An Irishman and a Palestinian open a bar in Philadelphia…
No, this is not the start of a joke.
It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship, one that grew over the next two decades and would come to define the spirit of one of the city’s most successful bars. Beyond the foamy pints and mixed drinks, the laughter and the music, the friendship flourished and endured as a testament to the goodwill of men brought together in the City of Brotherly Love.
Wajih Abed, the handsome, forever-smiling gentleman from Ramallah on the West Bank of Israel, and his business partner, Fergus Carey, the rogue from Dublin. Wajih and Fergie – everyone knows them by their first names.
The flowers and condolences began arriving at Fergie’s Pub on Sansom Street in Center City almost immediately after a sign went up on the front door on Feb. 4, announcing that Wajih had succumbed to cancer of the larynx at the age of 71.
“He’s leaving a huge hole,” said Fergie. “He’s leaving a lot of friends.”
In the stack of snapshots that Fergie showed me in the pub’s second-floor office, there are scores of family members and barroom acquaintances hugging Wajh, a broad smile beneath his trimmed mustache. Fergie might be wearing a tattered t-shirt and shorts; Wajih, looking like Omar Sharif, impeccably dressed.
“He was the ultimate host,” Fergie said. “He brought old-school class to this place.”
Wajih had come to America as a teenager, already married with a wife and child he’d left behind until he got settled. He started selling carpets on the street in the early ‘60s while his older brother managed the old Middle East Restaurant on Chestnut Street.
“I remember when he came to Bookbinder’s [the former seafood restaurant on 15th Street] looking for a job, any job,” said Constance Bookbinder, the owner’s wife. “My husband, Sam, offered him a job as a bar boy. Eventually he let him make drinks.”
He was only 18.
“I was working at Wanamaker’s at the time,” Bookbinder said. “I’d come to the restaurant after work, all dressed up, and sit at the bar and talk with Wajih all night until Sam could have dinner. Then we’d get a table and Wajih would send over a drink – orange juice and gin, mostly gin.”
There were other jobs. He bought a couple of pizzerias in Jersey. His wife joined him, they had more kids (“He sent all of them to college on a bartender’s salary,” Bookbinder said.), and then she passed away.
Fergie — already a well-known bartender at McGlinchey’s, just down the street from Bookbinder’s — first met Wajih in 1994, and the two decided to go into business together, renting a space on Sansom.
“It wasn’t until we were walking back from Michael Singer’s [the rental agent] that we decided what to call the place,” said Fergie. “I suggested the name, and then we put an American flag and an Irish flag out front. He joked that we should put up a Palestinian flag, too, but we never got around to that…
“We opened on a shoestring, but the place was an immediate success,” Fergie continued. “My parents were so happy he was my friend and my partner. He was 49 and I was 31. Me and my friends, we thought he was ancient. He was such the father figure to everybody.”
The years passed, the Guinness and Jameson poured freely, the bar’s rep as one of the city’s best Irish pubs soared. Wajih’s influence could be seen in small oddities around the bar: the Italian wedding soup on the menu of an Irish bar, Celine Dion on the jukebox.
But more importantly there was his smile from behind the bar, greeting first-timers and reg’lars alike.
It was the smile of a man who came to America, earned an honest living, raised a family and built an enduring, beautiful friendship.
“He loved,” said Fergie, “and he was loved.”