Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Skiing With Hezbollah: Pepe The Pirate

The last 40 years of Lebanon’s history seem so far away from Byblos. It’s a small coastal town, the centre now rebuilt to look like a holiday town, but on the day Federico and I arrive, the weather is beautiful and so warm, we’re tempted to swim. Narrow cobbled streets, lined with souvenir shops, fish fossil shops and small restaurants leads to a square of restaurants, almost like a miniature Lebanese piazza. Here, unlike many of Lebanon’s coastal towns I’ve seen so far, you can actually feel that you’re near to the sea. In Beirut, for reasons I still can’t figure out, the city seems very rarely to be oriented towards the sea. There is a corniche, but the restaurants along the coast are most often set far from the sea, with a major road in between then. There are none of the small cafes and bars you would expect facing the sea, couples sitting outside in the sun enjoying the sea breeze. It’s as if the city were happy to glance over at the sea, to be occasionally reminded if it, but too wary to open up and face it directly every morning.

In Byblos, the real attraction is the Byblos Fishing Club. We’re here to find Pepe, the legendary owner who welcomed an international clientele of superstars, politicians and sports heroes into his eternally open restaurant. Our real reason for coming here, aside from the restaurant’s reputation, is to meet the man himself and hear him reminisce about the incredible life of this restaurant during its heyday. But when Federico asks inside a souvenir shop on one of Byblos’ picturesque cobbles streets, the answer is less than encouraging:
“We’re here to meet Pepe The Pirate. Do you know where he is?”
“Pepe? He’s dead...”

So it is that all that remains of the Pepe “The Pirate” Abed, Mexican-Lebanese restaurateur extraordinaire, are hundreds of framed photographs of the impresario at work, hosting an island of calm in a country routinely dragged through hell. His meeting with the various dignitaries and celebrities that have dined here over the years are all preserved in glamorous black and white. Some names are immediately recognisable: Marlon Brando and for example Brigette Bardot. Others are a slightly more dubious, a former European Ping-Pong champion for example.

On a pair of tables at the back of the restaurant, under a sheet of glass, are dozens of snapshots of the man as he would surely want to be remembered, with his arm around every member of the Miss Europe 2004 pageant, some of them kissing the 94-year-old pirate on the cheek.

In between serving the Albanian mafia on the table behind us, Marwan - the restaurant’s only waiter - explains that the restaurant has never closed since it’s opening in the 1960’s. Throughout the civil war, and last summer’s war, the restaurant remained opened and, aside from an understandable drop in tourism and some minor damage from Israeli bombs last summer, untouched by the country’s wars.
“If Byblos Fishing Club closes,” Marwan explains proudly, “It means Lebanon is closed.”

The view from the balcony is incredible. A small bay, fishing boats bobbing on the water, opens on to the ocean. The sun sets behind the bay, silhouetting swimmers and fishermen enjoying the unseasonably hot weather.

After lunch, Federico decides to take a brief swim in the bay despite the fact that Marwan has just spent the last twenty minutes showing us photos of the water after a massive oil-spill, the result of Israel’s bombing of several coastal fuel tanks during the summer of 2006. In his underwear, watched suspiciously by the locals, he manages to swim out barely a few metres before swimming back and trying to climb his way on to the rocks. As he slithers, half-naked, back on to the rocks and stands in the sun to try off, a fisherman, looking rather unimpressed throughout, waves for him to move out of the way so he can cast his line. Instead of lending Federico a hand to get his clothes back on, I’m filming the whole sorry episode.

The fisherman is from Luqluqa, a skiing resort high in the mountains, who comes here to fish every week. “I come here to feed my friends and family,” he explains, adding with a dry smile “I also like Vodka and women…”

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