Stories from Afar & Up Close

Two options only

A ‘Green Line’ runs through Beirut, starting in Downtown and going South-East, separating the city and later on the country into two parts. East of the ‘line’ is Christian, West of the ‘line’ is Muslim. Although never an official frontier, its physical presence (stemming from the civil war) is still visible in many places in Beirut – certain houses on the roads that make up the line are still riddled with bullet-holes and signs of rocket-attacks. Yet even though the line is only visible in the city, I can never entirely forget about the division of the country. It’s not just the endless amounts of crosses and mini-Jesuses that decorate the roads in the Christian areas, nor the Ramadan banners in the Muslim areas. It’s me.

Being a tall, blond, European female means being subjected to many different stereotypes, depending on where I am in the world. In Africa it meant I was rich, in the USA it meant I was a model. In Lebanon, it can mean one of two things, and again, it depends on my geographical location.

In the Muslim areas of Lebanon, both city and country-side, it is automatically assumed that I am a journalist. After all, Lebanon is bursting at its seams with 20- and 30-something independent European females who want to report on the Middle East but do not have the freedom to do so in many other Arab countries. The stereotype is mainly annoying when I try to arrange a permit to South Lebanon, and have to explain why I would like to visit Hezbollah-favoring territories if not for media-related issues. On the streets, I don’t feel noticed, other than the occasional disagreeing look of a Muslim sheikh and his wife.

It’s a whole different story in the ‘other’ part of the country. Waiting for the bus on the street-side will inevitably result in several proposals that may or may not include cups of coffee or glasses of alcohol. Men who would otherwise never ask for directions feel compelled to back up and ask me ‘where is that shopping mall again? Oh, you don’t know? Where are you from then? Would you like to get in the car?’ I still don’t know where to look when the passing cars slow down for their ultimate staring and drooling experience. But the worst is when, like this weekend, we are trying to escape the heat in Beirut and spend the night in a hotel in Broummana. ‘Excuse me sir, the woman, who is she?’ ‘She’s my fiancée.’ ‘Ah ok. Mmmm. Let’s see. No, I’m sorry, we don’t have any vacancies.’ The accompanying look leaves room for no doubt that in his eyes, we are obviously lying, and Walid just picked me up from the street for $50 a night.

I know this is by far not the worst type of racism in Lebanese society. One only has to look at the malicious behavior towards the Sri Lankan maids and Bangladeshi gas-station attendants to see how much worse it can get. But it’s still hurtful, insulting and limiting; if given the choice between press or prostitute, I would still like to have the option to say ‘neither’.