William Dobson & Niamh Fleming-Farrell, Aaliya's owners, 2016
We founded Aaliya's Books in 2016 after we found ourselves, happily intoxicated, discussing Lebanese writer Rabih Alameddine's novel An Unnecessary Woman on a balcony at a Burns Night party. In the novel, the main character is 72-year-old Aaliya, who, when the narrative begins, has just accidentally dyed her hair blue (possibly as a result of diminished concentration due to the two glasses of wine she's downed). Aaliya, we learn as the novel progresses, has spent most of her life running a bookshop in Beirut while quietly translating great works of literature into Arabic, and much less quietly being driven demented by her gossipy neighbours and her 90-something-year-old mother. Aaliya is tough, sharp witted and deeply, deliciously, and occasionally quite pompously, literary. Midway through talking about her that night one of us said to the other, "Wouldn't it be fun to have a bookshop in Beirut." Over lunch a few days later we pledged to not only talk about it, but to actually do it. And when we opened Aaliya's Books eight months later, only one name felt right to put above the door.
Aaliya's Books has since evolved from a little bookshop with a biweekly bookclub into a café, bar, community hub and event space. We sell new and used books, and host an array of literary events. Each week we also also host The Beirut Banyan podcast and a swing dance night. There's a live jazz band every Friday night, a monthly wine fair, and myriad other musical and cultural performances.
When it comes to food and drinks, we're driven by a passion for working with local ingredients, artisans and suppliers. Our coffee is made from organic, fair trade beans that are roasted in Beirut and blended especially for us. We stock exclusively Lebanese wines. Our bar and kitchen teams produce food and cocktail menus celebrating the best of Lebanon's flavours and the country's bountiful seasonal produce. And, because much of the Aaliya's Books business planning was fuelled by dry martinis, we've made the martini cocktail a house specialty — one we offer for half price from 6-7:30PM daily.
Of course, like so many of our neighbours on Gouraud Street and in the surrounding areas, we've endured the hardships of Lebanon's recent past — from currency collapse, to pandemic lockdown, to the devastation of the Aug. 4, 2020, port explosion, to fuel and electricity shortages …. The last even forced our closure for a time in 2021. But through it all we've ducked and dived and rethought and reassessed and reconfigured. Alongside our team, we strive within the walls of Aaliya's Books to reflect a world we'd like to live in — one that's welcoming, inclusive, kind, creative and inquisitive.