‘Is it okay if I close the window?’ I asked.
‘No problem at all,’ said the driver.
I fumbled for the electronic switch on the armrest for a few seconds until I found it. The sound of the wind gradually subsided until everything fell silent. Everything but the seamless drone of the car engine. A sound I like as it usually tends to calm me down. Because when you think about it, I had all the reasons in the world to be nervous: I was in the middle of the Beqaa valley blindfolded in a random car being driven by an armed stranger on my way to meet Rabih El Khoury – arguably the most controversial fashion designer in the industry’s history. I say ‘controversial’ because I have a thing for euphemisms. In fact, since the release of his latest collection, El Khoury has been immediately indicted for crimes against humanity and is currently wanted by authorities all over the world. His felony: the production of leather garments and accessories made out of human skin.
I first met Rabih El Khoury at the Parisian Hotel Amour in the late 2000’s. I was a young graduate who’d decided to take a couple of years off and live in as many different cities as possible, meeting as many bizarre people as possible, eager to gather stories and experiences for my envisioned writing career. El Khoury was an exciting up-and-coming designer, ignored by the mainstream media but cherished by alternative fashion lovers the world over. And of course I’d heard of him. Unlike his fellow Lebanese commercial superstars, El Khoury didn’t feed on Arab princesses and Hollywood celebrities at red carpet events, nor did he content himself with making the same Cinderella-and-her-ugly-sisters-style evening gowns over and over again, sometimes a bit longer, often a tad heavier, always flashier. No. Rabih El Khoury was a real designer, creatively and artistically. A thought-provoker and an innovator. He came over to our table once to ask for a cigarette and my Middle Eastern features must’ve betrayed me because he confidently spoke to me in Arabic. I responded just as naturally, in Arabic, as if the scene was taking place at Le Gray Hotel in Downtown Beirut, and not 3000 kilometers from home. After that, we immediately hit it off and started hanging out whenever we had the chance. He took me under his wing and introduced me to some of the hippest faces and places in the city, then in another city, then in a few other cities. I enjoyed his company because he was a very interesting and funny guy and, to be honest, I kind of loved having access to the most exclusive clubs and restaurants in the world and being constantly surrounded by kill-me-now-gorgeous models. I moved back to Beirut a year later and it wasn’t easy keeping in touch. There was, of course, the occasional Facebook message every few months – the usual “hit me up when you’re in Paris” and “call me when you’re in Beirut” shit; but his career was racing forward, and as his popularity kept reaching newer heights, as did his elusiveness. Actually, it’s kind of weird to think that the last time I saw Rabih El Khoury in person was nearly a decade ago.
I felt the car veering out of the main road and slowing onto a rugged path. Branches and leaves slamming against the windshield. Alien chirping and warbled melodies. And my heartbeat. I felt like Sean Penn meeting El Chapo, but unlike what happened to El Chapo, I really didn’t want El Khoury to get busted. The vehicle stopped and I was escorted out into a 3 minute walk on concrete. And when the light was markedly reduced behind the cloth over my eyes, I knew we’d gone indoors. Then a door slammed behind us. Then voices echoed. Then the bandana was removed and I saw him. And it was like a flashback. Standing tall, clean and sleek, not a single wrinkle on his face, and his usual gorgeous smile. “Smiyeh!” he laughed. He always called me that – it basically means someone who carries the same name as mine.
