He loved and he was loved

One last toast to a pop­u­lar Phil­adelphia bar own­er.

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.”

Twit­ter: @Beer­_RADAR


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