Downtown São Paulo isn’t the most likely place to find Osama Bin Laden lookalikes. So when bartender Francisco Elder Braga Fernandes was spotted several years ago, he became an instant celebrity. His resemblance to the infamous terrorist was so uncanny that people couldn’t stop taking pictures of him. But this Brazilian Bin Laden is quite the opposite – he’s totally against violence.
“I am a man of goodwill. I can’t stand violence,” said Fernandes. But that hasn’t stopped him from using his appearance to his benefit. The 54-year-old decided to market his controversial image by dressing up as Bin Laden and even changing the name of his bar from ‘Barbas’ to ‘Bar do Bin Laden’. “This was great for business,” he said. “No one calls me Francisco anymore, it’s Osama or Bin Laden.”
Over the years, Fernandes has become a local celebrity and a tourist attraction. Al Jazeera has covered the story of his bar twice so far. Tons of visitors line up to take selfie shots with him, and when Bin Laden was killed in 2011, a Brazilian television producer actually wrapped Fernandes in a white cloth and put him on a downtown overpass, just to scare passersby. Another producer had him wear battle gear and walk on the sets of a variety TV 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 said.
Photo: What About Sao Paolo
There are snapshots of Fernandes dressed as Osama, posing with Barack Obama’s double. It’s quite strange to see the two with their drinks raised, smiling at the camera. And when former US president George W. Bush visited São Paulo, Fernandes tried hard to get this attention. “I wanted to take a picture with him, but three security guards stopped me. I did wave at him, and they all had a good laugh.”
Although Fernandes is doing very well for himself thanks to Bin Laden, he doesn’t seem to know much about his doppelgänger. “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,” Fernandes said. On most days, he’s quite content to be serving his customers their drinks. He doesn’t bother too much with politics and publicity stunts. “I work seven days a week, alone,” he said. “I’m a man of the people.”
Photo: What About Sao Paolo
It seems that Bin Laden is quite a popular figure in Brazil, and Fernandes’ bar is not the only one named after Al Qaeda’s former terrorist-in-chief. There are nearly a dozen establishments bearing his name, including bars, luncheonettes and sit-down restaurants. There’s even an automobile parts dealer called ‘Bin Laden Bombas’. And Bin Laden’s Cave is a popular nightclub in Niteroi, across the bay from Rio. Its tagline is: ‘the place where the Taliban gather’.
It appears that these places are so named on popular demand. According to Therezina Alvaro de Paula Texeria and her husband Helio, they named their bar in mid-2001 to indulge the local college kids. The kids took one look at Helio’s bushy beard and said they wouldn’t show up at the bar unless it was called ‘Bin Laden’s Bar’. “The students said we had to call it Bin Laden’s Bar, and that they wouldn’t come around if we didn’t,” said Therezina. “The day Bin Laden died, the whole university dropped in. The kids even made up some Bin Laden T-shirts.”
I’m not sure why the Brazilians are so fascinated by Osama Bin Laden. But some suspect that it might be largely due to the fact that as a culture, they hold nothing so sacred that it can’t be converted into a joke.