The French right-wing leader Marine Le Pen is visiting Lebanon, and it seems like an opportunist attempt to gain support of French citizens who are anti-Muslim (maybe many French-Lebanese dual citizens?).
I’m not a political analyst or social critic, but I do tell stories for a living. Most of those stories so far have been reported from and about Lebanon — a country with a history of complex relations between religious sects.
Sometimes I struggle to tell these stories — who are they for? Foreigners, who have a fairly monotone view of Beirut and the relationship Islam has with society? Do I add caveats? Or should I address locals or those who lived there and understand the nuances? I don’t really know. So, I’ll just tell this story for myself.
In 2013, I moved into an apartment on the third floor of an old building in Beirut’s Qantari neighborhood. The surrounding structures all appeared to have been recently torn down and rebuilt into luxurious apartments for Beirut’s middle-upper classes, making my building the last of its contemporaries.
It was painted daffodil yellow and had pine green shudders. No elevator, just three flights of giant stairs. On the corner was a Harley Davidson Motorcycle shop. Next to it was the Qantari mosque, where my landlord would go to pray five times a day and whose call to prayer I would hear on the occasion I was lying in bed awake at 3 a.m.
On Fridays, I’d cover my head with my pillow to drown out the sound of the national anthem blasting from the school at the other end of the road. On Sundays, I’d hear the bells of a church two blocks away ring through my open balcony door, where a view of the Mediterranean was obstructed by a gauche bank building.
Directly across from my apartment were two general stores. One was owned and operated by two young Syrian guys. When I was absent from the store for a few days, they’d ask me where I’d been. Next door was a cell phone shop, owned by a British-Lebanese dual national who was dragged back to Lebanon by nostalgia. His experiment lasted just about a year before reality sent him back to London with his wife and two kids. In his place, a Syrian refugee ran the store (he’s now in Germany; I don’t know who runs the store or if it’s even open anymore).
Below me was a small shop that we paid monthly for TV service. The first month I had an issue with their service and got into a yelling match with Ali, the tanned, mustached and raspy-voiced guy who installed the service and collected the bills. I thought he was ripping me off. He might have been, but either way we became friendly after that, and he’d always scream out “Hello!” in English, while zipping by on his motorized scooter when he saw me on the street.
One of the most interesting people I met was my landlord’s mother. She was an elderly woman, usually donning a white head scarf. She was always jovial. She lived on the first floor. I don’t think she got out much, but sometimes she’d step outside her front door and look out off the steps onto the street. I’d pass her on my way out of the building, and she’d greet me joyfully and gab about how the neighborhood used to be when her kids were kids and all the changes that had taken place during and since the war.
Her children had grown up in the building. Now her grandson and his two children were living on the fourth floor of that same building. (I have a great story with him, but I’ll save that for another time).
I remember a few stories of our interactions, but for the sake of brevity I’ll recount one. It was around the summer of 2014 and I’d started growing a beard. Many pious Muslim men wear beards as a show of faith. Many pious Muslim and non-Muslim men also wear beards as a show of fashion. Mine was the latter as I’m neither all that pious nor Muslim.
As I descended the stairs, she caught a look of my new facial hair and immediately stuck her finger in my face. “Get rid of it!” she said, loudly and playfully, but there were clear serious undertones.
“You don’t like it?” I asked.
“No, not at all!” she replied. “I don’t let any of my sons have beards!”
Her son, my landlord, must have been in his 50s. And it’s true, he’s clean-shaven every day. I didn’t end up shaving my beard, and she dropped the issue. She went back to telling me stories about the neighborhood and the old days. I still have a beard almost three years later. But if I shave it one day, I think I’d like to go back and show her. Even if she’s forgotten about me by then.