Some would say it was pure coincidence. Still, I met him only a few hours after attending my first-ever course on racism. I had to fill in a table saying how often I thought about my skin color. He was sitting on some steps in a very Christian neighborhood of Beirut, quite posh, quite pretty. It was May and you could already feel that the air temperature would only continue to rise until we were cooked alive. We talked about rock-climbing, his work in different NGOs, his studies in human rights, the revolution that had taken place in Lebanon in 2019, and the explosion at the port in August 2020.
In his hand, Mohammad was holding a beer. Me too. Condensation from the fridge had trickled down the bottle and one corner of the label was peeling off. The Beirut night had enveloped our band of birthday revellers when suddenly I realized that I hadn't spoken to anyone else since I had arrived.
It hadn’t occurred to me either that he wasn't white. For me, he was simply Lebanese and therefore darker than my neon-blue pallor beneath the Mediterranean sun. Nevertheless the subject slid itself into the conversation right from the very first morning light. Caressed by the cool breeze entering through the open window, the hue of our respective skins gently contrasted, side by side. He really is very dark. And hairy. He doesn't find it very attractive. “It's internalized racism.” The realisation saddens him.
It is Sunday morning. Like many Lebanese, he leaves to join his family in his home village, an hour and a half away. We linger in the comfort of crumpled sheets and friendly bodies. Classic unpacking of intimate lives past. We count on the fingers of our hands the nationalities of our various conquests. "So should I thank the German or the Greek for the quality of the service?" He laughs. “The Greek, the Greek!” In this list, not a single Lebanese woman, which surprises me. “Lebanese women want a $50,000 wedding. That's not my thing…” But my Lebanese girlfriends aren't like that, I counter. They don't want a very beautiful dress and fireworks with a sea view, but respect, care and freedom - things which they have a hard time finding. Arriving in Beirut a few months ago, he probably hasn't yet met the right person. So he prefers women who are less meticulous, more casual - let's face it - than the usual Lebanese standards, who will come on a date without first having their hair done? In a crumpled t-shirt? Short, unvarnished nails? Apparently the answer is yes. "Do you prefer our white bodies?" ", I ask him. The answer is once again, yes.
And then he flips the question on me: have I ever dated a Lebanese guy? I answer in the negative. He finds that somewhat suspect. After five trips lasting many months, what could possibly have prevented this?
I have a tangible explanation that I prefer to keep to myself. More than once I have consciously avoided Lebanese men, believing sex education in Lebanon to be even more disastrous than in France, the whole affair could be very tiresome - and potentially dangerous. As it is, inviting feminism between the sheets draws “ohs” and “ahs” from my compatriots… And if truth be told, I was not a big fan of belly fat either, which seemed to appear on all males at 25 as if by magic. But my outlook on fat has changed a lot in ten years, and I now even appreciate it for what it is.
Deep down, I wonder if my unconscious racism has not automatically excluded all these men from the field of seduction, and if this experience has not opened my eyes at last. I explain what’s going through my head. “Ah!” he exclaims, and a smile splits his beard, his eyes take a piercing turn, as always when he senses something political.
Under a blazing sun, soaking wet and perched on a rock by the sea, I find the contrasting colors of our bodies rather beautiful. Mohammad snatches me away from my thoughts of a part-time poet and brings me back to reality: “You know that in Lebanon, we have African sportsmen who make a career here? At school, in basketball, I was always called ‘the African’. It was not mean, but it was hurtful. My mother too, she often called me blackie.” Not finding words to respond to him, I simply hug the body that has caused him so much concern. I fail to see what sets him apart: for me, he's just a tiny bit darker than other Lebanese.
It's in his huge SUV - a black monstrosity covered in dust from the Bekaa valley, so big that I have trouble getting in and out of it each time - that I begin to understand where he’s coming from. “It's Bedouin music,” he says as we pass a truck. He shares his enthusiasm with the suddenly over-excited drivers. "You know I'm from a Bedouin family, eh?" No, I had no idea, and I don’t even know who these people are. A thought pops into my head, my eyes widen a little as I freeze: where do I place this Bedouin? In Lebanon, each person’s religious denomination is written on their identity card. From this religious identity flows a whole mental universe and political positions that over the years I have only begun to be able to guess. Like on our very first night, this man scrambled my whole program.
How do the Bedouins fit into this quagmire? Sometimes they simply don't fit at all, Mohammad tells me. Like certain cousins who don't even possess identity papers. He tells me about the death of his aunt, whom his family should have avenged by going to kill someone from the killer's family. He opposed it. He also evokes the tremendous solidarity in the community: if a family's business goes bankrupt, then everyone chips in financially to get them through the ordeal. This student of human rights, who has earned his place in one of the country’s best universities, tells me about his past passion for guns. On the screen of his phone, a photo of him in a suit astride an Arab pony, Kalashnikov in hand, destroys me. I laugh and find it hard to believe it's the same person. Especially when a few hours later, he runs a comb through my hair to untangle it after the beach, without drawing the slightest grimace of pain from me.