“Long time, smiyeh,” I giggled back. A warm hug. The whole have a seat thing. The whole would you like a drink thing. The whole it’s been a while thing. The whole you haven’t changed thing. The whole I’ve missed you thing. The whole how’s everyone thing. The whole are you still seeing the guys thing. You know the drill. And then I asked my first question: “Why me?” Because after the initial uproar over his acknowledgement of capturing and skinning humans and producing and selling high-quality leather garments, the Interpol ordered the media and all the main Internet search engines to completely ray El Khoury off their lists – which explains why the designer has been virtually dead for the past 12 months. No articles. No photos. No videos. No biographies. Nothing. In that aspect, El Khoury’s choice to finally break his silence would’ve had to be strategic. Explaining himself as an attempt to redeem his reputation? Fear of being forgotten? A wild shot at boosting his black market sales? Apologize and ask for forgiveness maybe? I had no idea. “Why me?” I asked again. He responded with a silent, wistful smile at first, then reminded me of a specific night in Paris. We were in a club and he had gotten so drunk he could barely keep his balance, but that didn’t stop him from yelling obscenities at some guys at the table next to ours. Then a fight broke out. I instinctively rushed to protect him, made sure no one laid a hand on him, handled the bill, called a cab and threw him in, rode with him to his apartment and tucked him in. Before walking back to my hotel and passing out. “You acted like a true brother back then,” he said. “You barely knew me and you acted like a true brother. And I never had a chance to really pay you back.” Concluded with a wink. Because he knew. He knew this interview was worth gold and that it would definitely be my ticket out: from the bane of writing shitty articles about shitty things for shitty magazines to the rank of a writing superstar. And in all honesty, I knew it too. I sat across from him on a rainbow-like retro Versace sofa, took out my notebook, and we got down to business.
Q: Rabih, I’m going to go straight to the point here because we all know what this interview’s about. The whole world thinks you’re sick. And frankly, I do too. Why did you choose to use human skin to produce your leather pieces?
A: I guess it’s for the same reasons any good, respectable designer picks his material: because it’s great quality, and because there’s a demand for great quality.
Q: But you do realize that what you’re doing is illegal, to say the least…
A: Legality is a frail concept, my friend. Anything that’s illegal somewhere is always legal somewhere else, if you look carefully enough. Besides, am I really the only one in the fashion industry doing something illegal? Last time I checked, child labor was illegal too. And that never kept any brand from producing their pieces in foreign countries where child labor was tolerated.
Q: But you can’t just justify a criminal act by condemning another, that’s just as criminal. Besides, murdering and skinning humans is illegal everywhere.
A: Almost everywhere, you’re right, and well, that’s just my luck. And that’s why I’m hiding! In all seriousness, though, “illegal” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad”, don’t you agree?
Q: I actually don’t agree. Laws exist for a reason! What are you talking about?
A: Well, “legal” doesn’t necessarily mean “good” either. I mean, slavery was legal for centuries: did that make it a good thing? Of course not. So it’s easy for people to take the moral high ground in the name of legality; but really, if you think about it, it doesn’t really mean anything. I mean, look at it the other way: in Nazi Germany, you were legally forced to report your neighbor if he was Jewish – which means that hiding or protecting any Jewish person was illegal. Did that make protecting your neighbor a bad thing? I’m sure you get the point.
Q: Theoretically, I do, I really do. But this is not about legal texts here, this is about our values and our morals. And you can’t tell me you don’t see the difference: we are talking about human lives.
A: It’s just contextual, trust me. Contextual and hypocritical. I mean, governments legally kill hundreds of people every single day, so they really should give me a break.
Q: Rabih, you’re a fashion designer. You’re not a warlord!
A: And fashion designers kill and skin hundreds of thousands of living beings every single day as well.
Q: Animals, yes, but not humans… Are you seriously putting humans and animals on the same level?
A: Last time I checked, humans were animals.
Q: Thank you, we all know Darwin, buddy. But I’m not sure how strong he can be to your argument here. Yes, humans might be animals too, biologically, but it’s not about biology here either. Humans are the only animals who actually have a conscience, who can make choices, who can distinguish between right and wrong… but apparently you don’t!
A: And elephants are the only ones who have a trunk, whales are the largest mammals on the planet, cheetahs are the fastest animals in the world. How is “conscience” the red line for a killing license? This is all so arbitrary. Are you saying it would be okay to kill a human if he’s asleep or in an unconscious state? That’s ridiculous.
Q: Rabih, as a species, the most natural thing for us is to prioritize the living beings of our own species, those who resemble us the most.
A: Are you serious? But that’s exactly everything that’s wrong with humanity!
Q: What do you mean?
A: Prioritizing what resembles us. When white people prioritize white people over other ethnicities, we call it racism and we condemn it. When men prioritize men over women, we call it sexism and we condemn it. When locals prioritize locals over immigrants, we call it xenophobia and we condemn it. When straight people prioritize straight people over homosexuals, we call it homophobia and we condemn it. How is it suddenly okay to kill weaker, innocent beings just because they don’t resemble us?
