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'Beit mouchtarak': Communal living in Beirut

Growing numbers of young people opt for shared homes in order to afford living in Beirut, experiencing a different lifestyle - and freedom
Natheer Halawani (centre) shared apartments with friends in Mathaf during which time he brought together people from all walks of life and corners of the earth (Natheer Halawani)

After staying - mostly happily - in a perfectly situated flat in Beirut’s sought-after Hamra for 18 months, which he shared with an old dog and two (sexually active) friends, Omar Safi*, 30, decided it was time to move on. 

Safi lamented that his flatmates had a very different rhythm to his: “I would often hear their music quite late at night. I also heard couples having sex. Then again, I liked being free to make those noises myself at times…” 

The realm of beit mouchtarak (communal living), bringing mostly students and young professionals together, has been expanding in Beirut. Increasing rents but also expanding the prospect of freedoms that living at home does not provide, communal living has attracted more and more young people and couples.

“It is not all that common with my family but it certainly is among my friends,” Maria Harb*, 27, a graduate student at the American University of Beirut (AUB), explained. “My parents took a while to warm to the idea but they eventually did because it was more practical for me than to be driving [to university].”

Among the most sought-after – and costly because they are located in hip areas with rooms priced $300 to $700 and above per month – are those close to universities and nightlife: Hamra, Gemmayzeh, Mar Mikhael and Achrafieh.

Top priorities are avoiding nearby construction sites and finding (around-the-clock) electricity, wi-fi, air conditioning, parking and nice co-habitants in addition to personal liberties.

Out of reach

Many locals, though, struggle to afford Beirut: “U want 3 months = $2700 + deposit $900 + broker fees $900, which adds up to a total of $4500 – seriously!” an angry woman recently posted in response to an estate agent’s offer on Facebook.

Living spaces and flatmates are often found within social networks. There are dozens of groups on Facebook, and through notes and posts put up in strategic places such as university notice boards or in cafes, in emails that circulate, waseet (classifieds) or through friends. Many set-ups bring together people who previously were strangers.

“Whenever I shared a flat with friends it would be the continuation of a story we both knew. The only difference would be tackling the new-found issues like hygiene, smoking indoors incompatibility, pets, etc,” Natheer Halawani, 30, said. “But when it came to strangers, I would instantly take a stranger over somebody I knew.”

Nadia Younes, 27, a veteran in communal living, has effectively done so. “In the past two years, I have met three out of the five roommates I have had in my current flat from the apartments on the Beirut [Facebook] page,” she told MEE. She checks candidates’ Facebook pages before making up her mind.

Younes is clear about what she will and won’t put up with. “I simply expect them to respect the shared living space,” she put forward. “And to be able to share in responsibilities for the flat such as paying bills, talking to the natour [concierge], flipping the switch for the generator, cleaning the bathroom and kitchen and to contribute to general expenses.” She also insists on courtesy, which includes general greetings and to be given a little notice before groups of friends come over.

Hot spots

Hot spots are usually the shared kitchen and bathroom, with dirty dishes, clogged up drains, toilet seats left up, smoking rules - and rules in general. “We had very strict rules for cleaning up the shared spaces and were more lax about sharing the cost of living as we were both on very limited allowance from our parents,” Nathalie Diab, 32, recalled of her Achrafieh student commune.

Halawani also believed in rules: “We had many rules. What worked best was having one main tenant that would take care of everything including bills. Usually this would result in the main tenant paying less.” Harb, however, in one flat stopped enforcing the rules. “It was too much emotional energy spent. And as a result, I am no longer friends with the girls I used to live with.”

Gender mixing is still far from the accepted norm. Sharing with men worked fine for Harb. Younes, however, would not tell family in Lebanon or people she met that she co-habits with the opposite gender. Halawani readily admitted: “Had I been a woman though, it would be quite impossible (to live) in all of the mentioned flats, except for Mathaf, especially if it were guys and girls in the same flat.”

Diab and her friend’s lifestyle was in sync, communal and convivial: “We stayed in a lot, friends were over all the time, some slept on our couches. Two girls moved in at some point to study together,” she said. The duo lived in harmony: “What worked well was mutual respect also for each other’s privacy … as much as hosting parties together.”

