On living in Lebanon and not looking Lebanese or “clearly” European.

So… last week, I was with my friend from Bangladesh, having returned from a walk together back into the shelter’s living room. A woman I had never seen before, who was staying there, looked at us and smiled. I extended my hand and said, “Hi, how are you, I’m Lioba.”

“Oh, that’s perfect”, was her reply, and she smiled even more. “I’m the Psychoanalyst. Great that you’re here. We’ll be able to work a bit with your friend and you can translate for me.” She went off to get her bag.

Little parenthesis here, who said that Psychoanalysts are more intelligent than other people? No one. Why did I think it was the case? Good question, but the woman was about to teach me a lesson.

“I’m sorry”, I replied, but I don’t speak Bangla” (“Nor do I look Bangladeshi or Ethiopian, you stupid person”, said the uncensored Lioba in my head). She starred at me with consternation. “But, I thought that you were from Bangladesh!” she said clearly irritated.

“I know that’s what you thought, I wonder what put this idea in your head”, said the Lioba in my head. But on the outside, I behaved myself and just smiled. “No, sorry, I don’t,” was my short reply.

“Oh”, she was clearly disappointed. In order to keep her calm and convince herself that her world order was not imploding, but that some things were still like they ought to be, her next question was “So, tell me, where in Hamra do you work?”

Now, living in Lebanon and not looking Lebanese or clearly European, leads necessarily to one developing a certain kind of paranoia. And I don’t mean the traditional Middle Eastern conspiracy theories, no. I mean the Was-that-person-just-racist-or-just-normally-friendly. When one is surrounded by either Lebanese or American friends, it is very often difficult to make them understand why I just did not perceive her question as part of the small talk. You shall see why.

I smiled and said, ready to destroy that world order that she had intended to maintain through that question:”I don’t work. I’m a student.” “OOOOH”, her surprise was dancing around the room. “OOH”, she repeated, “At AUB?” I nodded. “Ok, then”, she breathed in. So did I. I realized at some point during my stay here that it annoyed me to be compared to Ethiopians (most of the time) or people from Bangladesh (sometimes), or Nepalese (once).

I usually formulate all sorts of nice, cute answers in my head, ready-made to yell at the next racist person. But most of the time I just smile.

Not because I don’t want to argue. No, I just think that sometimes it is pedagogically way more valuable to take one step at a time.  We wouldn’t want to overload her, would we?

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