The scent of nostalgia, the memory of loved ones, the calling of home, all perpetuated in small trinkets, house objects, and china plates. Basta is a true reflection of Beirut’s old beauty. The antiques, their owners, their history, the shops, the buildings on top of them, everything hints the sense of a city rich in stunning artifacts with an appreciation for beautiful living.
The Arabic verb basata means to spread out. It is from this verbal root that the historic central Beirut neighborhood of Basta derives its name. For nearly a century, the capital’s antiques vendors have spread their wares here, out in the open or in a dizzying bazaar of shops stacked ceiling-high with furniture and various curios.
Basta Antique Souk was established in the 1940’s by five pioneers in the business –Abu Ali Budair, Abu Mohammad Hijazi, Ibrahim Saad, Ahmad Aloul and Abu Faraj Ammar. It’s just a 10-minute walk south of the Ottoman-built Grand Serail and an equal distance east of the now-dilapidated house of former Lebanese President Bechara al-Khoury. A fundamental component of Beirut’s rich history, ghosts of the past are evident in the architecture that flourished during Lebanon’s cultural and artistic golden years, and in the cracks and bullets of the bloody Civil War.
Today, the relatively small intersection of streets remains much as it was during the French Mandate. Many buildings have been left unaltered and unrestored, and numerous shop owners run the same antique and furniture stores that their grandfathers did in generations past. Most of the furniture and the antiques are bought from old homes in Beirut. After the passing away of a person, their children head to Basta in search of some shop owners to buy the furniture. After agreeing on a price, the whole lot is brought back to the shop. Basta’s shop owners also get their goods by attending auctions or travelling to neighboring countries. But with recent conflicts, travelling around the region has been nearly impossible.
Most shop owners buy whatever they can get their hands on and turn a profit with. Some, however, have retained a degree of specialization. One shop has heaps of ornate wood and brass rotary-dial telephones on sale; another specializes in antique radios. One other shop only sells furniture from the 50s. Some maintain a regional focus, like antique Damascene mother-of-pearl inlaid woodwork. For bargain-seekers willing to haggle a bit, scratched and dented dining room sets can be bought for a reasonable price; for somewhat more upscale shoppers, there are quality vanities, beds, mariners’ desks and dining room tables.
The neighborhood is a bustling one, where daily life intertwines with amassed artifacts, old furniture, fishmongers, cafés, and dakakin (mini mini markets). Most shop owners, just like the artifacts they house in their shops, have had their share of adventure and were raised in these shops with this trade running in their blood.
Once inside the market, one is no longer in the present, you are instantly teleported in time. Old radios, vintage movie projector, TV sets, boxes, jars, centerpieces, old signs, magazines, ice containers, dusty lit chandeliers hang from the ceilings, old furniture and china, paintings, wooden tables, are all scattered around just like old memories.
Basta stands there a reminder of the past, a reflection of the present, and a resistance to the future, so much is held in those shops. Any of this can be yours for a price, except for the turning of the wheel and the fate of this little city by the Mediterranean Sea.