Foreign-owned bar a hit with Damascus clubbers

Damascenes escape violence on the streets by chilling out at club run by French brothers

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 November, 2012, 2:57am

Jean-Luc Duthion admits it was risky opening a bar in the heart of Damascus almost a year into Syria's civil war, but his venue has become a hit among locals seeking relief from the bloodshed.

Despite the violence closing in, the 28-year-old Frenchman decided along with his brother Jean-Pierre - well-known across the Twitter universe for his daily updates from Damascus - to open the trendy Pure Lounge club in the mostly Christian Old City neighbourhood.

"In hindsight, I think we decided to open the bar because of our total lack of political understanding," says Duthion, who has lived in Syria since 2007.

"We thought the revolt would only last a few months, and party-loving Syrians would get bored quickly. We were very wrong."

Duthion was a special effects expert in filmmaking and advertisements before he decided to launch Pure Lounge in February 2012. The brothers chose to live and work in Syria because "it was quite a closed country, but whose growth rate was higher than France's".

Duthion had been making good money in advertising until the Arab Spring-inspired uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad erupted in March 2011.

"Suddenly, all our orders were cancelled and I found myself without work," Duthion says. "That was when we decided to open the bar."

Attracting young and trendy Damascenes, Pure Lounge is white all over, and is decorated with mirrors and red sofas. It cost US$120,000 to set up.

"The idea behind it was to make it a clean, young, fresh place, and where women would also be able to relax. It is no dark hole in the wall," says Duthion.

Pure Lounge was not the only bar established in the midst of the uprising, though not all have survived the impact of the violence.

Two other nightclubs were closed down three months after being launched - the Zodiac and the Tao Bar, the latter of which cost US$5 million to build. A handful of other clubs remain open in Damascus, once home to a flourishing nightlife.

But there are few customers. Even on weekends, the number has shrunk massively since the revolt broke out.

Meanwhile, only a few restaurants have held up, while cafes offering the traditional nargileh water-pipe close at 10pm.

"We thought we'd make returns on our investment within a year of launching," says Duthion. "What a mistake!"

"Initially our bar was doing amazingly well. All the young well-to-do were coming to us, but as the months dragged on, most of them left Damascus for Beirut or elsewhere."

On an average evening, Pure Lounge has about 25 customers. At weekends, the number rises to around 45 to 60, and business does a little better when customers hold engagement celebrations or bachelor parties.

"We come here because we love life, and we want to take advantage of every moment," says regular customer Elias Hanna, a 27-year-old engineer.

"Two months ago, I witnessed an attack. I started to get depressed. Then I started to come to Pure Lounge. I feel better."