BEIRUT

Living

Tabet guesthouse offers refuge for the times

BEIRUT: Jacques Tabet likes living with his antiques, a rarity in a city that seems intent on obliterating all remnants of its heritage. Rarer still, a piece of his family patrimony is among the few heritage structures in the city to host a functioning commercial space.Tabet prefers that the name of the space not be mentioned. He likes it that his clients find out about the place by word of mouth, he explains, and says he’d rather not have the recipe of that cocktail altered.

Since opening the bar-restaurant space in his family’s guesthouse in 1976, Tabet has managed to preserve a few layers of Lebanon’s urban history in a comfortable meeting point – as he likes to call it – shaped, but not limited by, the legacies of imperialism, war and mismanaged urban development.

Like the history of the country generally, Beirut’s architectural record is not thoroughly documented, but several prominent urban preservationists estimated that the Tabet home was constructed between 1830 to 1850.

According to historical records, Tabet’s family settled in Beirut in the 17th century, though he says an ancestor bought the property in what is now Tabaris in the 13th century.

The Tabet family accumulated a fortune in the silk trade that boomed in the 19th century, incidentally helping propel Beirut to its role as the eastern Mediterranean’s pre-eminent commercial port and, later, Ottoman provincial capital.

Ayoub, a cousin of Tabet’s grandfather, was president of the French Mandate administration for three months in 1943. He says his grandfather was responsible for endowing the Jesuit order with the parcel of land upon which the University of St. Joseph campus was erected in the 1870s.

Tabet’s father – Jacques Tabet Sr., whom he describes as “a reasonable,” wealthy man – was one of the founders of Lebanon’s National Museum and the Lebanese Automobile Association.

It seems that originally there were three 13th-century khans on the property, two below the main house and one below the guesthouse. Tabet says an ancestor erected the two-story guesthouse, or inn, over 300 years ago.

The khan’s hulking arches, which had sheltered caravan merchants and pack animals plying eastern Mediterranean trade routes hundreds of years ago, became the first stop for late-19th and early 20th-century European visitors touring “the Orient.”

During Lebanon’s 15-year Civil War, the protection afforded by the khan’s thick pillars turned the guesthouse’s ground floor into a communal shelter, where neighbors would gather during periodic spells of shelling. As the conflict wore on, the bar became a de-facto demilitarized zone, where rival militia leaders checked their weapons at the door before negotiating cease-fires.

Even today, Tabet says, politicians from opposing political camps hash out solutions to the country’s most pressing problems, though he refuses to name names. The retooled khan has fine acoustics and a cozy vibe – straddling the cathedral and the speakeasy – that occasionally hosts poetry readings and intimate musical performances.

Tabet’s family decided to open the guesthouse as a public house space during the brief lull that came one year into the Civil War. Canadian family friends who had been renting the house fled Lebanon in 1975, after a bit of shelling. At the time there were only two other public houses in the region of Tabaris.

“There was a brief moment when everyone was optimistic,” Tabet recalled during a recent tour of the guesthouse. “I wasn’t optimistic, but everyone else was. We were talking about whether to continue using it as a private home or open it to the public. My idea was a noncommercial space where people wouldn’t feel crowded.”

Two restaurant managers decided to open the second floor as a formal restaurant named after the famous Paris-haunt La Closerie. “They wanted so many centimeters between chairs,” Tabet recalls. “That sort of thing.”

La Closerie opened in July 1977.

“By 1978, we realized the war wasn’t over,” Tabet remembers. “At first this place was empty and I decided to open downstairs according to my concept. When they saw it worked better, and that everyone wanted to come here instead, they put me in charge of the second floor too.

“This is why there’s a palpable difference between the two floors,” he continues. “My whole concept was to make it homey. No pressure. You want to eat and you come with 13 other people who don’t? No problem. These are old ammunition crates, which is nice because you can put your feet on the table without worrying about the glass.”

Wandering through the two-story space nowadays feels like strolling though the salons of one of Beirut’s oldest Greek Orthodox families. Frayed family photos and heirlooms are scattered among news clippings, political comics, art by local artists and gifts from regulars that reference some inside joke.

With so much history on hand, the watering hole is rife with incongruity. Heritage is preserved without being fetishized. Priceless family heirlooms hang from 13th century stone ceilings above coffee tables made from 20th-century ammunition crates. The white-haired, earring-adorned owner, often clad in blue jeans and an ironic T-shirt, greets most visitors by name and introduces newcomers to his cat Tink – whom his daughter named after the fairy in Peter Pan.

Tabet fiercely guards the privacy of his patrons and is wary of appearing to court media attention, but it’s clear he loves regaling initiates with tales of this space, punctuated by rare personal reminiscences of Civil War fighting.

He and his extended family still reside on the premises, behind a closed, unadorned gate that betrays no hint of the palatial, verdant, Ottoman-era compound sprawling within. It is foggy, romantic, imposing and ultimately impenetrable to anyone without an invitation. The bar in the guesthouse, on the other hand, has remained open to the public through wars, real estate booms and economic busts.

From the beginning, Tabet felt strongly about integrating his family’s past into a modern business.

“It’s a nice idea to live with your antiques and not keep them hidden away,” he says, gesturing to the Lalique light fixtures hanging from the ground floor ceiling. “We want people to be comfortable, but we don’t want them to destroy things either.”

He insists that the bar is a place to solve ideological battles, not to fight them. Though the space was officially closed between 1986 and 1993, Tabet continued to employ barmen on the ground floor throughout the war.

“We had the most diverse clientele then, because everyone met here to solve all sorts of problems,” he says, declining an invitation to specify which momentous meetings have taken place there.

“Everything serious was negotiated here because there were no witnesses,” he recalls. “It was reliable, and could be reached from all sides. People checked their weapons at the door and got a ticket like a coat check and they got them back when they left.”

The Tabet compound became so self-sufficient during the war that Tabet has since dubbed it “Tabetkistan.” “If I find petrol,” he says, “we will declare our independence.”

He is vague about his own Civil War experience, but an occasional hint of former combatant occasionally leaks through. His earring isn’t the fashion choice of a 61-year-old fond of Rolling Stones T-shirts and listening to the Eagles, but a token of a woman he loved, fought with, and lost during the Civil War.

He fingers it nervously as he recounts how she was killed. “Her body was splattered to bits and this was all that remained of her,” he says, pulling the tiny hoop on and off his un-pierced ear lobe. “I wear it now as a memory of her and of the war. When I’m not wearing it, people know I’m in battle mode.”

Though he is often approached by perspective buyers, Tabet and his family have no plans to sell anytime soon. “We are going to hold out as long as we can and remain steadfast,” he says, “which, by the way, is one of the meanings of Tabet.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 18, 2013, on page 2.

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