Q: It’s a fair point, but you’re confusing everything! We aren’t talking about subcategories here, we are talking about our own damn species!
A: That’s contextual, and arbitrary. For centuries, white people considered black people to be from another species. Gypsies were considered subhuman by the Nazis. Women were considered – and still are, in many countries – half citizens by men. It’s the same logic applied here. In fact, by choosing to kill what resembles me the most, I am making the biggest tolerance statement and the biggest moral sacrifice humanity has ever witnessed. I am Abraham killing his own son. Only that Abraham didn’t actually do it. It may be too soon for you to see it, but history will remember me as a moral visionary. Mark my words.
Q: Look, I understand that you are against animal abuse, cruelty, exploitation and all of that. And some of your arguments are theoretically fair. But why don’t you simply not use animal products in your pieces then? Period. Do you really have to insist on making leather by skinning human beings? Because all you’re doing is denouncing something as criminal while being an even bigger criminal yourself…
A: But, why not? I mean, why should my fellow designers be able to produce leather and not me? It’s up to our civilization to review its whole set of values and bring some consistency to the table, because as long as our societies are okay with wearing the skins and furs of dead animals, I don’t see a problem in my skinning human beings. They just happen to be my animal of choice. It may not be your choice, but it’s mine.
Q: Isn’t there a tiny part of you though that can acknowledge just how barbaric what you’re doing is?
A: Not at all, that’s also a very arbitrary statement. Where’s your sense of perspective? I mean, eating horse is barbaric in North America, but Europeans eat horse all the time. It’s barbaric to eat dog in Europe, but many Southern Asian countries do it all the time. It’s just perspective, smiyeh.
Q: Don’t you feel though that what you’re doing is not only a crime against humanity, but against nature itself? I mean, to ensure the survival of our species is our most innate, natural tendency; and here you are, going totally against it.
A: The very foundation of civilization is about going against our natural tendencies. Do you realize what would happen if we let people behave the way they would behave on their natural impulses? It would be total chaos! Besides, give me a break! Are you seriously calling me responsible for the potential extinction of humanity because I killed a few people?
Q: That’s not what I said. I’m just saying it’s not only a crime against humanity, it’s a crime against nature.
A: There is nothing about my enterprise that is against nature. If anything, I’m doing nature a favor here. If you think about it, human beings are responsible for the highest number of both human and animal deaths, the extinction of entire species, and for the destruction of the environment of the planet, the very body we live on. Human beings are a destructive force who are literally killing everything around them. Human beings are the cancer of planet Earth. And as long as we are not able to acknowledge this simple fact and deal with it, we are doomed, my friend.
A young man entered the room carrying a tray. “Lunch! Great, I was starving,” said El Khoury. “Aren’t you hungry?”
“I could eat,” I shrugged.
The young man unloaded the pots and plates on a low hardwood table between us, a spicy smell and steam hovering under his chin. “Red wine, sir?”
“Thank you,” I nodded. Then, looking back up at El Khoury: “Steaks? After all this PETA-like lecturing I thought you’d at least spare me the carnivorous lunch…” He smirked. I took a first bite. The meat was so tender it melted, almost evaporated under my palate. And I loved it.
“It’s good stuff, huh?” El Khoury said, still smirking. “I’m sure you’ve never tasted anything like this before.”
Originally published for SOW by Lara Khoury
Length: 4 pages
‘Are you going to take me to prom?’ she’d said.
‘But we don’t go to the same school,’ I’d answered.
‘I don’t care. Do you?’
‘No. I don’t care either.’
Cheesy love songs made us sick, so did my classmates who couldn’t handle a drink. Oversized kids made a big deal out of a cigarette and a glass of vodka. Obnoxiousness everywhere. Fools marveled at tacky fireworks gleaming on the surface of the swimming pool. A stench of whiskey, smoke and chlorine defiled our nostrils. And the drunken shrieks, our ears. We decided to escape it all and took a stroll on the beach. Strode down a long wooden deck leading toward the sea. Took off our shoes when we reached its edge and drowned our feet in the soft, cold sand. Moved further down and dabbled in the water. Then she grabbed my shirt and pulled me close and whispered: ‘let’s do it.’
