Culture

Lebanon loses a legendary link to its golden age

BYBLOS: He was a legend in his day - an adventurer, an explorer, an entrepreneur and a ladies man. A consummate host of the likes of Marlon Brando and Brigitte Bardot, he was the epitome of Lebanon's golden age and an institution in his own right. And now, he is gone.

After 50 years of pioneering Lebanon's tourist potential with the Acapulco beach club in Jnah, the Bacchus hotel and nightclub in Beirut, the Admiral's Club in Tyre, the Hacienda in Amshit and his personal refuge, the Byblos Fishing Club, Youssef Gergi Abed - known to all as Pepe - passed away last month. He was in his mid-90s. With his death, Lebanon lost the gloss on its nostalgia for what Pepe so often referred to as la dolce vita, the local spin on the sweet life.

"He was more than a restaurant owner," says Pepe's son, Roger Abed, now in his 50s, as he walks a reporter through the nooks and crannies of the Fishing Club on a cold and quiet afternoon. "He was a very important man. Some people they build. Some people they destroy. Pepe built. He made cities. He promoted Lebanon. He inspired people with the good life, the good food. Of Lebanon people used to know Pepe and Baalbek. The tourists used to call him the king."

There are few tourists in Byblos these days, their absence due to the winter weather or the recent war. But the most notable absence is Pepe, with his yachtsman's cap, seafarer's jacket, bushy eyebrows and easy smile. He lives on, however, in the thousands of old photographs adorning the walls of the Fishing Club, in the hundreds of press clippings about his heyday that are collected in meticulously bound and labeled notebooks, in the labyrinthine rooms of the Pepe Foundation that was established in 1997, and in the winding street that hugs the Byblos harbor, named in Pepe's honor two weeks ago.

Though he was born in Rmeil and one of his forebears was the mayor of Medawar, Pepe spent much of his time as a child and young adult in Mexico. As the story goes, a millionaire cousin named Miguel enlisted Pepe as his personal secretary and whisked him all over the world. In the early 1950s, Pepe, who was by that time a jeweler, returned to Lebanon to see family.

"He fell in love with his homeland," says his son. In due time, Pepe was running a jewelry shop in Downtown Beirut, in the old Souk al-Taweeleh. At this point, versions of the story vary - the store burned down or was burglarized - but either way Pepe wasn't insured. He decided to shift gears and try his hand at tourism. He bought a wide swath of land in Jnah and created the Acapulco, introducing mariachi bands, Mexican trios, cockfights and beach parties to a local public that went wild.

"It grew and grew," says Abed. "It was like a Mexican village in Lebanon - 14,000 square meters, 180 bungalows, a nightclub called La Perla."

Abed had been studying in the UK and returned to Lebanon in 1959. He joined his father in business. One day, the elder Abed took a trip by sea to Byblos and fell in love.

"He came by boat from his beach club," says Abed. "There were only a few fishermen here." Those fishermen were living in 12th-century caves that had been built by Crusaders from Genoa. Pepe started buying the caves one by one, and together they became the Byblos Fishing Club.

"Everyone thought he was crazy. Fifty years ago, there were no highways. It used to take us some time to get here," Abed recalls. "For us to come to Byblos from Beirut was a trip. Byblos only became famous as a tourist place when Pepe came here."

Famous indeed. Among the more high-profile visitors to the Byblos Fishing Club were Swedish actress Anita Ekberg, French crooner Johnny Halliday, Kim Novak, Ginger Rogers, Ann Margret, the poet Said Akl, Czech President Vaclav Havel, Mexican President Miguel Aleman Valdes and Lebanese President Camille Chamoun, among numerous other heads of state.

Apparently, Chamoun's presidential successor, Fouad Chehab, was less than fond of Pepe, whom he nicknamed "pirate" due to Pepe's penchant for appropriating Phoenician, Roman and Summerian antiquities while scuba-diving off the coast of Byblos. However, Pepe did one better than most local collectors of cultural patrimony - late in his life he offered his entire collection to UNESCO. Plus, for his love of extreme diving, he earned the admiration of Jacques Cousteau.

In the 1960s, the Byblos Fishing Club had become a world-class destination for the decade's jet-setting glitterati, and Pepe had a veritable empire on his hands. In addition to the Admiral's Club, the Hacienda and the Bacchus, the family established a full-service travel agency to coordinate a seamless experience for a clientele of bold-faced names.

On a more intimate scale, ask anyone in Lebanon over a certain age about Pepe and you are likely to hear a story that ties the Byblos Fishing Club with their days of being wild, their carefree youth, their courting of their future wives or former girlfriends. Everyone in Lebanon, it seems, has a favorite Pepe story to tell.

Even members of younger generations who didn't live Lebanon's golden age have likely selected their favorite portrait - whether an obscure but historically significant French diplomat or Ava Gardner - from Pepe's wall of fame.

According to one profile published in the local press, Pepe considered those portraits his wealth. When the Civil War broke out in Lebanon in 1975, he lost everything: $15 million, his jewelry business and almost all of his empire. But apparently, he didn't care. He had his memories, his pictures, his stories. He still had the Byblos Fishing Club, and his life-long motto, after all, was asi es la vida, the Spanish equivalent of c'est la vie.

"My father once told me," says Abed: "'In life it's very easy to earn $100 or $1,000 but it's very difficult to earn a friend.'" Another bit of Pepe advice: "Beautiful women are very important. They are like vitamins."

Pepe was hospitalized a month before he died. "He knew he was fighting for his life," Abed recalls. The damage done by the war in Lebanon last summer - and in particular the horrific layer of sludge let loose by Israel's bombardment of the Jiyyeh power station, which coated Byblos in fuel oil - had been hard on Pepe.

When his son told him of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel's assassination, Pepe sighed and said: "I am leaving this world and Lebanon is still in this crisis." After a pause, he added: "I want you to trust this country and love this country as I did."

 

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