the station are frozen in time. It’s a lot like how you would imagine a war zone after a ceasefire; everything is where it was before the war, only it’s aged, rusted, and beautifully decayed.

The caretaker on site there told us that a permission slip from Mar Mikhael in Beirut was needed to access the grounds but we pleaded and he allowed us to roam around a bit while advising us not to enter any of the buildings because it was dangerous due to the rain. When we asked him why the supposed project for a Rayak Train Station Museum seemed to be put on hold, he seemed quite discouraged. The way he put it was, the project, though ambitious and worthy, needs financing and the people in charge of our country aren’t willing to fork it over for something that isn’t seen as a priority. It seems that if this project were to ever see the light of day, it would need some wealthy private investors. It is sad that our country does not seem concerned with the preservation of such sites – remnants of our rich history and grounds related to our past. If there are no plans of renovation or innovation when it comes to public transportation, we should at least cherish the graveyards of days when we did have such machinery running along our coast.

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Railroad Switch (click to enlarge)

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Old lockers

There has been talk of a museum, a documentary, and even getting the trains back on track. Unfortunately, talk’s all that seems to have happened since such things were written in a TimeOut Beirut article almost 3 years ago. Elias Boutros Maalouf from Ecuador (familial roots from Rayak) put together a study called “The Rayak Train Museum Proposal” in 2009. The document, in French, English, and Arabic, describes a plan for a museum for all the Lebanese railways. You can check out the whole thing here. Some tidbits from the proposal:

  • “By 1912, it was a vital cog in an intercontinental rail system that spread throughout Europe and Asia and, by the 1940s, linked Europe and Africa.”
  • “In the beginning of August 1895, the first train took off from the port of Beirut to Rayak railway station.”
  • “Rayak was famous for having one of the biggest train factories in the world at that time. It was later well known for designing and reassembling old steam engines that worked on charcoal to work on fuel.”
  • “In 1976, the railway was shut due to the civil war, ending more than 85 years of success and achievements.”
  • “In World War II, this factory was used as a military base in which military weapons were fixed. At that time a group of engineers from both the train factory and Rayak’s Military Airbase were assigned to build airplanes for the French military. Some of the airplane parts were manufactured and designed in Rayak’s train factory. They were then taken to Rayak airport to be assembled to their new chassis, and, Rayak’s first airplanes conquered the sky.”

I contacted Mr. Maalouf to ask what has come of this project since there was no recent news of it. Apparently, he has completed the Lebanese Railways documentary but he’s still waiting for the opportune moment to release it. Three weeks ago, Train/Train, the NGO he co-founded, met with Gaby Layoun, the Minister of Culture, to discuss the project – however, they have yet to hear back from the Ministry since. Officials from the Ministry of Transport, on the other hand, visited Rayak last week with a freight truck company to see to plans of a truck hub at the station – an effort that Train/Train would like to thwart. Train/Train Lebanon are “working on preserving the past and building the future of the Lebanese Railways.” You can follow them on Twitter and check them out on Facebook.

Another site to check out is CEL – Chemin de Fer de l’Etat Libanais; it has information on the railways including timetables, postcards, and photographs all collected by Børre Ludvigsen.