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Power cuts turn cafes into co-working spaces

BEIRUT (AFP) – The music is often hushed and the atmosphere studious – for the patrons filling Beirut’s cafes these days, the most important things are good lighting and stable Wi-Fi.

That’s because they now serve as substitute workplaces for people grappling with drastic electricity shortages and Internet cuts stemming from Lebanon’s unrelenting economic crisis.

Aaliya’s Books, in the heart of the capital’s once-fabled nightlife spot of Gemmayzeh, is one such sanctuary.

“Most of the time, if I come here, it’s because I don’t have electricity at home,” said Maria Bou Raphael, nestled on a sofa.

The power cuts, extending to 23 hours a day, have left many already deprived of an office by Covid restrictions with no option but to plant themselves in cafes all day, especially as the quality of many Internet connections has also plummeted.

A woman at a cafe in Beirut. PHOTO: AFP

Generators – the only way to keep devices charged and connected – are too expensive for many Lebanese, as they grapple with an economic crisis that has seen the local currency lose more than 90 per cent of its black market value in recent years.

Cafes are therefore among the few businesses to have largely bucked the wider meltdown driven by corruption, capital flight and would-be donors’ reluctance to throw good money after bad.

Aaliya’s Books manager Niamh Flemming Farrell said that on weekdays her establishment feels more like a co-working space, with some customers staying for a full day.

The sense of community created by the service that she provides to the neighbourhood is reviving a cafe culture that had faded in recent years.

Doubling up as a bookshop, the cafe takes its name from Aaliya Saleh, the central character in An Unnecessary Woman, a novel by acclaimed Lebanese-American author Rabih Alameddine.

The narrative focusses on a 72-year-old who lives secluded in her Beirut flat, in the sole company of her books while the 1975-1990 civil war rages outside.

“We noticed that… our customers started working additional hours in our branches, fancying the locations that provide a higher level of comfort,” said a spokesman for Cafe Younes, a roastery with 10 coffee shops mostly in the capital.