This is an extract from Beirut Re-Collected, published in March 2014.
Poor young boy meets wealthy eccentric who forever changes his life. This is the stuff of Hollywood movies, I thought. But it’s also Bilal’s life. His inspiring rags-to-riches tale, the likes of which we see so often on the silver screen, is actually more complicated than any fictional happy ending. Bilal lives in two worlds that refuse to have anything to do with each other.
Bilal is a Dom. Doms are the heirs of a nomadic culture with a centuries-long history that stretches across Asia and the Middle East. They live in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, often in tents and shantytowns on the margins of society, without electricity or constant running water. Few non-Dom Lebanese — gadjos — have heard of the term “Dom.” Most, however, are familiar with nawar, a derogatory term associated with itinerant communities. Many perceive the Dom as beggars, pickpockets, and prostitutes. Discrimination and ostracism have led the Dom to be mistrustful of strangers and to shut themselves off from the rest of Lebanese society. The little that is known about the Dom community is a compilation of unverifiable half-truths, often corresponding to whatever Doms think outsiders want to hear.
Bilal recalls his childhood as simple. His father was a traditional dentist, travelling from village to village offering his services. His grandfather was what the Doms call a prince: he ground coffee beans and mediated conflicts within the clan over cups of coffee. Bilal’s parents separated when he was young, and with his three siblings, he alternated between his father’s and his mother’s homes, travelling from Lebanon to Syria and back. At the age of nine, Bilal started shining shoes in the street to earn a living. In the evenings, his family and members of the community often came together to sing traditional songs in Domari, the language of the Dom.
One day, while working in the Beirut suburb of Kaslik as usual, Bilal started singing a Domari song. He still remembers which one: Dalaleh dalaleh, about a little girl pampered by her family. And at that very moment, Michel Elefteriades happened to walk by — the man who would change Bilal’s life forever.
How could one describe Michel? He is a character straight out of an epic saga — in which he is, of course, the protagonist. He is a politician, militiaman, musician, and businessman, also known as “His Imperial Highness Michel I of Nowheristan,” a tiny country whose capital is a former restaurant situated in downtown Beirut next to Michel’s cabaret venue, Music Hall.
Among his many adventures, ranging from being tortured during the Lebanese civil war to spending time in exile in Cuba working in sugar-cane fields, the half-Greek, half-Lebanese adventurer also spent quite some time in a Roma camp in Serbia. So when he heard a teenage boy singing outside his Kaslik office, in a language very similar to the one he had learned during his time in the Balkans, his interest was instantly piqued.
“Do you know how to sing?” he asked Bilal.
“All gypsies know how to sing,” the 12-year-old replied.
Michel was struck by Bilal’s charisma, his impalpable positive aura, and his striking beauty. Although Bilal grew up with a fear of gadjos, he immediately felt at ease with Michel. The man gave him a hundred US dollars and called his driver, who he instructed to take the child to singing and oud lessons every two days.
Fast-forward sixteen years.
The man gave him a hundred US dollars and called his driver, who he instructed to take the child to singing and oud lessons every two days.
On any given Friday night, Music Hall is filled with the standard glittery Beiruti fare: beautiful young women in skin-tight dresses accompanied by men in jeans and buttoned-down shirts, and older well-coiffed couples who seem perfectly at ease in the venue’s plush red interior. A frame of gilded roses surrounds the stage. The red curtain opens as the next act is announced: Bilal, the Gypsy Prince.
His long hair falls down his back in gelled waves, his smile contagious as he shimmies his shoulders and fills the packed auditorium with the sound of his voice. The crowd sings back to him the lyrics of the Lebanese and Syrian traditional songs that have made him popular over the years. He comes down from the stage to dance with people who wouldn’t have looked at him twice if he were still shining shoes, but who now lavish him with attention and admiration. On stage, he is the Gypsy Prince, in homage to his grandfather.
For the past ten years, Bilal has made singing his profession, thanks to his mentor Michel. He jokes about being the only Dom to have ever signed a contract with a gadjo. He even recorded an album of songs that have made him famous in concert. Three nights a week, he performs at Music Hall.
Even though singing pays very well, Bilal chooses to live with his community.
And each night after work, he goes back to his camp to sleep in a tent. Even though singing pays very well, Bilal chooses to live with his community.
While success has brought Bilal the sort of financial security he could only have dreamed of before, it has come at a price: having to maintain an uncomfortable, heart-breaking balance between two worlds that reject each other.
Although his family is proud of him, Bilal is caught in a predicament. When a Dom custom demands that the entire clan stop singing and playing music when someone passes away, how can he make his community understand his contractual obligation to perform at Music Hall? Why does he not have the time to sing at the weddings of his kin, when he is busy entertaining rich gadjos?
Not only is Bilal accused of forgetting what it means to be Dom, but his unprecedented position as a public figure has given him a platform to speak of his community, much to their dismay. Bilal wants to change society’s ignorance, especially its dehumanising view of nomadic communities. He wants to tell the truth about what life is like as a Dom, both the good and the bad.
Countless Doms disagree. They would rather Bilal stayed quiet. The less people know, the better — who knows what could be used against them?
Michel experienced this fear first-hand. Before a visit to a Dom camp to see if he could assist in any way, a rumour circulated that he was a Bashar al-Assad supporter. Upon his arrival, Michel was greeted by pro-Assad chants of bil rouh, bil dam, nefdik ya Bashar (we sacrifice our souls and blood for Bashar). Even after trying to dispel this misunderstanding, Michel was told that the camp was in need of only one thing: the good health of the Syrian ruler.
So when Bilal goes on national television and talks about the issue of undocumented Doms and their dismal living conditions, the response is scathing. Even successful Doms living in Europe and the United States call to blame him for giving the community a bad image.
Sometimes, the pressure feels too great. But despite his constant exposure to gadjos, Bilal cannot abandon his origins. He is proud of being Dom, proud of his culture, proud of his smart, hard-working people. And he is passing his heritage along to his toddler son, teaching him Domari and telling him the stories that his family taught him as a child.
I tell Bilal that his life should be a movie. He laughs somewhat shyly. “Not yet.”