Concepts of sharing and privacy can, as Diab found out, be interpreted in different ways: “My flatmate came from a family with five girls. I, however, had no sister so I was not accustomed to sharing my space, my clothes, anything really. But I learned from her as she learned from me and, over the years we lived together, we had no major conflict and also agreed on having boyfriends over.”

Life in crowded Beirut is notorious for petty interferences – construction sites, owners, concierges, neighbours or relatives of owners. For example, Diab’s elderly landlord would use his keys to enter their place while the women were away on weekends. Halawani recalled having to leave a flat in Dahye. “It was totally cheap and quite comfy, but there were some thugs standing at my door, thinking I was this Tripolitan stranger – I had a beard at the time – who would just stay there spying on them. I did, in actual fact, just enjoy being alone.”

Beit mouchtarak living situations often bring together young men and women, individuals of different religious backgrounds, nationalities and sexual orientations: “As a concept, shared living is a nice idea and I am glad people are becoming more open to it. If done properly, the mix of different people coming together can be a good experience,” said Natalie Khazzouh, who set up and still manages and monitors the Apartments in Beirut (Renters and Rentees) Facebook group while still a student in 2006-2007. The group has nearly 22,000 members - and counting.

Discrimination 

Many shared living spaces nonetheless remain a microcosm of the wider society. Khazzouh admitted that discrimination, based on nationality and religion, was rampant. To counteract this, she has included a rule that bans discrimination based on national, religious, sectarian and basically all identities. “People breaking this rule are removed and banned, but there is no way to ensure that landlords don't discriminate beyond the group,” she said. “There is also the occasional discrimination based on sexual orientation and these are also removed,” she underlined.

“I remember looking for an apartment in Ashrafiyeh once when the owner asked over phone at the end of our seemingly successful conversation: ‘Are you a Muslim? You know, neighbours, they're asking.’ I just hung the phone up immediately,” Halawani said.

“With the immigration crisis of the Syrians, there has been a rise in discrimination against them,” Khazzouh pointed out. “I once shared an example of a discriminatory post against Syrians in the group and was surprised by the controversy it generated, with many people coming forward in support of it. And you also have the Syrians discriminating against the Lebanese.” Palestinians sometimes face the same problems.

“Finding a place to rent in Beirut proved difficult,” Syrian Naseb Rahhal, 32, explained. “If the potential landlord was willing to rent out a flat to a Syrian national like me, he or she would mark up the price drastically from the one it was advertised and ask for three months, at times even one year, advance payment.”

“I need to share a home with someone I can trust,” he stressed. “Syrians can’t open bank accounts here so I have to keep my money in my room.” It also needs to be someone who cares: “If I get sick, who will take me to hospital at 3am? We talk, we laugh, we smoke argileh, listen to music – he’s like a brother, we are a community,” Rahhal says of his current host.

Ties, sometime strong as filial ones, frequently evolve among those choosing to cohabitate. “It's the friends I made, the experiences we shared, the discussions we had, the parties we held, the dinners, the photos and the endless nights with new faces,” Natheer Halawani, 29, reminisced about the time he shared a roof-top flat in Mathaf. He usually lived with two roommates, but often more individuals “crashed,” a mix of locals and foreigners, Northerners, Southerners and Beirutis, male and female, straight and not, religious and not.

Another way is possible

Shared living has taught Rahhal to be considerate, tidy and to cooperate with daily chores. Most of all, he underlines the importance of communicating.

“I'd say I am a good communicator and mediator also at work and this is the reason I manage to maintain harmony around me.” Communal life, Younes said, has taught her to be more patient.

Having shared a flat with a friend once allowed Diab to realise that another way of living - beyond her family's - was possible. “It was sometimes even better, even in the smallest details, like how we shared chores,” she said.

“I learned to trust myself to make my own decisions,” Harb added. “This type of living is a lot about compromise and learning new things, it is about being more open and it also was lots of fun!” Diab recalled.

After years of sharing, Younes admits to being weary of it, especially of getting used to bonding and parting ways with flatmates. Safi still embraces the concept but is trying to find a studio. 

“It's a good life experience. My kids must try that at least one time in their lives,” said Diab, now married with two children. Halawani concurred, suggesting that: “If I ever have children, I would just suggest they'd start living elsewhere the moment they can. It's a totally different experience and has helped majorly shape up my character.”

*Names of some of the interviewees have been changed at their request