Abu Nabil: a mechanic’s fight to live with dignity
Their daily life is a struggle; their future and that of their loved ones remain a question mark. As the economic situation in Lebanon get worse, these are the stories of people on the frontlines. They represent a precarious social class that struggles to survive on a daily basis in Beirut and elsewhere in Lebanon. We decided to give them the opportunity to tell us about their hardships, their aspirations, their hopes and their sacrifices. Today, we met with "Abu Nabil", a communist veteran turned mechanic in the neighborhood of Barbir.
Three hundred and fifty dollars. That's about what Abu Nabil, 66, earns each month working in his garage in an alleyway in Beirut’s Barbir neighborhood. His income is barely half the minimum wage.
Abu Nabil is a nom de guerre he took while fighting with the Communist Party during the Lebanese Civil War. "It's my way of paying tribute to a brother-in-arms, Nabil, who fell during a rough battle in Mtein,” says, this man with a round face and thick, white mustache.
Abu Nabil’s real name is Hassan el-Souri. He grew up in Tarik Jdideh and was shot 18 times, narrowly escaping death on multiple occasions while fighting for a cause he believed in. One bullet passed through both of his cheeks.
Today, he is fighting a different kind of battle: a daily struggle to live with dignity on the earnings from his car maintenance workshop. He changes tires and oil surrounded by cans stored on metal shelves.
The heavy rains falling on Beirut the day L’Orient-Le Jour met him chased away a few customers, but didn’t disturb Abu Nabil’s routine. He’s the father of two daughters and already has six grandchildren. He wakes up early in the morning in the apartment he shares with his wife just above the garage. "I sleep very badly at night. I often stand for hours on my balcony. As soon as the sun comes up, I shower, I shave and I go down to my garage. There are always a few customers in the morning,” he says. "One stops to adjust the tire pressure. Another comes to add a liter or two of engine oil. There are days when we work less, but in the end, I still have a few customers.”
"I could have stolen"
During the civil war, Abu Nabil didn’t struggle making ends meet. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, he fought back against the troops that occupied the capital. But he ran into trouble with Syrian soldiers and decided to flee Lebanon for Saudi Arabia, escaping through the Bekaa Valley, Syria and Jordan. His wife, a nurse whom he met when he was wounded in the face, joined him a few months later. In Saudi Arabia, Abu Nabil worked in construction. "I earned enough money to live with dignity, but not more,” he recalls.
His two daughters were born in the kingdomi, but he did not want to see them grow up there. "The Saudi society is closed,” he says. “I did not want my daughters to grow up in this environment.”
As the war in Lebanon drew to a close, Abu Nabil and his family decided to return home and settle in Barbir. The garage was an inheritance from his father, and his brother had been managing it while Abu Nabil was away. After his brother had a heart surgery, Abu Nabil took over. "I tried to start a grocery store, but nobody was willing to help me", he says. "I could have stolen or looted, but I have never stolen anything in my life, even during the war.”
In the early 1990s, Abu Nabil started selling motor oil. "I buy small quantities from my supplier and I give him a percentage at the end of each week,” he explains. "But by the end of the year, I will probably have to go into debt with him.”
Even without having to pay rent for his garage or his home, which he also inherited from his father, Abu Nabil is still struggling. "I spend all my income to pay two electricity bills: the state supplied power and the private generator. I also pay three water bills: the state subscription, private cisterns, since there is a lot of shortage, and a third bill for drinking water. My wife and I save as much water as we can.”
"My dignity does not allow it"
Time and war have left their marks on Abu Nabil’s body and his health. "I spend about 175,000 LL a month to buy my medicine because I have problems with hypertension, heart and bad cholesterol, among others,” he says. He can’t afford health insurance and doesn’t benefit from Social Security. "My neighbors ask me, ‘If one day you have to be hospitalized, how will you do it? We will have to organize a fundraiser for you,’” he adds.
But Abu Nabil doesn’t want to rely on anyone but himself. "I survive through my business. I have considered asking my daughter, who lives in Lebanon, to enroll me in Social Security in her name, but I refrain from doing so. She has enough spending to worry about with her own family, and my sense of dignity does not allow it.”
His financial difficulties are even affecting his eating habits. In his garage, where he spends most of his time and sometimes stay until 9 p.m., a box of labneh sits next to a carton of cheese spread, a few eggs and some onions. That's what he eats for lunch. "Sometimes I feel like having a roast chicken or meat, but I can not afford it. It would cost me 25,000 LL, a couple of day’s pay. If I want to buy a hamburger, I need five or six customers. I prefer paying my electricity bill first rather than buying that kind of luxury,” he explains.
As for his cigarettes, Abu Nabil opted for a local brand that costs 750 LL per pack – two to three times cheaper than foreign brands. His one indulgence is his cats, and he keeps a dozen cans of food on hand to feed them. "Cats do not steal and are not dishonest, and they show affection,” he says.
Today, Abu Nabil is left with only a few regrets and no more illusions. "I regret having carried arms during the war. I cut all links with the Communist Party,” he says.
But that did not make him indifferent to the social problems that weigh on the Lebanese people, and he participated in the protests during the garbage crisis in 2015 and protests demanding a new salary grid for civil servants. During the protest he was hit by police and thugs, and Abu Nabil decided to give up his activism.
"Our politicians are responsible for this situation, but we citizens voted for them. Therefore we are the only ones to blame. We must boycott the elections,” he shouts angrily. "The singer Ragheb Alamé is absolutely right to say in his last hit that ‘the country is lost,’” he adds, criticizing MP Hikmat Dib who denounced the singer for being pessimistic.
"It's too late for me. I'm old. In February, I'll be 66 years old, but I feel like I'm 66 million years old because of everything I've experienced,” the old communist militant says with a sigh and shrug of his shoulders. "We are all equal before God, rich and poor.”
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour the 4th of February)