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Ancient treasures, 1960s glam live on at Byblos Fishing Club

JBEIL, Lebanon: A cornerstone of Byblos’ seaside eateries, one restaurant – lovingly nicknamed Pepe’s – embodies the well of Lebanese nostalgia. Old caves dating back to the Crusaders of the 11th century, Phoenician anchors, a museum displaying a small treasure of Amphora and Greek antiquities and the sight of fishing boats bobbing up and down in the ancient harbor of Byblos: It’s all part of Pepe’s, officially known as Byblos Fishing Club Restaurant.

The restaurant opened in 1962 in old caves that had been used as warehouses and is named after its founder, Youssef Gergi Abed, a symbolic figure of Lebanese tourism who is also known as Pepe. Since Pepe’s death in 2007, the restaurant has been operated by his now 70-year-old son, Roger Abed.

“Pepe’s is not just a restaurant where you enjoy fresh fish and Lebanese arak by the sea,” Abed said. “It’s a place you visit to learn about your history, to know what your country was, what your roots are and what civilizations lived in Lebanon.”

The museum of Pepe’s tells the story of those civilizations through the eyes of an avid lover of the sea. Pepe was nicknamed “the pirate of Byblos” and he devoted a large chunk of his life to diving for long-forgotten ancient treasures and restoring them to their past glory.

Pepe’s collection of artifacts and jewelry includes items from Lebanon’s past eras: Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Crusader and Ottoman.

“We believe so much in our heritage,” said Abed. “Without heritage, we are nothing, and that’s why we wanted to leave this place for generations to come, so they could witness all this glory.”

In 1997, Pepe offered his collection to the government, and it was later recognized by UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

A huge part of the Fishing Club’s experience is its ambience. Pepe Abed was born in the Beirut neighborhood of Rmeil but spent most of his childhood and young adulthood in Mexico.

In the 1950s, he returned to visit family and “fell in love with his home country,” as his son put it.

Pepe began his ventures in the industry tourism when he established the Acapulco beach club in Jnah. Resembling a Mexican village in the heart of Lebanon, it also had the hottest club in town at the time. From then on, he started building his empire.

“One day, Pepe came to Byblos from his beach club on a boat,” Roger said. “The harbor was abandoned, only a few fishermen lived in these caves. Pepe saw something that no one else did, and bought the caves to create the Fishing Club, making Byblos more famous than ever.”

Back in the country’s 1960s heyday, the establishment began to attract celebrities of all kinds, from Brigitte Bardot and Marlon Brando to French crooner Johnny Hallyday and President Miguel Aleman of Mexico.

Pepe’s aura is present today in the multitude of framed pictures that fill the walls of the Fishing Club, featuring his signature yachtsman cap hanging above his bushy eyebrows and inviting smile.

The Abed empire grew beyond the Acapulco beach club and Pepe’s to include Le Bacchus hotel and nightclub in Beirut, the Admiral’s club in Tyre, the Hacienda in Amsheet and even a full-service travel agency, organizing trips for tourists from Europe.

“Wherever we went, it became famous,” Roger said.

“People would start buying land around us, creating tourist destinations. That is why people loved my father; he preserved the Lebanese heritage and promoted tourism.”

Byblos Fishing Club is the sole survivor of the empire, as his other establishments were lost during the Civil War. And more than two decades after the end of the war, the Abed family remains unable to reclaim some of its former property.

“People have been living in the Acapulco since 1977,” Abed said. “We can’t do anything about it, and the government apparently can’t do anything about it.”

Although the empire is gone, the Abeds still have the memories.

“My father taught me to make friends before I make money,” Roger said. “Money comes and goes, but if you don’t have friends, you’re poorer than you know.

“It gives me pleasure thinking of how much history this place has. It is not uncommon for an elderly couple with grandchildren to come up to me and show me pictures of them dining in the Fishing Club when they were in their 20s. That is what matters.”

Today, the Fishing Club has few tourists, due to the current situation in the region.

“Each year we say next year will be better,” Roger said, “but it never is. I’m a grandfather now and the war in Lebanon hasn’t ended.”

When Pepe was on his death bed, Roger was thinking seriously of leaving the country because of the instability.

“‘Don’t leave,’ I remember Pepe saying to me, ‘your roots are here, there’s nowhere as beautiful as your homeland’ and that is what I tell my children today,” Roger said.

As for the future of the Fishing Club, Abed is thinking of turning the entire place into a museum.

“I don’t own the place, the Lebanese people do, I’m just a guardian, and so was my father, and so will my son be after me.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 09, 2012, on page 2.

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