Mazen: hotelier, and breaker of princess hearts

Our first day being documented in excruciating detail, I am going to move on to describe some of the interesting people we met and share some of their stories. I'll start with Mazen, the manager of our hotel in Beirut, who was mentioned in the previous two entries. To keep us entertained and safe during the perilous time immediately after the announcement of the election results, Mazen invited us to have dinner with him. He wanted to try “Viet Nam food” (he kept not understanding us when we said “Vietnamese food”), and surprisingly, Linh and I were able to find fish sauce (a vital ingredient for Southeast Asian food) at a supermarket in Beirut, so we gladly accepted his invitation.

In fact, we paid for the food, and we did all the cooking, so we accepted his invitation to pay for and cook his dinner. Mazen let us use his kitchen (he lives in the hotel), and when we asked him if he had any oil, he grabbed a huge, unlabeled plastic container, like a big handle of liquid laundry detergent, and handed it to me.

“What is this?”, I asked.

“It is olive oil, from my home”, he said.

I learned that whenever Mazen goes back to his village, as he had for the previous day's election, he gets olive oil that his parents make from trees on their property. It smelled absolutely wonderful. Mazen also contributed a couple of dishes that he cooked himself (see pictures).

So once everything was ready, we sat down for dinner together in Mazen's room. It was delicious, and we got a chance to talk. I'd like to share some things we learned from Mazen.

On politics:
We asked him about the election results, and what he thought of them. “Who won?”, we asked.

“Lebanon won”, he said. He voted for the government, he said, because he wants the government to protect him, not Hezbollah.  The government can protect him, and it can protect Hezbollah, he said.

So Mazen's not a fan of Hezbollah, but when Linh asked him about how Lebanese people feel about Israel (I cringed a little at raising what I thought would be a sensitive subject), his response was:

“Good. Fine,” said Mazen, smiling.

“Really?”, asked Linh.

“No,” said Mazen. “They are bombing our people and always fighting. We do not like that, so our relationship with them is not good”, he said, this time seriously.

So he dislikes both sides of the recent Israel-Hezbollah war. Warring parties are never very likable, I suppose.

On popular culture:
Linh mentioned to me soon after we met Mazen that she thought he sounds a lot like Borat. I disagreed, but during dinner, we learned that Borat is probably Mazen's favorite movie. Even though Kazakhstan is pretty far from Lebanon, and Mazen doesn't have a ridiculous mustache, it was still hilarious to see a person with a Lebanese accent try to imitate Borat's accent. After dinner, Mazen sent me to the Virgin Megastore to buy Borat so we could watch it together. I ended up buying it (for around $30, I might add), but we never got to watch it together, since we got lost and sidetracked on our way to the Megastore. I lent him the DVD the next day and he watched it on his own. He said he enjoyed it very much, but not as much as when he had watched it in a movie theater with his girlfriend. I'll never forget his rendition of “Very nice!”, with both thumbs raised.

On discrimination in France:
During dinner, another of Mazen's guests joined us. He was a man who was born in Lebanon but had grown up in France. I asked him if people in France dislike Arab people. Mazen's other guest didn't really understand the question (he spoke good French and Arabic, and a little bit of English), but after some quick translation and discussion between him and Mazen, Mazen gave us this explanation:

“In France there are a lot of Lebanese peoples, but they don't cause any problems, so people don't hate them. There are also some other peoples, Algeria, Tunisia peoples, they are always fighting and doing crimes, so of course people will hate them, because they cause problems. But Lebanese people don't cause problems, so France people don't hate them.”

On rich people in Beirut:
This was actually something we asked Mazen near the end of our stay in Beirut. We had noticed a lot of people driving really nice cars, staying in expensive hotels, and dressed very nicely. I know Lebanon doesn't have oil, and as recently as three years ago it was bombed by Israel, which probably didn't do wonders for the economy, so I was wondering where people got their money.

