Five weeks into life in Beirut I got a part-time job doing what I’ve always done to support myself while studying in the UK: bar and waitressing work. After a brief chat with one of the three young owners of Secteur 75, a new late night bar and restaurant in Beirut’s up-and-coming Mar Michael area, I agreed to start training on the bar three nights a week.
Going out in Lebanon is not casual affair. The women dress to the nines: cocktail dresses and salon-styled hair are a must, while heels under 6 inches are hard to find. For the men it’s smart casual: jeans, a t-shirt and a smart jacket are the usual staples, while hair is usually sculpted solid with wet-look gel. The patrons of Secteur 75 have money – the bar serves mainly cocktails at $10 a pop, as well as elaborate shots, and this is reflected in their clothes, jewellery, and general air of confidence and charisma. They also all appear to know one another. It is not unusual to find the people seated together at 9pm all at different tables by 10.30 and continuing to rotate from one group of friends to another until 2am.
The Lebanese are not big beer drinkers – very few bars serve beer on tap, and in fact it is only very recently that it became available. It is possible to get bottles of the delicious local pilsner, al-Maaza, however most people prefer to drink cocktails or spirits, mostly served straight over ice, with frequent rounds of shots. Aside from the unpopular beer option the cheapest drink (straight vodka over ice) costs about $9. That said you do get a lot of alcohol for your money – used to bar work in the UK where weights and measures are strictly enforced and free-pouring is almost unheard of, as is a drink containing more that 50m of spirits, I had a hard time adjusting my first night, when pouring a drink involved upending the bottle over the glass for a slow count of five. This ‘single’ shot is slightly over a UK double, and there seems no limit on the amount of alcohol which can be served in one glass. The Long Island Ice Tea for example, as made by Mario, my bar manager, consists of a long glass full of a fifth each of Bacardi, vodka, gin, tequila and triple sec, topped up with about a centimetre of coke for the sake of tradition. One man ordered a triple Black Label, which turned out to be about 7 UK shots served in a water glass over about 3 ice cubes. It is also common for tables to order themselves a bottle of spirits, such as Stolichnaya or Black Label, along with a few cans of mixers, and make their own drinks at the tables, paying around $140 for the bottle at the end of the night. In fact many of the more expensive and exclusive clubs in Lebanon make it a condition of entry that each group reserves a table and a bottle of vodka costing up to $250.
Wages and Work Conditions
Secteur is extremely trendy and, like most of the bars in Lebanon, has elaborate interior decor, giving it a very individual feel. There are three rooms, the main bar area where I work, which is mostly for people drinking, though some tables also order food to share tapas style with their drinks. There are also two side rooms with tables which are formally set, both with their own character. One is christened the graffiti room, and features formal dining in a room covered in tags and a picture of a large breasted, bra-less women toting some kind of blow-torch/machine gun hybrid, while the other is known as the ‘classic’ room, and is painted a faded green colour, with artistically peeling walls showing the ‘old’ yellow paint beneath. This room features ‘classical’ oli-painting reworked to include gas-masks, gorillas playing classical instruments and army generals with spray cans writing peace signs on the background of their portraits.
While food and drinks are expensive, with light fancy dishes such as tuna ceviche and beef carpaccio selling for about $25 each, Lebanon is the ideal place to run a restaurant it seems, as labour is cheap – my wages for a night’s work, consisting of a shift of 8 to 11 hours, is $20. It seems I am being paid over the odds too – when I mention to one of my fellow waiters that I’m used to being paid by the hour he says he wishes he wasn’t because the absolute maximum pay per hour in for a waiter in Beirut is $2 per hour. The advantage of working in Secteur 75 with its high prices and rich clientele is the tips – weeknights earn us an extra $15-$20 dollars on top of our pay, and weekends are more lucrative, earning us up to $30 in tips for a night’s work, thereby more than doubling our pay. While this means that restaurant work is comparatively well paid by Lebanese standards, it is not the owners who are responsible for this. Their entire floor staff for a Saturday night cost them about $120 – this is covered by the bill for a single table of drinks.
While chefs earn a slightly higher wage, they too get a share of tips, with the least going to the kitchen porters, three cousins, Syrian refuges, who seem to sleep on the premises and work about 14 hours a day. They are bottom of the pecking order – unlike the others they do not speak any English or French, and are constantly mocked by the other staff for their Syrian accents. They are friendly and fun however, and I enjoy chatting to them in the kitchen as it’s one of the few times I get to speak uninterrupted Arabic.
