The woman looked at the phone number scribbled on your map, “Oh… you see Bilal.” Her tone of voice said it all.
“You know him?”
The hostel manager, a dyed-blonde middle-aged woman, shrugged and lifted the tips of her fingers to signal a lack of responsibility for anything you might infer.“We have not met. But I have heard about him.”
“What have you heard?” you pressed. Her tone! Something, like reluctance, caution.
Did she mention girls? Travelers? Stories? What was it? Her actual response was unimportant. In the time she took to deliver it, you had already begun to piece things together.
“Oh shit!” you exclaimed, slapping the counter of the hostel in Aljezur. “Maybe it’s the same guy!”
Katie leaned forward to address the hostel manager behind the desk. “What have you heard about him?”
The hostel manager, a dyed-blonde middle-aged woman, shrugged and lifted the tips of her fingers to signal caution. “Nothing exactly. He lives on the beach, has a restaurant. And he invites a lot of girls to his home all the time.”
You recalled a unique Couchsurfing invitation, mixed in with the dozen or so invitations that flooded your inbox ever since you started looking for a host in Morocco. Some guy, with no picture, and three long, negative references from girls… something about chauvinism, being commanded to cook and clean, and backwards opinions about women.
No thank you.
You weren’t in the mood for another awkward exchange–especially one with some single guy liked to comb through the nearby CS travelers until he found some pretty young girls to entice with his paradise beach and his restaurant, only to insult them and play head games. You’d already experienced something uncomfortable like that before, in Croatia, with Damil.
You hadn’t lingered on the request; you’d simply ignored it and kept looking. It didn’t take long to exhaust your options on Couchsurfing, so you turned to Bewelcome, an open-source hospitality to which die-hard Couchsurfers were migrating in increasing numbers.
Slim pickings! 13 hosts in total, and only 4 with pictures. You noticed a nice-looking Arab guy down south, not too far from where you wanted to go, and thought, “Hell, you’re going to Morocco soon, it might be nice to get your feet wet a little early and ask this guy for some tips on Arab countries.”
Furthermore, Arabs are much more enthusiastic about hospitality. If he accepted, it would probably be a very positive experience. So you wrote to him–
–and he responded promptly with a very considerate, welcoming message.
Yahoo! A host!
In Aljezur! Aljezur… Such a small town. Could it be?
After your reflection: “Could we possibly use your wifi connection?” you asked the hostel worker.
She waved you in.
You logged into Couchsufing and saw the signature at the bottom of your invitation: –Bilal. “Aw fuck.” Clicked his profile. Ugly, red, bold, “NEGATIVE” letters.
“What do you want to do?” Katie asked. “You want to stay here?” At the beautiful hostel, full of English-speaking young backpackers.
“Not for 15 euros,” you said. “We’ll camp before that. But…. maybe we could… laundry?”
Your clothes were filthy. Not merely filthy from the last two days of hitch hiking, but filthy from a week at Miguel’s, which had been tacked onto almost another full week of The Camino. Two weeks, no laundry, heavy walking. Everything you owned with filthy, dusty, crusty.
The hostel didn’t have a washing machine. “Okay, never mind. Thank you anyway.”
“What the heck,” you shrugged. “Let’s just send a few back up messages to those guys further south and tell them what hell we’ve been through, and that we might find ourselves with some creeper, and if that’s the case, to expect us sooner. I say we hitch over to this guy’s beach and check him out. If he’s a bastard, then we can always camp. Worst case scenario, it’s awkward and we get a story out of it. Best case, he’s nice and we sleep in a bed.”
Katie, having surveyed the favorable weather, agreed.
You made sure to hit up a supermarket and stock up on provisions—bread, cheese, jam, rice–in case you found yourselves camping.
After a short walk out of town and a sharp right to the west, you flagged down a hippie van driven by an older German guy.
“Oh… you’re going to see Bilal. Why do you go to see him?” he said. In a tone.
“You know him too?”
“I know about him, yes. He has a restaurant. He lives on the beach. But I think his restaurant his closed, and I don’t think he lives there anymore. Are you sure you want to go there?”
Huh? What does that mean?
You explained your situation; you explained your concerns that he was some kind of jerk. Now you had new concerns: that he didn’t even live where he said he did. He didn’t pick up his phone. And his address… well, basically it was “The Beach.” Maybe it was all B.S.
The guy took you the full 7 kilometers. Nestled between two hills was a charming, picturesque hamlet before beautiful breaking waves. A dozen cars. Some people. Gorgeous. You began to feel better.
“This is his house.. the little one with blue on the walls,” the man pointed, rolling to a stop at the end of the drive.
A teeny little square of a house, directly on the beach. Not next to it. Like, on it. You climbed out of the van, thanked your driver, and shouldered your bag.
Managed about two steps before locking eyes with your host…
Oh dear god.
Maybe it’s because you’re a fitness trainer and you have so many opinions about what it means to be fat. Not like a little overweight. Obese. The man had a prodigious, round belly that hung far over the waistband of his beach shorts, threatening to separate from his body.
You thought back to a time in Vienna, Austria, in 2009. Your host had been some kind of intense-looking Homer Simpson; buzzed blonde hair, sweaty, and fat–with a hard, overly-wide, unblinking gaze. He’d let you into his apartment, kept making jokes about the cellar (alluding to Joseph Fritzel), and sat perched on the edge of a seat in your bedroom for hours and hours, needing to talk to someone late into the night. You’d just been after sleeping on a park bench and desperately wanted to disappear into the bed made on the floor. But he had lingered far too long, staring and talking.
