Stories from Afar & Up Close

Apartment hunting - sectarian style

The landlord has announced that as from next month, the rent will be raised with 20%. Result: one month to find a new place by knocking on doors, calling numbers in the housing section of the free weekly advertising paper, and using the services of ‘realtors’ – a bunch of old men sitting around in a tiny office, waiting to cash in on their knowledge of the neighborhood and who has empty apartments available. In the office of the old guys, they take our phone number. A good moment for them to get the necessary information: “What’s your name? And last name?” It tells them everything they need to know: Walid’s last name very clearly indicates which area in Beirut the extended family on his father’s side is from, and thus his religion٭. He’s approved; the guys take us on a tour of empty apartments in the area. Once out and about, though, the realtor checks Walid’s last name one more time. “You know, I don’t care, but here they don’t rent to Shi’a.” Interesting. Better not to mention where Walid’s mother is from, then, or where I work.

٭ [In Lebanon, children automatically are given the religion of their father. Since many aspects of society (marriage, divorce, etc.) are only arranged by religious law, it is practically impossible not to have a religion, even when you are a convinced atheist.]

One of the buildings they show us has a promising apartment (a rooftop terrace! a view of the mountains! and of the sea!), so we return later to talk to the concierge. He agrees with us that we shouldn’t deal with these realtors, who, by the way “refuse to find places for Palestinians.” Not that either of us would have to worry about that, but it turns out they are not the only ones with a national preference; the owner of the building has his own criteria for renters: foreigners only please. For once, my blonde hair proves an asset.

And just when we think the national and sectarian assessment is over, the janitor tells us about the neighbor. “He’s an engineer, and he plays in Ziad Rahbani’s band sometimes. He’s Druze, you know, a good guy.”