The Town Tavern

At Naya’s pub — known by regulars as Abu Elie’s — pictures of communists line the walls. Among them, Che Guevara emerges the hero. He’s in more than thirty photographs hanging in the space, which fits four tables and a wide bar. He watches from every corner: a dreamer in his military uniform, a worker in his bare chest, bewitching in his smile concealed behind a Cuban cigar. But at Abu Elie’s, he’s not the same Che as the one adorning t-shirts. Here, he rules by virtue of his intellect, not by the magic of his image alone. The customers here are revolutionaries in his presence.

Abu Elie’s given name is Naya Chahhour. The story of the pub is the story of him. It’s the story of a fighter who committed to the Lebanese Communist Party and took up arms for the cause; the story of a host who, after “fighting hours,” spent his time greeting customers in the first restaurant he opened in 1975.

Abu Elie was born in Achrafiyeh, Beirut, in 1956. In 1970, he applied for membership in the Lebanese Communist Party. He claims that it wasn’t strange for a son of Achrafiyeh, an area the right-wing Lebanese Forces considered its stronghold, to sign up for the red party. After all, his grandfather was an atheist who once took a barber’s razor to a comrade’s neck because he disagreed in opinion with Stalin; his father was also never far from the world of atheism: “If God’s there, he’s cruel; and if he isn’t there, why fear him?” In addition to the family, Abu Elie cites another reason for the Communist presence in the Saifi area of Achrafiyeh; it goes back to the historical relationship between Orthodox Christians and Russia.

The local political spirit in Naya’s emanates from the photographs of George Hawi, otherwise known as Abu Anis. Hawi was the late secretary general of the Lebanese Communist Party and founder of the National Lebanese Resistance Front, which confronted the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and its capital, Beirut, in 1982. “I was one of the bodyguards in his personal security team for seven years. I used to eat, drink, sleep, and wake with him… That’s why… it’s not easy… it’s not easy!” Abu Elie says in reference to the news broadcast on June 21, 2005, announcing the assassination of Hawi by a car bomb not far from his home in Beirut.

Abu Elie’s relationship with Abu Anis grew stronger in 1973, when Naya and his family moved from Achrafiyeh to Anis’s hometown, Btighrein, in the Metn area of Mount Lebanon. There, Abu Elie took up arms and fought with comrade units in the area. “I went with the party and with the Palestinian Resistance… We were allies. In fact, I guarded over Tel al-Zaatar camp.” By 1975, Naya was an active full-time member in the party. The same year, the civil war officially broke out. The young man was forced to flee from Metn to the Caracas district in Ras Beirut. The battle lines were openly declared and ideological and sectarian cleansing the norm. But Caracas was, and still is, an area of the sort of sectarian mix that is not “sectarian,” and at the time, was militantly leftist — hence, relatively peaceful.

While in Caracas, the Chahhour family opened a tiny restaurant; he says it was even smaller than his place today. It consisted of three tables and served sandwiches, the legendary Lebanese minced raw meat dishes, marrow and tongue, complete with every kind of alcohol. The restaurant was managed by father and brother; the mother served food cooked at home. Naya helped out whenever he found time.

In 1985, Naya asked to be given permanent leave from the party. Why? “For reasons that seem far away now… it was disagreements with the party’s politics. But I kept paying my membership dues and participated in the activities I was convinced of.”

His request to be “relieved” of his duties was accepted by the party one year later. Abu Elie spent his newfound time engaged in another routine with his comrades. Night after night, they would meet and weave stories from various memories.

The name of the first place he opened after leaving the Communist Party was “Mezzeh.” This was where he nurtured his first clientele, “from young men and women in all the different parties in that milieu — the Murabitoun, the Progressive Socialists, the Communist Party — as well as a mix of ‘civilians,’ journalists and, of course, students… there were lots of students.”

In 1987, the Syrian Army returned to Lebanon, reasserting its authority over the country. “I went on my own to Rmeileh [a Communist stronghold on the coast, just south of Beirut] … I was wanted.” Why? He doesn’t know to this day. Or so he says. Members of the Syrian Army took his wife and interrogated her. Next, they robbed his restaurant. They harassed him and made him understand that he was persona non grata in Caracas from that day forth.

In Rmeileh, he moved from one location to another. Wherever he moved, he created a gathering place for comrades. They sat on the chairs he brought next to the charcoal barbecues he provided. Customers grilled their own food and drank Abu Elie’s alcohol. It was like a restaurant, but without having to deal with other customers; as if you were home, but with none of the responsibilities. He spent five years in Rmeileh and produced five different “restaurants,” all of which radiated Abu Elie’s special character. He went from a place with two tables and one barbecue pit, to another with 150 chairs, a bar, and four waiters, then sixty chairs, and so on. And the customers? “My clientele used to come from Beirut, and I had friends from the Popular Nasserite Organization who came from Sidon. I also had friends from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who came from the South… Basically, my clients, my customers, were the remnants of the Nationalist Front and the Palestinian Left.”

Did he kick out customers he didn’t like? Yes. “If I didn’t like the way someone looked, I would tell them, ‘The place is closed,’ or something like that. We used to ‘sift’ things, so to speak. To keep problems at a minimum.” Abu Elie tells things the way they are. Indeed, it is this equation that still rules in his bar today.

