Text by Mark Massoud, Photography by Tory Rust
These words fulfilled two of my goals at the Daddy’s Bar underwear party that cold summer night in San Francisco: to answer a question about my ethnicity and to do so in a way that would get this guy into bed as soon as possible. His piercing blue eyes and closely cropped salt-and-pepper beard had certainly caught my attention.
“I’m Arab,” you see, would have been a more honest answer. But it also would have revealed too much to this handsome otter next to me. “I’m Arab” might have elicited the usual wearying responses like, “Yeah, you look exotic” or “I knew a Lebanese guy in high school. Had a crush on him.”
Telling the real truth – “I’m a Middle Eastern mutt from Sudan with mixed ancestral heritage” – would be prolonged and unanticipated, the words drowned out by their rarity. Telling the real truth would require a calculated reduction in the speed of my voice and would induce at least another question or two of clarification. Once processed, restated, and clarified, such complicated responses to short questions can open a Pandora’s box of queries, sometimes prompted with “Wow, you don’t look Sudanese,” or “Were you born here? Where are your parents from? How old were you when you came to America?” and the infamous “Where’s your accent?” I did not want, once again, to put myself in the situation where my interrogator would know more about my family’s history than many of my good friends, even before I’d had the chance to catch his name or maybe even cop a feel.
The experience of being too different when meeting someone for the first time is why my brother usually responds to questions about ethnicity with “I’m Lebanese.” It’s simple, clear, and easily understood. Lebanese: a familiar word with three syllables. No need for follow-ups from people who never really found a reason to care about mixed parentage until you entered their lives. My ancestors are not from Lebanon, but saying Lebanese is easier, so we rewrite the identities our ancestors gave us. Sure, it might induce a query about the civil war, but that could be brushed aside by the quick reminder that we were not in Beirut at the time.
Men prowling for lovers on a weeknight do not expect complicated identities to unfold themselves before their piercing blue eyes. It’s a buzzkill. The favored ethnic categories are simpler: Black, White, and Latino to the front of the line, and sorry, no Asians.
How could I fit myself into those boxes?
The man with the salt-and-pepper hair next to me at Daddy’s Bar was, like me, looking for something more physically fulfilling than conversation. Each of us traveled alone to the Castro and checked our trousers and iPhones at the entrance to a dimly lit dive bar. His question about my ethnicity was the starting point from which he would determine whether we’d get to second base by the DJ booth or even head to his place for the playoffs.
His reply to “I’m Greek” came out slowly, as if he were trying to capture the meaning of each word as it escaped his mouth.
“So, let’s see. Greek, huh? That’s, like, hummus, right? And Al-Qaeda! Oh, wait, I think I’m in trouble now.” He concluded his thoughts prematurely and looked at me in time to see my chin come up and the expression on my face turn sour. He grinned, maybe embarrassingly hoping that I would find his untoward comparisons to be humorous by virtue of the half-smile that followed.
I was startled by the abruptness of my bar mate’s absurd statements. This unease might explain why my response to his comparison of the Greeks to pita-and-garbanzo-wielding insurgents was modest, if not totally submissive: “We’re a lot more than that,” I replied. I thought of the feta sandwiches my mother would make me for lunch.
Must one reason with the unreasonable while sipping a Manhattan in a new pair of Diesel boxer briefs and listening to Girl Talk? Had I been quicker on the draw, his likening me both to an appetizer and to a terrorist organization within moments of meeting would have coerced a calculated rage out of me. The blow of sorts I experienced was revolting enough – until I realized my feelings were overwhelmed by the urge to take the bigot to bed. Perhaps one might provide the speaker with some benefit of doubt, as if that doubt existed.
The episode led me to question the numerous times since childhood that I responded to bigotry with self-effacing silence. I imagined myself suddenly unrestrained and magically unshackled from my desire to please others. “Pardon me?” would have been the dignified way to commence his deliverance from my fury. “You’re a prick” would have been a less processed and more emotional means to the same noble end. Walking away, too, would have been respectable. Instead I intimated, astonishingly, that he was correct – that Greeks are insensate defenders of tahini and radical Islam.
My therapist, who’s read a bit too much Kafka and Fanon, would maybe conclude that embedded in my bar mate’s question about my ethnicity is some kind of instinctive yearning to dominate the unfamiliar “Other” or subjugate his primitive and sexualized prize. So you become an erotic hazard. And then somewhere in between him calling you “exotic” and asking for your cock in his mouth, he mentions hummus. Did he smell garbanzo on your skin? Did it tempt him? In recalling the creamy dip and radical fanaticism at the same instant, he suggested that I might be dangerous. Dangerous and delicious. Spicy hummus.
Despite my best efforts to avoid seeming exotic, I have allowed men in bars to perceive me as they would Aladdin – a young prince covered by a fine cotton loincloth and empowered by fantasy. That night at Daddy’s Bar, I joined the game we are called to play, and then reveled in my eventual conquest of hate. I don’t pride or detest myself for my victory. I’m still hidden just beyond the coat check, as I was, barely shrouded by mystery. But perhaps now I am revealing too much. Lebanese is so much easier.