I stared at her and couldn’t believe that six years had passed. Six years that we’d been inseparable. Not a single day without her, and each one of them had felt like the first time we met. The same fascination I later realized was love. I gazed at her standing there in her emerald green one-shoulder dress. Emerald green matching her eyes. Long lashes reaching out. Slick hair back à la runway model. A gorgeous pout. And the young girl gave way to the woman. And my best friend gave way to my lover. Of course, the sex was clumsy and we stopped halfway because the sand was nasty. And we laughed it off. We learned that first times and beach lovemaking are overrated. And I knew why she’d picked that moment: because it was forbidden. And we got away with it.We dashed back to the party and caused chaos. Pitched purses in the pool. Set the corny singer’s jacket on fire. Stole the principal’s wig and passed it around the dining tables. Dropped laxatives in a few drinks. Kissed endlessly and kissed again. Smeared cake on the dance floor and watched everyone slip. Tossed shrimp rolls at the teachers we hated. Keyed random cars on our way out. Got away with it all, like we always had. Drove to our favorite spot outside town and made love, for the first time properly, under the ghostly lights of a billion dead stars.
The phone rings once and I’m startled, still lying on the bed, my eyes closed. My fingers rove over my shirt, trace my waist, climb up my hipbone before grazing down and disappearing in my pocket. My hand feels something and I sigh, relieved. Something small, round, cocooned in fabric. I’m able to fumble with it but I can’t grasp it, and I soon remember that my pocket is empty, that the object is underneath my pants, stuck to my leg. I crumple my shirt, exposing my abs. A gust of wind slinks in and I shiver. I slide my hand inside my slacks and peel the tape off my skin, freeing the ring and bringing it up to my face level. I open my eyes and smile. The ring’s been living on my skin for a few days now. Body heat warm. Silver and beautiful. The sun beaming through the window, shimmering on the band’s edges.
The phone rings once again and stops. The ring drops on the hardwood floor and starts rolling away. Reality shifts to slow motion. Everything darkens and everything slow motions. The rolling sound grows louder and images flash in my head. Vividly. A woman in a bridal gown races through a meadow, giant pines arching on both sides of the frame. The wind bays at the sun to set. The soil trembles. The rolling sound deafens me. And as the trees sway wider and the wind bawls lustier, the bride reaches the edge of a cliff. On the other side of the room, the ring hits a large suitcase and collapses. And everything stops. The images vanish. And time resumes its natural course.
In the bathroom I notice a tiny hole in the wall. Flashback to the Bates Motel in a Hitchcock movie. And I blench at the shadiness of this place. I cover the hole with a wad of toilet paper and lose my clothes on the tiled white floor, keeping my flip-flops as I step on the disgusting shower tray. I twist the faucet knob and warm water pours down, stinging my shoulders and massaging my nape. The endless stream of water blends with my tears and I realize that I’m scared. That there’s no turning back. I’m scared for the first time in a very long time and there is no turning back. I leave the shower on and step out of the tray. Pull up the same black harem pants, the same white shirt and the same black jacket I’ve been wearing for days. It doesn’t matter if they’re filthy as long as my shoes are polished. And my shoes are always polished. I leave my hair unkempt because who gives a shit. Wipe the last tears off my face and find the ring on the floor. Put it in my pocket and grab the suitcase. Before dashing out, I expect the phone to ring again and it does. It keeps ringing until I pick up, and she starts speaking:
‘It’s me. Is everything alright?’
‘Hey, yes. It’s all set.’ I’m struggling to stay composed. ‘How are things on your end?’
‘I’m going to head there now. Don’t be late. It won’t be long before they notice my disappearance.’
‘Don’t worry,’ I lie.
‘Yes.’ A pause. ‘It’ll all be over soon. You do remember how to get there, don’t you?’
‘Good. Once you enter the woods, keep moving forward until you see the sky.’
‘I know. I’ll see you at 7 sharp alright?’
‘I’ll be there.’
‘Cool,’ I say, but I can’t keep on lying. ’Hey…’
‘If anything bad happens…’
‘Don’t say that,’ she hampers.
