The Bar Where Lebanon's Revolutionaries Drink
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Half museum, half bar, the Abou Elie is a living love letter to the Lebanese Communist Party in Beirut.
By Mat Nashed
“No speaking about politics,” “No references to religion” and “No commenting on the music” are among the 10 rules plastered on the door of Beirut’s oldest communist bar. Terrez Saieda, a 56-year-old with dark shadows under her eyes, doesn’t enforce every rule, but she has thrown a few people out for fighting about politics in the past.
Saieda is the owner of Abou Elie, a small bar where young and old Lebanese communists still hang out. The bar, which is beyond the bustling neighborhood of Hamra in West Beirut, attracts other visitors too, from tourists to refugees — many of whom are captivated by its history, which is plastered everywhere on the walls, or nostalgic for an older era. Step inside and you’ll see Abou Elie isn’t just a bar, but a stopped-in-time relic of the Lebanese Civil War and the tumultuous years that followed.
On any given night, Saieda can be spotted at the edge of the tiny bar with a glass of gin. The former war correspondent took over Abou Elie three years ago after her husband, Naya Chahoud, died. As a dedicated member of the Lebanese Communist Party, Chahoud fought during the early stages of the Lebanese Civil War (1975–90) and later became the bodyguard for George Hawi, the secretary-general of the Lebanese Communist Party. “I keep this place open to keep my husband’s legacy alive,” Saieda tells me, taking a drag from her cigarette. “It also feels good to see people who share the same mentality gather in one place.”
This pub doesn’t make a lot of money. Abou Elie exists mainly to bring people together.
Terrez Saieda, owner
Chahoud opened Abou Elie (which means “father of Elie,” the name of Chahoud’s eldest son) in 1986. The bar provided his comrades a place to drink, laugh and cry during the later years of the civil war. Back then, it was decorated with red walls and furnished with a single square table facing the bar. But after the war, Chahoud gradually added Communist symbols and the party flag, and articles cut out from newspapers. Posters of Che Guevara, as expected, now hang from every corner. But prominent Lebanese figures like Hawi and the journalist Samir Kassir are also commemorated. Abou Elie has attracted thousands of visitors and dozens of regular customers, many of who still cling onto communist ideals.
“This pub doesn’t make a lot of money,” stresses Saieda, against the backdrop of an old rifle and an LCP flag. “Abou Elie exists mainly to bring people together.” Those gatherings often happen over bottles of Almaza, the local beer, or spirits. And maybe some small cheese and veggie sandwiches. It’s not about the food here — Abou Elie is foremost a place to drink.
And like Lebanon, it is a tiny place with a rich history. That’s what Walid Yeghia, a refugee from Syria, appreciates most. His first memory coming here is from 2015: Earlier that year, Yeghia fled the crippling siege on Yarmouk, a Palestinian camp in Syria where he was born. Since he first visited Abou Elie, Yeghia says he stopped going anywhere else to drink. “There is history in this place,” he says. “In here, you can see the history of the Lebanese homeland.” He enjoys the nights when Abou Elie plays Arabic music from the ’60s and ’70s. On most Monday nights, Chahoud’s son Ernesto DJs for private gatherings for friends and relatives.
On the Friday night I visited, I told the bartender my parents were Egyptian, and he pointed to one of the old guns hanging above the bar with sheets of bullets sprawled above it. It was from the Egyptian city of Port Said, which is located on the northern end of the Suez Canal, he says, and was made in the 1940s.
Right then, I realized Abou Elie is as much a museum as it is a bar.
After the war, Lebanon remained under Israeli and Syrian occupation until 2000 and 2005, respectively. During those years, many figures whom Chahoud looked up to were assassinated. With Chahoud gone too, Saieda takes refuge in the past, although she keeps her memories private. When I ask her to recall her favorite night in Abou Elie, she grins, lights a cigarette and answers: “All of them.”
Go There: Abou Elie
- Location: Take a taxi or Uber to Hamra in West Beirut. On Hamra Street keep walking west until the road splits into four directions. On the first road to your right, you’ll see a pharmacy. Abou Elie is next door. Map.
- Hours: Open 9 pm to 2:30 am daily.
- On the menu: Sandwiches and beer are around $5; mixed drinks are $6–$8.
- Pro tip: Have a glass of Lebanese arak, a potent spirit made from anise. It doesn’t take long to feel the effects.
- Mat Nashed, OZY Author Contact Mat Nashed