It is part nostalgia, part irony, part history lesson, and part revolutionary space in the heart of the Caracas District of West Beirut, unobtrusively nestled in the ground floor of the "Yaacoubian Beelding." Tagged by we Americans as "Commie Bar," it is actually called Pub Naya or Abou Elie's. Plastered across the walls or enshrined in glass cases are the artifacts of revolutionary communism: Kalashnikovs, bandoliers of ammunition, Russian uniforms, Cuban cigars, photos and posters of Sitting Bull, Che (many), Lenin (on cigarette packs, vases), Stalin, and Marx, as well as the images of numerous Lebanese icons such as Druze Chieftain and socialist mystic Kamal Jumblatt, the singer Fairuz, and former Lebanese Communist Party leader George Hawi, who was assassinated in 2007 in the wave of killings that began with Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's murder in 2005.
There is a slide show and short movie about the place here.
It is about the size of your average kitchen. The booze is cheap: Almaza beer, Ksara wine, and plenty of Red Label, arak, and Bombay Safire. Patrons are always served plates of fruit (apples, plums, giant apricots, cherries), salted pumpkin seeds and other nuts, spiced olives, salted carrots, and some kind of white bean, which may pop out in the air as you attempt to squeeze off the husk, forcing you grab at it and knock your beer over onto your munchies. "Je suis de'sole'" will do if you don't know Arabic. I don't know how they make a profit.
You may have a political conversation with someone who speaks English while admiring the chic and avant-garde crowd that habituates the place. He may express satisfaction with the fall of the Soviet Union, which enables left wingers to operate without being accused of being spies. He may tell you that there may be trouble with Israel or Syria or both in September, a month many Lebanese are anxious about, when the Hariri Tribunal will render a report, especially if it blames Syria for Hariri's assassination and Israel chooses such a traumatic moment to move against Lebanon over offshore gas and oil deposits along their mutual coastline.
A computer screen at the end of the bar loops photos of Che Guevara, George Hawi, and the Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al-Ali. The Che's are all familiar, from Alberto Korda's ubiquitous icon to the glassy-eyed corpse on a table. George Hawi's career included, apparently, meetings with everyone from Yassir Arafat to Haffaz Assad, the late leader of Syria. Hawi left the Communist Party in later years to focus on a more social democratic agglomeration called the Democratic Left Movement, which worked with the March 14 Alliance in opposition to Syrian dominance and the Iranian influence represented in Hezbollah.
Political Cartoonist Naji Al-Ali was an artist of the stature of William Hogarth, Thomas Nast, and Rius. Born in Lebanon's Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp, his lacerating irony flayed not only Israel, but all the Arab leaders who frothed in support of Palestinians while feathering their own nests, including the PLO. He invented as his signature a scruffy, barefooted little Palestinian boy called Handala, back always turned to the reader, with hands crossed behind him defiantly. Exiled from one nation to the next, Al-Ali was assassinated in 1987 in London either by an the PLO or Israeli Mossad or both"•that's how these things are usually recounted in this highly divided land.
Lebanon, for those who don't know, is divided politically according to some dozen and a half official "confessions""•or religions"•so that the President is always Maronite (Roman Catholicism with an Eastern Rite), the Prime Minister Sunni, and the Speaker Shi'a, with other portfolios going to Druze, Orthodox, regular Roman Catholics, Malachites, and several others you never heard of. Each is so weak, my interlocutor explains, that they each appeal to some greater nation outside the country to give them power (Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, USA, Israel), but one has to pay for what one receives. Additionally, some 400,000 Palestinians Refugees live without citizenship rights in refugee camps all over Lebanon. Along with the 1975-1990 civil war among the country's many confessions and militias"•subsidized by several nations"•, Lebanon suffered a brutal occupation by Israel from 1982 to 2000.
For all his merits as a strong center to Lebanon's widening gyre, Rafik Hariri was a neoliberal crony capitalist and citizen of Saudi Arabia who did little for the poor Shi'a, while Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran did much. Many folks of different confessions still support Hezbollah as The Resistance against Israeli aggression. If they see Hezbollah through rosy glasses, so do many others view the martyred Hariri.
My friend at Abou Elie's says if Lebanese scrapped the confessional system they could unite to defeat Israel and Syria. Only united could Viet Nam beat the U.S.; divided, Iraq will suffer war indefinitely, since the U.S. will accept a few thousand casualties annually as the price for Iraq's resources.
A few years back my wife and I dropped by Abou Elie's and found ourselves in the midst of the wildest party, singing, dancing, and celebrating freedom of the spirit and a hope for a liberating future. Now, says the manager, the neighbors are not so accommodating. Still, this tiny tongue-in-cheek museum represents a spark of hope for a Lebanon united around a secular, democratic socialist future that won't have to pay anyone for its security and independence. Insha'Allah, God willing.
Bannowsky's earlier posts from Beirut can be found at Broken Turtle Blog.