Faced with this kaleidescopic identity - born into a Muslim Bedouin family, raised in a Christian school, landed in a cosmopolitan capital 10 months ago - I feel rather flat, simple as in “boring” and, in short, quite empty. To him, with some experience in Germany, I must seem predictable and I struggle to get across just how different my culture is from those whose codes he has already appropriated. I wonder if we are not all the same in his eyes, with our organic cotton t-shirts, our three words in Arabic, our "socialist opinions” as he says with both humor and disdain, brandishing our Master's degrees, coming in search of God-only-knows-what. I only manage to partially escape categorisation because I live in this somewhat special neighborhood where many Lebanese, including him, don't like to set foot. He rants in general as he’s dropping me off there, he rails against this political party and its army, a real state within a state, financed by Iran (OK, so have you got it yet?).
"It doesn’t make sense: why do people support them even though they no longer have water, no electricity, no fuel and the streets are littered with garbage?” he fumes a few weeks later, hands in the dishes, after a dinner of vine leaves prepared by his mother. Thank you Zeina. It’s now the end of June 2021, and Lebanon is sinking, slow motion, deeper and deeper into a bottomless crisis. You have to see a country collapse to understand. Every day alarming news reaches us. Our initial flirtation quickly turned to political conversations, increasingly punctuated by the failing water supply in my flat, or the fact that he was able to find fuel. Sometimes we make fun of the situation, like when I tell him how I stopped my Über along the highway in order to dash into one of the only pharmacies open for business in the capital on a day where there were strikes to protest against the shortage of drugs. The urgency? Find condoms and lubricant! The collapse is already unfunny enough, having to adapt our bedroom games would be the last straw...
More seriously though, in two years, the Lebanese pound has lost 90% of its value against the dollar, with very concrete daily implications. "You need 4.5 million pounds," he says once his hands are out of the dishes. In front of us, piled on the mattress, is an enormous bundle of banknotes. I count. He recounts. I hand him my euros: Mohammad is the middleman. The currency will be used to import medicines from Turkey for a family he knows and who cannot afford them at the current exchange rate, which is maddening. I charged them "mates rates".
In a normal world, in a country that is not crumbling each day like a sand castle, it seems to me that money is not the first subject you discuss when you meet someone. It gets talked about later and at first, with modesty. Here it is the other way around. Money is now what separates the Lebanese from foreigners: the former are generally paid in local currency which is now worthless, while we who collect euros and dollars live like kings in a Beirut that has become less expensive. It is Mohammad who briefs me on the tip to leave for the waiters, the most socially responsible way to change my currencies, or even how I can negotiate with my roommate to increase my share of the expenses of the apartment. Since my arrival, he has been obsessed with these internationals paid in foreign currency who take advantage of the situation and do not share their enormous privilege with their Lebanese entourage. He saw his salary go down and his rent go up.
A few weeks earlier, I had asked an editorial team to hire him as an interpreter for one of my articles. I was sure I could count on him in one of the most hopeless, rotten places on the planet: a Palestinian refugee camp. His empathy stuns me, his ability to address anyone and everyone too. In this terrestrial hell, we make a great team.
That same evening, in a restaurant, a glass of wine in his hand, after dinner with a mix of foreigners and Lebanese, he stares down at the square table. His head hangs low. “I have the impression that we visited two planets today. Look at us… We are right in the center of Beirut. Despite the crisis, the restaurant is full. We have food, sanitary facilities worthy of the name, possibilities. They are still in the camp. And there they will stay.” We take a few moments to let it sink in.
He also stayed. My plane took off for the land of electricity, with a stable currency, where tomorrow is not staring into the abyss. I held in my hand my absolute power: my passport. What is independence and equality in a couple like this?
Our bodies have dissolved and only our voices remain. I heel slightly. Sometimes, after a few days of not hearing him, Mohammad becomes some kind of concept. A sympathetic bot caught in a dystopian virtual reality. Our daily lives have divorced as I got used to the comforts of French reality. I hike in Lozère. He chokes on teargas hurled by the Lebanese police.
Two or three times already, we have come close to misunderstanding. I sent him light-hearted messages, getting a little offended not to receive an immediate response, even though he had not had electricity for several days. I apologized. He stumbled when translating a word like “authorisation” before telling me “that's not exactly what I meant, there is the language barrier”. I believed him, and I understood.
Our reunion will be in Beirut. However, I would like to teleport Mohammad to my side of reality: he does not know my friends nor my country. "Welcome to France", I wrote to him after Eric Zemmour wished to ban the French from giving their children his first name. “Far-right-wing bullshit,” he replied, “but you can call me Jean-Paul!”.
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About the author
Arriving in Lebanon in 2011 almost by accident, my mind has never left since. I like to dissect the complexity of this country and then tell it through human stories. I am a freelance journalist and I write on subjects other than Lebanon, such as public policy and disability.
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