Beirut’s Epi Club defying tide of radicalism
Beirut - Welcome to the Cabaret…
The smiling young doorman, clad in a black suit with matching cap, pushed open the door to the entrance of the “Epi Club” where a handsome young lady in a formal, but smart, dress greets you with a smile and takes your coat before ushering you to your table.
We are not in Paris but in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, in the heart of the Levant, a region that has been rocked by upheavals and devastating wars. The Epi Club, a landmark of Beirut’s nightlife during Lebanon’s golden years prior to the 1975- 90 civil war, reopened four months ago, unmoved by raging violence and rampant Islamist extremism in neighbouring Syria, a mere 100 kilometres away.
Dimly lit chandeliers, shiny wood panelling and painted glass windows give the place an intimate character and an air of sophistication and elegance. The double-storey hall, with a stage at its upper end, can accommodate up to 200 people. The place has been restored to what it was at the climax of its glory in the ’60s and first half of the ’70s of the past century.
Owner Toros Siranossian, a big name in the world of entertainment in Lebanon and the Middle East, introduces himself as a “suicide” activist but not the type who makes international headlines, he said. “I am a kamikaze of entertainment,” Siranossian said during an interview with The Arab Weekly, referring to the description that was attributed to him by the local media.
Many, including his wife and friends, believe he is “suicidal” by merely reopening the Epi Club and investing a large amount of money in a country that is plagued by political instability, intermittent wars and recently with growing insecurity as a result of the spill-over of the Syrian conflict. “They fear that I might suffer bankruptcy but I am a militant of entertainment. I am used to facing big challenges and it is not the first time that I take big risks in my life,” said the 78-year-old impresario.
“I have experienced many ups and downs during my whole life that I spent in promoting arts and music and this did not stop me from moving forward. I am personally proud of all the art endeavours I did undertake in my life and no threat will intimidate me,” he added.
Lebanon hosts some 1.2 million Syrian refugees and has been greatly affected by the conflict in Syria, now in its fifth year. Car-bomb attacks claimed by Islamist militants from the radical Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front) and Islamic State (ISIS) rocked Beirut and other parts of Lebanon over the past two years. In addition, deadly clashes pitted Syrian-based militants against the Lebanese Army in border areas in east Lebanon, further undermining security and impacting the economy and the tourism sector.
However, Siranossian is undeterred. The Epi Club was once dubbed the “Olympia of the Orient” in reference to the famed Olympia Theatre in Paris where internationally renowned singers performed. It features a varied programme with a Cuban music band, French CanCan and Folies Bergère dancers, belly dancing, Brazilian samba and Lebanese and Arab singers entertaining partygoers for five straight hours through until early morning.
“The Epi Club is still as it was when it was first inaugurated, back in 1961,” pointed out Georges Farraj, the manager. Although renovated, the place conserved its retro cabaret looks. The wooden bar and the display of bottles in the background do not look like any of the bars in modern day pubs. Even the waiters are clad in outfits with red satin vests, reminders of ’60s and ’70s fashion.
“Some of our old clientele are coming back here, looking for the good old memories,” Farraj said. “The younger generation heard from their parents about the Epi Club and they are coming here to discover the place for themselves.”
Located in Rue de Phénicie, where Beirut’s pre-war nightlife was centred, the Epi Club was the place to go for residents and visitors alike when it opened in 1961. With the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war, the area became part of the front line that divided war-torn Beirut into Christian east and Muslim west.
With eyes filled with nostalgia, Siranossian remembers the “good old days” when young talent, especially French singers who later shot to international fame performed at the Epi Club. These included Enrico Macias, Salvatore Adamo, Georges Moustaki, Frederic François and Bernard Sauvat among others.
“Macias and Adamo were just beginners at the time. Enrico Macias was then performing ‘J’ai Quitté Mon Pays’ and ‘La Femme de Mon Ami’ and Adamo his famous song ‘Tombe la Neige’, that later became international hits, propelling the two singers on the international pop music scene,” Siranossian recalled.
During the first years of the war, the place was robbed and burned. All the photos and souvenirs from the famous people who had spent an evening at the Epi Club turned to ashes. “Not a single Arab or European prominent figure who visited Lebanon at the time, did not spend a night at the Epi Club, including Brigitte Bardot, Arab ministers and members of parliament,” Siranossian said. “Dalida, Charles Aznavour, Boney M, Mireille Mathieu and Johnny Hallyday, have all enjoyed an evening at the EPI Club… It was the place to be.”
Lebanese presidents and prime ministers were “habitués” of the club. “Premier Rashid Karami entered a cabaret once in his lifetime … it was the Epi Club,” Siranossian said about the late Muslim conservative prime minister.
Against all odds, the Lebanese- Armenian entrepreneur is aspiring to revive his night hub, emulating the long gone years when Lebanon was the Arab centre of liberalism, free thinking and tolerance.
However, several decades of internal strife, regional upheavals, destruction and large-scale emigration of Lebanese professionals, have changed the country’s features and social fabric. Sectarianism is more pronounced, religious extremism is rampant, and insecurity and political instability are the norm.
But Lebanon has always been the country of contradictions and plurality.
“It is a big challenge that I am willing to take to keep Lebanon on the entertainment map in the region despite all the odds,” Siranossian insisted.
The entrepreneur’s boldness mirrors the Lebanese people’s defiance of ISIS-inspired radicalism. The reopening of the Epi Club is seen as one of Lebanon’s answer to the tide of intolerance sweeping the region.