Doubling as an NGO, Club 43 wants to bring Lebanese from different walks of life together
By Dalila Mahdawi
BEIRUT: Hidden away on the second floor of a residential building, it would be easy to overlook Gemmayzeh’s most unusual bar. Club 43 is perhaps one of the area’s best-kept secrets, offering more than the usual fare of drinks, music and food. The club is also a non-governmental organization (NGO), and the first in Lebanon to combine social activism with a bar and restaurant.
From the entrance lined with bright plastic flowers to the club’s choice of paint, Club 43 lacks the formal atmosphere that plagues many other NGOs and cultural clubs. “We wanted to create a place where you could come, have some drinks and laugh with your friends. I believe culture is better expressed with some music and a few beers,” says president Imad Geara.
Originally established in 1967 by lawyers as a cultural club for members of the legal profession, Club 43 opened up to the public shortly after. Run solely by volunteers, the club generates its entire income through its bar and restaurant services. Club 43’s refusal to accept donations, whether by organizations or individuals, is fueled by a refusal to be compromised by a sectarian or political agenda. Indeed, from its inception, the club has focused on social welfare activities and has continuously campaigned against sectarianism.
Two Club 43 members, lawyers Sami Chkifi and Marcel Geara were the men responsible for the court case that saw the word “sect” removed from Lebanese identity cards.
Although Lebanon’s 18-month-old political crisis was solved by the Qatar-mediated Doha agreement, sectarianism is still widespread and many of the confessional militia groups that fought in the 1975-1990 Civil War are still functional in Lebanese politics today. After the May clashes between opposition and pro-government gunmen in Beirut and other cities, Club 43 replaced the international flags that normally hang from its windows with the flags of Lebanon’s numerous political factions.
“Some people don’t like what we’ve done. But we have put all the flags together to try and say, ‘We are all Lebanese and we must accept each other.’ We are trying to send a message of peace and tolerance,” Geara said.
In line with that message, the club also produces stickers that read “Say No to Sectarianism.”
Every Friday at midday, the club opens its doors to 70-100 homeless people and provides them with free meals. During this time, they can receive free legal advice from the many lawyers who volunteer. In the past, Club 43 has also offered them free blood and cholesterol tests.
“Interestingly, 90 percent of them did not have any health problems because they walk everywhere and don’t eat junk food,” Geara laughs.
The weekly lunches have provided otherwise excluded members of society with a chance to engage with others, and according to Helene Ata, a psychologist who volunteers with the club, numerous close friendships have been formed as a result.
Geara is emphatic about the secular nature of the club, remarking: “We never ask their religious or political affiliations. They just come, feel at home and have lunch.”
Club 43 has also offered itself as a meeting space for other NGOs, such as Nahwa al-Muwatiniya, Khallas! and Rotar-Act, the youth branch of the Rotary Club. The Club is also in the process of launching an NGO FM radio station, to be launched this month, which will replace KISS 104.9. The station “will play music, give free airtime to NGOs to make public service announcements and have three interviews daily with different NGOs,” says Geara.
Adorning one of the walls in the club’s bar is a framed Daily Star article dated October 1968 and quoting the club’s then-president, Marcel Geara: “‘We decided to call the club 1943 because it was then that Muslims, Christians and Druzes were united in establishing an independent Lebanon.’ But, he pointed out, 25 years after Independence, there is still enmity between the religions.