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Pepe, 1910-2007

Lebanon loses a legendary link to its golden age Adventurer, entrepreneur and all-around bon vivant Pepe Abed left his mark in more ways than one

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.

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