Mazen said, “All sorts of things. Some of them are business men. All sorts of businesses inside Lebanon. Some of them, like in any country, are mafia. Some of them are Lebanese people who live outside, who have businesses outside, who come here to spend money. Some of them are from the Gulf countries. Everybody wants to come here, because it's freedom in the Middle East. Only in Lebanon is there freedom in the Middle East”, Mazen explained proudly.

On his Saudi Arabian romance:
I will try and paraphrase the amazing story Mazen told us. Mazen is a fairly young man, maybe thirty years old. When he was a few years younger, he was offered a job managing a restaurant in Saudi Arabia, which he accepted. The restaurant was owned by some royal relative, and on occasion a group of the wives of wealthy Saudi nobility would come to the restaurant. This being Saudi Arabia, women had to be fully covered, with only their eyes showing, whenever they were in the presence of men (besides their immediate family members). Also, women had to be accompanied by men everywhere. So these women would cover themselves completely to be accompanied by men to the restaurant, where they would be dropped off for a meal. The men would leave, and the women would eat alone. Mazen, because of his status as the restaurant manager and a foreigner, was allowed to stay when the women uncovered themselves for the meal.

Mazen caught the eye of one of the women who came in to the restaurant fairly regularly. One day, she sent a car for him at the restaurant. When Mazen realized who had sent the car, he became terrified, but he felt compelled to get in. Not “compelled” as in some inexplicable emotional drive, but “compelled” as in you do what royal people tell you. Inside the car there was a full bar and a television, but Mazen didn't take advantage of either one. He was contemplating what would happen if a Saudi princess wanted to have an affair with him. He was contemplating being killed, or having her be killed, for infidelity against a member of the royal family. He had a lot of time to contemplate these things as the limousine drove him to the princess' house, and even more once he got there. From the gate that begins the driveway to the actual home was a thirty minute drive, he said.

Once he got in the house, the princess was waiting for him. Not covered in black cloth from head to toe, she was beautiful. And she wanted Mazen. He was terrified to the point that even if he had agreed to make love to her, he probably would have been physically unable to. Mazen was well aware that they were alone, and that if she wanted to, she could say that he tried to touch her and that would mean trouble for him.

“If we have sex right now, it will be just physical”, said Mazen. “Let us talk and get to know each other. Once people build a friendship, that can lead to love.”

This convinced her for the time being, and so they had the first of many long talks. Mazen learned of the princess's very sad life. She was married not to a man, but to an animal, as Mazen described him, who went around the world philandering with women, hardly ever interacting with his wife except when he wanted instant sexual gratification. At this point, Mazen did a pantomime of a man lifting up what I imagined to be a traditional Arabian robe and humping away.

He had to leave that place, he said. He was constantly trying to keep the princess happy without doing anything that could get him in trouble, which was stressful indeed. Finally, he left his job at the restaurant and returned to Lebanon.

He told the Saudi princess that he wanted to go back to Lebanon, and she responded by threatening to have him put on a no-fly list. At this, he relented and said he would stay. This was a lie, however, and he broke her heart and came home. Once back in the safety of Lebanon, he continued to correspond with her on the phone and in letters, and she even came to visit him once, but eventually she understood that it was not to be. Mazen seemed to really pity her, but he felt he was unable to help her.

After finishing his story, Mazen related to us all the reasons he hated Saudi Arabia.
Weather: “It's fifty degrees outside. Nine months of the year, if you have no air conditioning, you die. You are dead”, he said.

Enforcing unreasonable religious laws: “Are you married?”, he asked us.
“Uhh”, we looked at each other and said. “Yep”, said Linh.
“Okay, well if you are not married, they would not let you into the country”, said Mazen. “And if you are not Muslim, they will not let you into Mecca. The whole city , they won't let you in”

Overly harsh punishments: “If you steal, they will chop off your hand!”

“It's different from here. In Lebanon, if you want, you can have your girlfriend, you can drink, do whatever you want. It's freedom. There, you can't do anything.”

Mazen is very proud of being Lebanese and of the freedoms that come with that. It reminds me of my own pride at being American.

Below are some pictures of us with Mazen. Click on any image to see it bigger.