Please don’t be a creeper. Please don’t be a creeper.
You put on your best tight-lipped smile and approached. Bilal offered his hand, and then—awkwardly–leaned in for the double-cheek-kiss. He smelled of stale sweat.
You must have gone into explanations and apologies for your late arrival, hitch hiking and all. You were only aware of his odor, and also of how loudly he spoke, how assertive his tone of voice sounded. “This is my house!” he said, gesturing to the tiny, one-room structure. “But maybe we sleep on the beach tonight.” Not a funny joke. Was it a joke? You couldn’t tell. You have no ear for sarcasm.
Katie looked horrified. Her eyes, extra wide.
Don’t judge. Don’t judge. Don’t judge.
Fuck. You couldn’t help it! The references from the girls, the “reputation” from the locals. The hesitation in their voices. It was all culminating now. You were with a creepy, conservative, older, fat guy who liked to seduce young girls to his “house on the beach” and to his “restaurant” and then make uncomfortable comments and demands, knowing full well that his budgetarily-constricted guests would have no other option but to put up with his shit until they could plan their escape!
Now wait just a minute…
Did he not have a couple dozen positive references? Sure. Did you read some of them? Sure. Were they intimate, or generic? Hmmmmm… not so sure.
“Come. I will take you and your things. We go to have dinner. Here is my French Ferrari–” he pointed to a little red beater “–my house is just 3 kilometers away.”
Katie stepped up to the plate. She smiled and talked and put her things in the car and didn’t seem at all uncomfortable, despite her wide eyes. You followed suit. But wait, huh, what? Where were you driving? Wasn’t his house, his restaurant, and everything promised on that beach in the rear view mirror? Did you miss something? Katie, she seemed pretty calm. Did she hear something you hadn’t?
It was a five-minute drive. As he led you to the porch and unlocked the door, he talked. You weren’t listening. You were too busy sniffing the air for whiffs of danger.
“—beds, hostel—season—missed—owner—here is your room.” He showed you your private room with a double and two twin beds in it.
Katie indicated to the double bed. “This is fine. We usually share. It’s no big deal. It will save you a set of sheets to wash.”
Bilal’s large body was squared towards two of you, blocking the door. “You are a couple, right?”
It was never expressly said, or written, for that matter.
Firm tone: “Yes. We are,” you said immediately, prepared for some kind of reaction, trying to give him an excuse to ask you to leave, so you could feel justified in your hasty escape. Then you could camp.
Bilal: “I thought so. I don’t care. Which one of you is the man?”
Before you could answer, he pointed to Katie, “I think it is her.”
You were surprised. So was Katie. “Really? Why?” Nobody ever thinks that.
“I can always tell… if the dog is well-trained, he walks behind the master. Katie. She walks in front. She takes the lead.”
Oh wow… he just compared women to dogs. Get yourself the fuck out of here!
“Listen, I don’t care. I’m curious. But I don’t care. You will see, I am a very liberal guy. If you are a couple, just say so. I’m not interested to see you together. I am not a pervert. Of course, I don’t reject if you want to kiss her in front of me…then I will know for sure who is the man…” he paused, maybe waiting for a reaction. “If you want to kiss her in front of me, go ahead. I do not mind!” All smiles. Totally awkward for you and Katie.
This wasn’t the first time some “nice guy” had tried this line on you. For whatever reason—god only knows why—men think that saying things like that will make lesbians feel more comfortable around them. The truth is, it makes them very tense; they feel even more under the male gaze than ever, as though women, gay and straight, are somehow put on earth for a man’s enjoyment either way.
Now, it would be a despicable injustice to Bilal if the story ended there. Despite your ill-at-ease feelings about his reputation, body odor, loud Arab voice, odd (repetitive) comments about women and dogs, and a stomach that threatened to eat you, Bilal was nothing other than a perfect host and a sharp-witted conversationalist.
One open-minded Jordanian. Bilal studied and lived many years in Hamburg, Germany. He had a slightly pedantic and quite sarcastic German sense of humor, delivered in a loud tone of voice which was unsettling, but not unkind. He had been living in Portugal 13 years or so, running a restaurant on the beach for ten, organizing events, and participating in Couchsurfing, BeWelcome, and HospitalityClub for the whole time. His reputation was what it was, mostly perpetuated by misunderstanding locals who noticed a brown guy in their neighborhood always surrounded by young foreign girls.
Bilal was sensitive about misunderstandings. Much of his life, simply because he was Arab, he has received culturally embedded prejudices against him. You detected an edge of bitterness in his tone—the stories he told were about his own life were always versions of some injustice: sensitive, inconsiderate young couchsurfers; lazy employees; an over-controlling and unresponsive landlord; opinionated locals…
Then there were the political lessons: the injustice against the Palestinians, the former Ottoman Empire, the fall of the Soviet Union, and so on and so on. Bilal, clearly, was an educated and aware man, and proud of it. He likened his mind to a firearm. Sharp wits will take your farther than force. Knowing how to understand problems, people, cultures, situations—this was key to success.
You soaked it up like a sponge, interested in his point of view. Surely, there is nothing more insidious than the confirmation bias: one’s tendency to only favor information that supports his own views. So you were happy to hear the opinions of someone who doubtlessly did not think quite like you do.
This became more apparent when you go onto the topic of Islam…