In 1992, during visits to Beirut, he began to feel as though the Syrian veto on his presence had finally abated, until one day he sensed that it no longer existed. He found a billiard place that he fitted with a few tables and an abundance of mezzeh. Once again, he greeted his customers, in the same building where his bar exists today, the Yacoubian building, but on the other block.

The Yacoubian building is immense — no one living in Ras Beirut can ignore it. Built in 1961 by architect and contractor Rafiq el-Muhib, the structure was financed through the People’s Bank of Russia. It’s one of a group of 1960s structures in Beirut — grand, architecturally unique buildings, such as the Gefinor building in Hamra. These monolithic structures benefited from a “single apartment” zoning law enacted by the then president Camille Chamoun. This law and Lebanon’s banking secrecy laws made Lebanon a haven for wealthy investors, bourgeoisie, and capitalists escaping Nasserism and the movement to nationalize assets in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, and later Libya and other Arab countries. The new zoning law allowed single apartments in buildings to be sold as individual units, duplicating the sale value of the land in each story sold. The residents of Beirut called these individual units or apartments “bachelor pads”; they were sold to fleeing bourgeoisie and artists or rented to expatriate students or young, independent individuals.

In 1994, Abu Elie moved from the billiard place to the space where the bar exists today. One side of the bar’s red visit card reads “NAYA’S PUB” in English and “Abu Elie” in Arabic, and on the other side is a single verse from the ninth-century bacchanal Arab poet Abu Nawwas: The wretched sought a vestige to call upon and I sought to call upon the town tavern.

Abu Elie’s is the town tavern.

A list of the bar’s Ten Commandments hangs on the sliding door entrance:

  1. Parking in the building’s parking lot is forbidden
  2. Discussing politics is forbidden
  3. Disturbing behavior is forbidden
  4. Raucous behavior is forbidden
  5. Interfering with the music is forbidden
  6. You’re welcome to come in, but mind your own business
  7. No nagging allowed
  8. Religious talk is forbidden
  9. No debts allowed

Yes, today there are only nine rules. The original third — “The bar is officially closed on Monday” — was rescinded; the cancellation of this commandment is signed by the “Administration” and decorated with a photograph of Abu Anis.

Abu Elie stands behind his bar, holding the paring knife that he uses to carve the space of the place, drawing borders around his memories. He slices a lemon, an apple, a kiwi, filling the small plates he generously spreads out before his customers, next to the pistachios, the lupin, the sunflower seeds, and Chinese mixed nuts. He will serve anything the agricultural season provides, many times home-cooked delicacies he has brought with him that day — dandelions cooked in olive oil, lentils or spicy minced raw meat — all of which are served with no charge to the customers. In Abu Elie’s etiquette book, this is the minimum a host can do for his guests.

Regulars love Abu Elie and poke fun at his commandments, but few dare to cross him. They ask about his health, give him a taste of a new wine they have brought along with them. They reminisce with him, exchanging different versions of the same memories, as he brings to their tables whatever their bodies require to maintain their energy until the evening ends, even if that happens to be at dawn. When the electricity cuts, the candles and battery-operated transistor come out, and the evening continues without pause.

Even the music at Abu Elie is communist, from Marcel Khalifa to Sheikh Imam — sprinkled with the angelic sound of Fairouz, the deep resonance of Umm Kulthum, and the sounds of Aleppo. The flags are Lebanese, Soviet, and Cuban. There’s also an Argentinean flag, and a Greek one. There are photographs plastered all over: of George Hawi, Samir Kassir, Farajallah el-Helou, Sheikh Imam, Suha Bechara, Kamal Jumblatt, Mehdi A’amel, Maroun Baghdadi, Assi Rahbani, Anwar Yassin, Ziad Rahbani, Abu Ali Mustafa, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Mahmoud Darwish, Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Fairouz, Pablo Neruda, Nelson Mandela, Raffi Shanka, Kozo Okamoto, and many others. On one wall is a cutout of a photograph from a newspaper with the caption: “Palestinian demonstrator bites the finger of an Israeli soldier during a protest yesterday against the separation wall in the village of Beit Sira in the West Bank (Reuters).”

Other souvenirs hanging on the walls tell of the civil war and its aftermath, the revolution of liberation and international socialism. Among them are two rifles left in Abu Elie’s possession after the rest were stolen from the bar. They hang in places of honor, objects of sentimental value not for sale, one an FM48 of Belgian make, with its bullets lying next to it, the other English. The “money” wall behind the bar was constructed over time with currency bills from countries all over the world, left behind by customers come and gone, oftentimes with notes to Abu Elie scribbled upon them.

Naim, a man in his mid-forties and a regular at the bar, adores Abu Elie. He stands behind the bar helping Naya out on Naya’s son’s day off, and says, “Everyone, from the taxi driver to the cinema director, from British MP George Galloway, to singers, broadcasters, and even the sons of right-wing parliamentarians — all of them come here. The Norwegian Ambassador to Baghdad comes by Abu Elie’s every time he comes to Beirut, and has been coming here since the siege on Baghdad. A ‘committed’ Italian family sent a huge block of Parmesan cheese with me as a gift to Abu Elie. All of them have a history here… stories of war and peace, of drunkenness and sobriety… The whole country could fit in Abu Elie’s.”