Makram Rabah

Naya: The Wall which will never fall

A friend remembers Abu Elie

Naya Chahoud. (Ali Zureik)
Wall of Naya’s bar ‘Abu Elie’. (Ali Zureik)
Wall of Naya’s bar ‘Abu Elie’. (Ali Zureik)

Historians have more often than not practiced their craft by recording the exploits and defeats of great men, and sometimes women, while disregarding the contributions of normal people whose stories were not majestic enough to document. The story of Naya Chahoud, Abu Elie—the proprietor of the landmark pub that bears his name in Hamra and who passed away on July 31—is a vivid testament to why this school of thought is both flawed and unjust.


Born in 1956, after the Suez War, Naya’s grandfather wanted to name him Said, after the Egyptian city of Port Said, which had valiantly resisted the attacks of the tripartite alliance of France, Britain and Israel. To his good fortune, as he would amusingly say, Naya was named after the famous monastery on the outskirts of Damascus, Saydnaya, which his Greek Orthodox ancestors revered and sought for prayer and protection.


Naya would reminisce, with the occasional cussing, about his yearly visit to the monastery as a child that his mom would insist on taking, where he was forced to sleep in solitude surrounded by icons of dead saints and crucifixes. An experience which he declared to be dreadful, especially for a boy of his age. 


With the start of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, Naya, as a Marxist and a member of the Lebanese Communist Party (LCP), found himself knee-deep in the fight for the soul and identity of Lebanon. Having fought on many fronts, Naya was dispatched to the elite special unit responsible for the protection of high ranking members of the party’s politburo.


According to Naya, he was fortunate and honored to have served the LCP Secretary General, the larger than life and iconic George Hawi. Abu Anis, as Hawi was known, gave Naya the best memories of his life as he used to dedicate his days and nights to escorting Hawi throughout the county to training camps, lectures, festivals and the never-ending string of meetings.


During the siege of Beirut in the summer of 1982, Naya was witness to the fight the Palestinians and their Lebanese allies put up against the Israeli army. He would always joke how Abu Anis, who was renowned for his unquenchable appetite, asked him to conjure up a meal for himself and the rest of the members of the PLO-Lebanese Resistance war room.


Naya proceeded to the only operational restaurant at the time, Marouch, whose famed chicken sandwiches were only surpassed by the ridiculously exorbitant prices. Having paid the equivalent of $100 for every chicken bought, he was tempted to throw a grenade at the shop before departing. Fortunately for the restaurant owner, Naya had other pressing matters to attend to and thus departed in haste.


In 1987, after the entry of the Syrian army into Beirut and a string of assassinations against a number of LCP members, it was no longer safe for Naya-like people to remain. Upon the initiative of Walid Jumblatt, the chief of the Progressive Socialist Party, the traditional ally of the LCP and son of the legendary leftist leader Kamal Jumblatt, the communists took refuge in the village of Rmeileh near the coastal Chouf Mountains.


Naya soon found that he, along with his communist comrades, was forced to build a new life in what they now jokingly referred to as the “People’s Republic of Rmeileh.” In this utopian republic, Naya opened a sea-side restaurant where his friends, which he always referred to as comrades regardless of their political ideology, would come and share food and drink. One time Naya’s friend George, driving an ambulance, passed by to greet him on his way from the south to Beirut. Upon Naya’s insistence, this friend was forced to eat and drink for the next few hours after which Naya enquired from his friend why he was driving an ambulance. It turned out that George, who happened to be a member of the Ba’ath militia, was transporting a wounded comrade to Beirut for proper medical care.


Naya’s tales did not always make sense to all his listeners but what is certain is that they carried with them both the absurdity and the truthfulness of Naya’s commitment to whatever he was engaged in at the time. His wartime tales were not a thirst for violence or brutal mayhem but rather a time when slogans and the quest for a better life were for his generation an item within their reach.


After the end of the war, Naya relocated to the landmark Soviet-style Yakoubian Building at the end of Caracas Street, where in 1996 I visited him for the first time. Despite being sixteen at the time, I immediately bonded with Abu Elie and soon after while in college found myself a regular member (rather than a mere customer) of the nightly sessions which would include other members of Naya’s imagined family.


This small hole-in-the-wall adorned with images of freedom fighters, ideologues, politicians and even dictators was Naya’s tribute to these fallen heroes. Naya reserved the wall right behind the bar for his comrades, displaying pictures of outings and concerts we would partake in to images of his friends’ newborn infants, many of which would, with time, become patrons of the pub themselves.


Naya’s story might not seem exceptional to those who never knew him nor were lucky enough to share a drink or a story with this Marxist-Leninist comrade, as he liked to call himself. However, the history of modern Lebanon and the many versions of it that will be told in the near future should be full of tales of men and women from different factions (Right & Left); the likes of Naya whose only sin and later disappointments were to aspire to live in a better world.


Since 1956, the year that Naya was born, the world around us has indeed tremendously changed. Nations have risen and fallen, Kamal Jumblatt and George Hawi, Naya’s heroes, were both assassinated, and the Berlin Wall is no more.


Despite all this, what remains firm is that Naya Chahoud, a man with a kind heart and smile to match, has built a Wall where our hopes for a better future will never fall.


Naya…. You will be missed.


Makram Rabah is a PhD candidate at Georgetown University’s history department and a friend of Naya Chahoud.

Naya Chahoud. (Ali Zureik)

His wartime tales were not a thirst for violence or brutal mayhem but rather a time when slogans and the quest for a better life were for his generation an item within their reach.