Al Makan: Beirut’s community hub that feels like home
BEIRUT - It is not home but it feels very much like home. That is how regular visitors describe Al Makan, a cultural community hub in one of Beirut’s most crowded neighbourhoods where bookworms, students looking for a peaceful space to study and advocates of free expression and deep conversations meet.
Tucked in a side street branching out of bustling Mar Elias, Al Makan offers a minimalist “homey” space with its spacious rooms impregnated with incense and its small garden, a rare luxury in an overbuilt city such as Beirut.
“Al Makan is what I call the third space, in other words, the place where people will find you if you are not at home or in the university or at work,” says Hiba Khodr, an associate professor of public policy at the American University of Beirut and Al Makan’s founder.
“It is like home but it is not your house and it is not your favourite coffee house. It is a cultural hub where we are cultivating a community spirit. The concept of community is very inclusive as different people are part of a community.”
Established last October, Al Makan has a library, co-working area, a space for meditation and spiritual exercise and a self-service kitchen.
Following the Andalusian tradition of naming things and places during Mediaeval Islam in Spain, each room in Al Makan carries an indicative title. The “khan” is the concept store where artisanal products are displayed for sale; “al Dar” is where calligraphy and arts workshops are held; “al Mihrab” is the space devoted for tranquillity and meditation; “al Mashghal” is the study and work; and “al Diwan” has shelves stacked with books carefully selected by Khodr to enhance cultural, spiritual and intellectual development.
“The books available kind of reflect what Al Makan is all about and help conceptualise the place,” Khodr said. “We have books that personally helped me at one point in my life grow as a human being and helped me discover the purpose of life. But the problem with the new generation is that they don’t read much,” Khodr said.
The central room dubbed “Al Majlis” is the most spacious and where most activities and events take place. One of its walls is adorned with the inscription “The place that is not feminised cannot be depended upon.” The quote by Andalusian poet Ibn Arabi is indicative of the place’s predominantly female users.
“Al Makan is mostly for women but guys can come when we have public events. Women need privacy and feel comfortable having a space for them,” Khodr said.
Al Makan visitors can help themselves to Beit el Mouneh, the centre’s kitchen, make their own tea or coffee and grab a snack from the glass jars packed with cookies and salty treats that line the shelves.
Once a week, Al Makan hosts a movie night showing alternative non-Hollywood movies, followed by thought-provoking debates. “We essentially show movies that will initiate discussion, movies that come from all over the world, from Afghanistan, Iran, et cetera,” Khodr noted.
The weekly “Let’s Talk” event provides an opportunity for visitors to discuss topics such as identity, relationships and privacy.
Al Makan organises special events hosting professionals such as British photographer Peter Sanders, who gave lectures and a workshop on photography, and Hakim Archuletta, an expert in homoeopathy, who flew from Mexico to deliver lectures on alternative medicine.
As of September, the space will double as an art residency, Khodr said.
“A French artist will be the first comer. She will stay for one month, live here, work here and, at the same time, mingle with Al Makan’s frequenters who will then have the opportunity to watch her work,” Khodr said. “It would be to stimulate arts culture, appreciation and knowledge. At the same time, the artist can give workshops and, at the end of the month, display her work.”
“Al Makan is a warm and welcoming place. People from different backgrounds and ages are welcome. They could be atheists, churchgoers or of different nationalities and races. They discuss different issues, be it social, psychological, spiritual, et cetera. Nobody is leading anybody but all are just sharing views and opinions,” Khodr said.
The place is sustained by major supporters in addition to its members and visitors. “We sustain each other in Al Makan. There is support from different people who believe in the concept and we have the members who are always contributing,” Khodr said.
“At Al Makan, we embrace each other. We want to introduce the values of love and service not through lectures but by living the experience. Where everybody knows your name,” she said quoting the theme from “Cheers.” “They are always glad you came. You come as you are,” she added.