‘Don’t worry, but just in case. If I’m not there at 7:15…’
‘Don’t say that. Nothing will happen. I’ll see you at 7,’ she says.
‘Just listen to me. If I’m not there at 7:15, it means they caught me. Don’t wait. Find a way to reach the port without me, and find the boat SOW 15. It leaves at 8 and will take you to a safe destination,’ I say. Long silence.
‘I’ll see you at 7,’ she says.
‘Yes.’ I sigh.
‘I love you.’
‘I love you.’
Go to Page 2
It seems to me that despite the death of God and the dismemberment of the Truth, we human beings still have a long way before we totally get rid of our religious dogmatism and our spirit of sacrifice. There is absolutely no difference of nature between those who believe in God and the atheists who place their blind dogmatic faith in science, for instance. As there is no difference of nature between the oppressors of individual freedom and a nation that launches wars in the name of individual freedom. In fact, it all comes down to a problem of definition – as it has been since the very beginning of the history of thought; which is why philosophy is far from being a dead discipline that merely explores a chronological history of ideas: philosophy remains deeply current because its most essential questions are still as important, perhaps today more than ever.
What is freedom of speech? What is terrorism? What is the truth? What’s a civilised person?
I would like to examine an old habit that we almost never question: the relevance of the question “what is..?” In fact, it’s Western metaphysics that have taught us to ask the question of essence in the form of “what is..?” And if we’ve been unconsciously taking this question for a given, we mostly owe it to Plato and Socrates. Because the question “what is..?” implies a very particular way of thinking that is omnipresent in Plato’s dialogues – in which the main protagonist Socrates vehemently rejects any other forms of question. For instance, in Plato’s dialogue Hippias Major, when Socrates asks the question “what is beauty?” and that the sophist Hippias answers by citing examples of things “which are beautiful,” and examples of people “who are beautiful,” we witness a major moment in the history of thought because the political repercussions of such a misunderstanding are substantial. First of all, because the assumed superiority of Socrates in these dialogues is more than suspicious. His method never seems successful: the question is never resolved and most of these platonic dialogues are destined to nowhere. It would be of course stupid to give examples of things which are beautiful and of people who are beautiful when asked what is beauty? because the question aims at finding a necessary essence, an unchangeable substance, the thing itself, and not an example of things or people that contain a sample of that substance as a participative quality. But let us make no amalgams here: the sophist Hippas is not an idiot or a child who’s incapable of getting the nuance between the two questions and who simply answers by which/who when asked what. No. It’s more likely that Hippias thought that the question which/who? was a far better question, one that was more capable of finding the essence. To ask which/who is beautiful instead of what is beauty is not a coincidence: it’s the result of an elaborate method that excludes the existence of a common essence and that leads us to the art of empiricism and pluralism. Meaning, to ask the question which/who is a dangerous thing because it directly leads to the political questions of the point of view: who decides? who sets the limit?
To become aware of this inevitability of empiricism and pluralism is to let go of our dogmatic belief in intangible and eternal essences. It’s to become aware that a single and unique definition of freedom is a lie. That a single and unique definition of terrorism is a lie. That a single and unique definition of truth is a lie. That there is no meaning, but a plurality of meanings that all fight for the right to be the (temporarily) most convincing one. That instead of asking the question: what is freedom of speech? – a question that no one has managed to answer once and for all, – we must ask a question that’s far more interesting, the question of the point of view, the question which/who: who is free to speak their mind? From France’s point of view, it seems, whoever wishes to mock Islam is free to speak their mind, however, those who wish to make fun of Zionism aren’t. From Saudi Arabi’s point of view, men are free to speak their mind, however, women aren’t. Who is a terrorist? From the United States’ point of view, it’s the muslim extremist of Al Qaeda. From Israel’s point of view, it’s the Hamas militant. From Palestine’s point of view, it’s the state of Israel. From the left-wing militants’ point of view, it’s the US politics. Who is civilised? From the Western civilisation’s point of view, it is of course the western model of civilisation that serves as a reference: anything else is barbaric. And so on.
