Shane Farrell

Where the streets have no names

Looking into the origins of Beirut’s forgotten street names

Boutros Dagher Street
Emir Haidar Shehab Street

I first arrived in Beirut on a warm October morning. Other than the weather, everything was off. My luggage hadn’t arrived, I was underslept, and my knee was hurting after an airplane cart banged into it the previous night. Undeterred, and armed only with a backpack and crumpled piece of paper with the address of my hostel, I jumped in a taxi.


When I asked for Rue Pasteur, I received a quizzical look from the cab driver as he hand gestured the famous open-palmed twist “chou,” or “what” in Arabic. Thankfully, the next line in the address indicating Gemmayze, which literally means sycamore tree, got the response intended.


Since then, I have learned that many Lebanese have no idea what the official street names in their own neighborhoods are.


“Rue Pasteur is commonly referred to as ‘Gemmayze min tahet,’” which is the street between Rue Gouraud – the street locals call Gemmayze – and Charles Helou street, said Ronnie Chatah, who runs the Walk Beirut Tours.


Were he still alive, Henri Gouraud, the French WWI general who signed a decree proclaiming the creation of the state of Lebanon in 1920, would no doubt feel embittered that his street name is more popularly known after the sycamore tree.


Sadly, one would be hard pressed to find the sycamores in Gemmayze, the pine trees in Snoobra, or fig trees in Ain al-Tineh.


Street names are often reaped in history and so, as Chatah put it, “discovering what street names mean is a fascinating way of unraveling the country’s past.”


Prominent French figures such as Ferdinand Foch, Georges Clemenceau and Charles de Gaulle, as well as the homage to the famous WWI battle of Verdun, are testimony to the French mandate over Lebanon until 1946.  Former Lebanese Presidents Charles Helou and Bechara al-Khoury as well as former Prime Ministers Saeb Salam and Riad al-Solh are of the few honored with street names and are a reminder of Lebanon’s more recent past.


Other streets like Monnot and Bliss are named after university founders. French Jesuit Father Ambroise Monnot established the Saint Joseph University (USJ) in 1875, while US missionary Daniel Bliss founded the American University of Beirut (AUB) in 1866, known back then as the Syrian Protestant College. Interestingly, Emeritus Professor at AUB Kamal Salibi told NOW Extra that Bliss Street is, in fact, the oldest continuingly used street name in Beirut. According to Salibi, it dates back to November 1918 and was one of the few street names that were not replaced by the French when they came to power in Lebanon.


However, the origins of other street names remain ambiguous. For example, calling a neighborhood Fern al-Chebbak, which literally means the oven of the window in Arabic, seems a bit odd. Most Fern al-Chebbak residents who were interviewed for this article were unsure about the origins, but all said it had something to do with windows and ovens. AUB professor Salibi, however, dismisses this, explaining instead that the word refers to the bakery of the person who makes mushabbak, a fried sweet common in the Levant.


But what is more interesting is why official street or neighborhood names have effectively been replaced in common speak by others, especially when they give an insight into the lives of interesting and popular Beiruti residents.


“The start of Sadat Street in Hamra is still often referred to as Abou Taleb,” said Salibi. “It was named after a very popular green grocer who passed away in the 1950s.” Abou Taleb’s family was apparently well known in the area, and “his sons helped with any difficulties [local residents had],” said Salibi. “They were well liked.” However, after the last son died during the civil war in 1970s, the shop was sold.


Another example is Michel Bustros street, commonly known as Akkawi, said Bahi Ghubril, the founder of the Beirut map-making company Zawarib. “As the story goes, when the [now-defunct] tram passed through Beirut, the stop – that used to be located where ‘Cashmir’ is today – had a fresh orange juice vendor from Akka, Palestine.” In order to promote his business and his home town, the Akka vendor insisted that people call the stop Akkawi.  Even after the stop no longer existed, the name is still used by the locals.


“There are hundreds of these stories, some I know, some I hope to find out from the public,” said Ghubril, who has launched a Zawarib Facebook page encouraging the public to share their explanations for the origins of Beirut street names.


Ghubril, who is working with the Beirut municipality to erect public map boards around the city with a detailed plan of the local vicinity, is keen to gather stories about Beirut from its residents. “The best experts [on Beirut’s street names] are the locals who use the street,” he said. “Legends [behind the unofficial names] are nicer and far more interesting [than the official explanations]. It is the legends that keep [the names] alive."

Although most Beirut streets are called after local historical figures, such as Boutros Dagher, residents rarely know who they are or what the actual name of the street is. (Photo via flickr.com)

"It is the legends that keep [the names] alive."

  • moki

    it's normal, Selling bread through a small window. people standing outside and waiting for the window to open and sell them.

    April 30, 2011

  • Reiny

    Thanks Shane, great article and very informative! Hope we get some more explanations like the ones you included here.

    April 28, 2011