The late Pepe Abed used to say: "Visiting Lebanon without knowing Pepe is like spending your honeymoon with a eunuch!" I was lucky enough to see him once.
Sitting in a dark corner of his famous Fishing Club in Byblos, dressed in a smart blazer with a peaked sailor’s cap protecting his ageing eyes from the strong Lebanon sun, he looked much as he must have in his glory days.
A few years later, in 2007, Pepe Abed died at the age of 95 but I still go to visit his restaurant, though it is not what it once was. Maybe it never was: nostalgia adds a gloss to everything.
The walls are hung with faded black and white pictures of stars of the 1960s, Bardot, Brando, Sinatra, and countless pretty young women (“Beautiful women are my vitamins,” he quipped in old age) and the menu offers the same fresh seafood and chilled white Lebanese wine. But history has moved on, and several nearby restaurants serve better food, concentrating on the present rather than living off past glories.
Byblos was once a major port for exporting papyrus and hence gave its name to the Bible. Some say it is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, dating back to 5,000BC, but we can never know and most cities in the region, from Damascus to Jericho, have some claim to the title. The Roman columns from which the 12th-century Crusaders formed the castle walls of Byblos show that many civilizations have come and gone, without paying great heed to the question of what went before.
Pepe’s philosophy was also to live life for the moment, even though the restaurant is full of priceless artifacts “liberated” from the town’s archaeological sites and the seabed around. Born just outside Beirut, he lived in Mexico for a long time before settling down back home as a jeweler in the late 1950s.
Soon after, he revived his inner party-goer and opened a Mexican-themed club called the Acapulco that started a minor empire. When Lebanon’s civil wars broke out, Pepe retreated back into his quiet outpost in Byblos, a Maronite Catholic enclave. He was a survivor, as you have to be in this troubled corner of the world.
Lebanon is 54 per cent Muslim, split into five different sects from Sunni to Alawite, and 41 per cent Christian, with eight different sects from Maronite to Greek Orthodox, with 4 per cent Druze and a tiny number of Jews, Hindus and Buddhists.
However, I wonder if there is not even another religion in Lebanon, of which Pepe may have been a prophet, as all the young people I meet seem to share a fervent belief in partying. In Beirut, the nightclubs on Monnot Street heave until dawn.
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