Becoming aware that the Truth does not exist. That there is no unique and radical meaning given to us straight from heaven. That there is no chosen people. That there is no absolute truth that’s revealed to some and not to others. That absolutely nothing is a given. That there is no historical direction. That there is no progress. That there are no good guys and bad guys. That there is no right or wrong. That there is nothing else but interpretation. And that every interpretation is always conceived from a specific point of view. That our laws and definitions are always set from a specific point of view aimed at satisfying the interests of a specific category of people. It is only this type of awareness that allows for a real discussion to happen, and for solutions to be found: away from dogmatism, away from intellectual blindness, away from demagogy, away from populism, away from stupidity, away from exclusion, away from discrimination, away from hypocrisy. And most importantly, beyond any emotional blackmail and self-righteous slogans and campaigns that never do anything but perpetuate the problem.
J’ai très mal dormi hier soir. Le mail que j’avais reçu n’a cessé de me tourmenter jusqu’à l’aube. Mon alarme a sonné au moment où je commençais à m’assoupir, puis l’enfer, le matin, au bureau. Les nanas qui piaillent dans l’espace cuisine, les mecs qui se pavanent comme des coqs, annonçant haut et fort les sommes gagnées aux paris sportifs de la veille. Et un rendez-vous avec un gros client de l’industrie automobile : une directrice marketing qui pendant des heures me tanne de détails sur la prestigieuse histoire et les nobles valeurs de la marque qu’elle représente. Une marque devant laquelle nous devons tous nous incliner, dit-elle. Je pense à l’homicide – elle continue de parler – puis au suicide. Puis au sinistre mail. Puis un miracle : la journée se termine. Bonnet, foulard, manteau, parapluie. En voiture, je peine à voir devant moi, les routes sont inondées, le vent rugit. J’arrive à destination – l’adresse du rdv dans le mail – et monte au sixième. La femme de ménage de Leila, ma directrice, ouvre la porte avant que je n’aie le temps de frapper. Mes genoux flanchent. Tout devient noir.
Je reprends conscience. Intolérable mal de tête. Autour de moi tout est flou, brumeux, sans forme définie. J’entends des choses, mais tout est vague, évasif, une absence de sens total. Un mal de tête et la tête qui tourne. Où suis-je ? Sa3at Sa3at de Sabah dans mes oreilles. Je tente de me ressaisir, de réorganiser mes pensées, les événements de ces quelques dernières heures. Ou plus. Je récapitule. Me rends compte que je m’étais évanoui. Je suis étrangement excité : je suis certain d’avoir rêvé de cul. Une minute passe. Des formes se manifestent lentement. La pièce est blanche, clinique, propre. Une odeur de cuivre, acide. Des gémissements entremêlés à la voix de la diva défunte. J’essaie de me lever, mais mon corps est absent. Mes poignets sont ligotés, mes pieds aussi. L’angoisse m’empoigne : je suis allongé sur un fauteuil dentaire, les jambes écartées. Je redresse la tête et les aperçois. Un homme et une femme, le teint blafard, nus ou presque, à genoux entre mes cuisses, occupés. Mon sexe est raide, vertical, veineux. Mon souffle se coupe, je me crispe. La jeune femme remarque ma prise de conscience, me dévisage, je la reconnais. Yasmina. Elle sourit, fait signe à son compagnon. Tous deux se regardent et ricanent. Ils se lèvent doucement, en unisson. Une culotte en dentelle noire cache le bas-ventre de la jeune fille. Je les suis des yeux, ils se dirigent vers ma gauche, s’arrêtent. Devant eux, un tuyau alimente un pichet transparent, reposant sur une table de marbre. Un liquide rouge. Du vin, ou du jus de canneberge. Je traque le tuyau et manque de m’évanouir. Une seringue plantée dans mon épaule me draine le corps, me vide de mon sang. Je veux hurler mais la force m’échappe, ma tête tourne toujours. Nausée. Larmes.
Le jeune homme saisit le pichet et se désaltère. Yasmina fait de même. Remet le récipient sous le tuyau. Enlève sa culotte et se positionne à quatre pattes au milieu de la pièce, à quelques pas de moi. Le jeune homme est derrière elle. Il me regarde droit dans les yeux. Je suis en sanglots. Sa3at sa3at.