Working hours are also very different from what I am accustomed to. I work two to four nights a week, for 5 until whenever we close, usually around 2am. However, the other employees all work 7 days a week, from 5 until close Monday through Saturday, and from 10 until 7 on Sundays, when they restaurant opens for ‘brunch’, giving them just one evening off a week to see their friends and family. On average this means they are working 65 hours a week, earning about $1200 a month, including tips – for Lebanon a very respectable wage. However, many of them have second jobs on top of their 7-days-a-week restaurant job. One of the chefs works 6 mornings a week in a hospital cafeteria. He gets up at 6am, works at the hospital until 2pm, then has one hour at home before heading to work at the restaurant, where he finishes a midnight. When I ask him when he finds time to sleep he says ‘between 2 and 6’.
While looking after me, making sure someone explains the important stuff to me in English, and that I am always dropped home after work so that I don’t have to take a taxi alone late at night, the staff are all men, and clearly unused to working with women. As the sole woman, and also the sole non-native Arabic speaker I find the three hour wait from the beginning of set-up at 5pm until the restaurant opens at 8pm rather tedious, especially as Beirut is a late-night city and no one arrives until 9pm, many people waiting until 11pm to eat dinner, giving them plenty of time until the kitchen closes at midnight. The guys enjoy this set-up time as it gives them time to laugh and gossip together in Lebanese. I don’t understand most of the conversation, but enough to follow the basic topic – unfortunately a lot of the time they appear to be discussing prostitutes: who, where, how much, how long. As I am often seated in their midst as they discuss if Valeria is more beautiful then Elena, and how much they charge for the whole night, I am aware that I couldn’t really join in even if I wanted to. I tend to read my Kindle, pretend I’m deaf, and leave them to their fun.
Beirut – the ‘non-commercial’ city
I spend my first weekend working on the bar, and marvelling at Mario’s extremely extensive cocktail knowledge, which allows him to make any drink he is asked for instantly, to his own recipes, including several I’ve never heard of. I learn to make Moscow Mules the Mario way, using fresh ginger root, orange bitters, and a LOT of vodka, and the most popular Lebanese shot Doodoo, which is fresh lemon juice, Tabasco, vodka and a stuffed green olive. Bar work is fun and I am able to chat to the DJs – four different guys who work from behind the bar in rotation, so that the music is different every night. The clientele at Secteur 75 are not into Lebanese or Arabic music which is considered very uncool. They DJs at Secteur are overseen by one of the owners who instructs them to play only English-language music, in particular ‘non-commercial’ music, which appears to mean remixes of popular songs by unexpected people in unexpected styles. My first weekend I am treated to Craig David singing Marvin Gay, and a soft-jazz rendering of Billie Jean. One poor DJ is working on the night of a big function, and the birthday girl demands the much-frowned upon ‘commercial’ music: Lady Gaga, Van Morrison, the Grease soundtrack, and Michael Jackson (un-tampered with). For the rest of the week he has to put up with pointed comments from the staff about his ‘terrible music taste’, and the other DJs even tell me that they’ve heard he was awful! Like the decor, the music is another way for each bar to assert its individuality in a city full of clubs, pubs and restaurants. Part of the reason these venues are so expensive in Beirut in comparision to the average wage is the amount of time and money that goes into making each one trendly, unique and above all ‘non-commercial’.
My second weekend I am moved from the bar to the floor, and begin the work of serving food and drinks to a sea of dancing, flailing, drunk, smartly dressed Lebanese people, using a mixture of Arabic, English and French. While used to waitressing I am unused to working in a restaurant which is also a bar and a club. While the owners want to discourage dancing – there simply isn’t space – it isn’t actually forbidden. This makes carrying a tray full of cocktails and shots a difficult and dangerous procedure – the music is too loud to shout for people’s attention, and I have to wait for a gap in the sea of flailing arms and run through it, hoping no one decides to move too suddenly and knock me and my tray of drinks flying.
People are very friendly though, and once they realised I am not Lebanese are always interested in what I am doing working in a bar in Beirut. When I explain I’ve come to Lebanon to learn Arabic they are usually surprised, often asking ‘And what else?’ if not ‘Why?’ Given that most of them speak three languages fluently and have degrees in something else as well I suppose it is a fair question, though one I find hard to answer. Nevertheless the customers, usually in groups of at least 4 people, are keen to chat, and often ask me to join them for a drink or a shot, or stop me every time I go past their tables to ask me more questions.
While in some ways working in Beirut in completely different from what I am used to in the UK, with the severely reduced salary only part of that, in other ways it is very similar, as I suppose restaurant work is anywhere in the world. I spend the hours pre-service polishing plates, cutlery and glasses and setting the tables, the hours during service getting people whatever they think of to ask for, and the hours post-service wishing my feet didn’t hurt quite so much, and speculating how much we’ve made in tips. All in all it’s enjoyable work, and good for my Arabic, in spite of the amount of English I inevitably end up speaking.