Several years back, Francisco Elder Braga Fernandes was tending his bar in downtown São Paulo when he noticed something strange going on in the motorcycle parking lot next door. “All of sudden, the bikers were snapping pictures of me,” he recalls.
When he asked what was up, they laughed and pointed to his flowing, salt-and-pepper beard. “They said I looked just like him, Osama bin Laden.”
Fernandes had little use for politics or world affairs, but the self-made club owner who left the hardscrabble northeastern backcountry to make a new life in Brazil’s toughest city knew a thing or two about marketing. This was mid-September 2001. He didn’t think twice. He changed the name of his place from Barbas (Whiskers) to Bar do Bin Laden.
“I am a man of goodwill. I can’t stand violence,” says Fernandes, 54. “But this was great for business. No one calls me Francisco anymore. It’s Osama or bin Laden.”
That might seem cynical, but then again, this is Brazil, the country that handed carnival over to professionals and holds nothing so sacred that it can’t be parlayed into a punch line. And Fernandes is no exception.
A brief Google search turned up nearly a dozen Brazilian establishments named after Al Qaeda’s former terrorist-in-chief, including bars, luncheonettes and one sit-down restaurant called Bin Laden and Family. There’s even a listing for an automobile parts dealer, Bin Laden Bombas, though the telephone apparently has been disconnected. Which may be a good thing, since in Portuguese bombas means “pumps” but also “bombs.”
All are variations on the theme. Bin Laden’s Cave, a popular nightspot in Niteroi, across the bay from Rio, bills itself as “the place where the Taliban gather.” Hélio’s Bar, in the southern Brazilian capital of Porto Alegre, claimed its happy hour of fame with a visit by a bin Laden lookalike, duly captured on YouTube.
Others arise by popular demand. Therezinha Álvaro de Paula Texeira and her husband, Hélio, couldn’t settle on a name for the beer hall they’d opened back in mid-2001 in Juiz de Fora, an industrial city in Minas Gerais state in eastern Brazil. But when college kids started showing up and took one look at her husband, with his bushy beard and unfriend-me look, the problem was solved. “The students said we had to call it Bin Laden’s Bar, and that they wouldn’t come around if we didn’t,” Texeira says. “The day bin Laden died, the whole university dropped in. The kids even made up some bin Laden T-shirts.”
But no one has taken the trope as far as Francisco Fernandes. The São Paulo barkeeper is now something of a celebrity and a tourist attraction. “Al Jazeera came by twice to shoot a story on the bar,” he says. Though he favors jeans and T-shirts, he dutifully dons a skullcap and camouflage when visitors want to cozy up for selfies.
When word spread of bin Laden’s killing by Navy SEAL Team 6, one enthusiastic Brazilian television producer wrapped Fernandes in a white cloth and plunked him down on a busy downtown overpass to spook passersby. Another put him in battle garb and had him walk on the set of a variety show with a fake bomb in his hand. “I don’t usually do this stuff, but it’s what they want, so I do it,” he says.
So overwhelming is the reception by fans and customers that bin Laden’s doppelgänger seems to be a bit enamored with his muse. “I don’t know much about his life, but I believe he was a good and very religious man, who didn’t kill anyone himself. His followers did everything.”
But most of the time, Fernandes is too busy pouring tequila and suds to bother with politics and publicity stunts. “I work seven days a week, alone,” he says. “I’m a man of the people.”
He gladly posed for snapshots with a double of Barack Obama—”a great guy!” he says of the president. He also tried to get George W. Bush’s attention when the former commander-in-chief was visiting São Paulo. “I wanted to take a picture with him, but three security guys stopped me,” he recalls fondly. “I did wave at him, and they all had a good laugh.”