The entrance to Abou Elie is through a flimsy sliding door at the base of the Yacoubian Building in Ras Beirut. If you didn’t know it was there, you’d never find it. It’s one of those quintessential hole-in-the-wall bars – all dim-lighting, revolutionary imagery and the remnants of Lebanon’s civil war.
Inside, hardly a patch of wall can be seen. Photographs, banknotes, newspaper clippings, guns, ammunition belts and flags cover every surface. Just above the bar, Fairuz can be seen sipping coffee and delicately holding a cigarette in her left hand. An array of pictures, many presumably of former members of Lebanon’s various militias, are pinned to the wall behind the bar, as are Saddam Hussein, who adorns an Iraqi banknote, and Lenin. Che Guevara is everywhere.
It’s just gone midnight when we arrive and Ernesto, Abou Elie’s son, is serving Arak to a handful of customers in a room with no more than five tables. Jack McDuff and Inell Young are playing softly in the background and before long a member of our group, her dyed red locks tied into a ponytail by a strand of her own hair, has made herself at home behind the bar. She pops in and out of conversations, laughs, takes orders, and listens to stories.
One is of the civil war. A middle-aged man, recalling the struggle for possession of the Holiday Inn, whose bombed out concrete carcass remains as a monument to Lebanon’s violent past, talks of a particular comrade, the Lebanese National Movement and the Palestine Liberation Front. Before long someone tells him his former comrade’s son is sitting right behind him.
Beirut is filled with stories. Now there are thousands of newly-imported ones.
Soon the girl with the red hair is sitting opposite me and forms a bundle of smiles and chatter with a friend as they consume the dishes in front of them: sujuk sausage, spiced potatoes, hummus, tabbouleh and fattoush. It’s 1.30am. On the drive back to Clemenceau the laughter is hard to contain. The three of us are squashed into a tiny two-door city car, red hair streaming from the car’s retractable sunroof.
Beirut is a city I love. It often strays the wrong side of chaos, but that’s part of its charm. Frequently intoxicating, it never really attains the level of beauty it aspires to.
The following day the sounds of Fairuz and Umm Kulthum periodically reach me above the squeals and groans of congested traffic. Hamra Street, one of the city’s main economic hubs, jostles for my attention whilst being simultaneously oblivious to my presence. Shops, cafés, shawarma and falafel stands, beggars and their children, shoeshine boys and courtyard restaurants fill the senses. Metro Al Madina is here somewhere, tucked quietly away beneath the Al Madina Theatre, itself a reminder of Hamra’s cultural past.
Beirut often passes by in a blur. We head to Mar Mikhael and to Internazionale, a bar just up the road from Ernesto’s regular haunt – Radio Beirut – to meet an old friend. Beirut begins to slide into focus. The girl with the red hair is with me. And for once we are alone.
* A version of this article was published in Emirates Man, July 2014