BEIRUT: More than 1,000 people gathered in Downtown Beirut Saturday for an open air market that captured the capital's pre-war aura in a formidable response to a businessman who had two days earlier asked protesters to leave the district because they were "cheapening" it.
Arabic music blasted as men and women, young and old, linked arms and danced dabke in Riad al-Solh Square, which was packed with dozens of booths selling everything from sweets and drink to literature and clothing.
Those who attended the "Abu Rakhussa", or flea market, said they came to reclaim Downtown Beirut from high-class businessmen who turned the district into an exclusive quarter after the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War.
"It brought us back 40 years to when we used to come down here and buy things," an older woman who brought her granddaughter told Al-Jadeed. "It's not like this anymore. It made me tear."
A middle-aged man said he remembered coming to the area before the war to have passport photos taken, recalling that his uncle also owned a shop nearby.
"LL1,000 ($0.66) for a cup of lemonade," a young man was heard shouting.
Downtown Beirut was bustling before Lebanon’s civil war despite the country’s grave inequalities. In 1994, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri established property development company Solidere to head the reconstruction of Beirut’s center, which pushed out hundreds of working-class tenants.
The event was called on by the "We Want Accountability" and "Leave us Alone" groups, and supported by the influential "You Stink" movement, after Nicolas Chammas, the head of the Beirut Traders Association, said during a gathering of business leaders Thursday that he feared protesters would turn Downtown into an Abu Rakhussa.
The words now haunt him.
"We want to thank 'Chammas Abu Rakhussa' for giving us this idea in order to deliver a message to people that they have the ability to head to Downtown Beirut and buy cheap stuff," an activist affiliated with We Want Accountability told Al-Jadeed.
A vendor wearing a hammer and sickle necklace sold homemade sweets she said were baked by her mother.
"We can head to the Downtown and show that we (the middle and poor classes) are as clean as the upper class... Nothing indicates that the rich are better than us... Their recent provocative speech shows that they're not," she said.
A young man selling lemonade labeled politicians and businessmen in Lebanon as "thieves," accusing them of running a mafia in Lebanon.
"They are splitting us (like trophies)... but we want to build our country, not give you this pleasure."