Pearls Make The Man: An Interview with Salah Bachir

Salah Bachir is an entrepreneur, activist, philanthropist, and the queer son of Lebanese immigrants. In the larger-than-life world of Salah Bachir nothing is static; when he sees something that needs to change, he makes it happen. He is a fundraising machine. Up until this past year, Salah built and ran Cineplex Media, a company that grew out of his days as a student journalist and working in his brother’s home video store. There isn’t a celebrity that Salah hasn’t met and many he calls friends. When Salah says “did I ever tell you the story when Douglas Fairbanks and I…?” He isn’t bluffing. But Salah is as bashful as he is outrageous, and it is the co-mingling of these characteristics that make him deeply infectious. He recounts these stories and more (Ella Fitzgerald making him scrambled eggs…) in his memoir entitled, First to Leave the Party to be released this Fall by Penguin Random House

Two years ago Salah had a kidney transplant that resulted in a brush with death. He also recently lost his mother and his sister. When his mother was dying, he had a palliative care team tending to her at home. I wanted to ask him about these experiences and his views on death and dying, but instead what ensued was a conversation about life and living.

Elle Flanders (EF): You have crossed paths with everyone from Jessye Norman to Norman Jewison, Ginger Rogers to Roger Rabbit! I can’t wait to read your book because you really are an example of how to LIVE LIFE! Can you tell us a little of your back story?

Salah Bachir [SB]: We came to Canada in 1965. When we left Lebanon, our whole village came with us to the airport. We lived in Rexdale, a working class, all immigrant neighbourhood; it was like everybody in the garden in Lebanon where you never returned a plate empty.

[EF]: You’ve also been an activist for many years. During the AIDS crisis you changed how straight people related to the gay world and have continued your work with the LGBTQ community today. You were the Grand Marshall for Pride in 2016 in full Arab regalia: keffiyeh and thobe, and of course, pearls!  Can you tell us where you started?

[SB]: When I was fifteen I went to my first big protest for the United Farmworkers outside of a Dominion grocery store. I raised $150 and I met Cesar Chavez. I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t raised more. He said something that defined all of my fundraising efforts thereafter: “That’s $150 more than we had this morning. And that will take care of two families for two weeks!” At the University of Waterloo, I was part of the longest strike in its history. When occupying the student newspaper, I learned journalistic skills and I sold all the ads. You know, because I got to know the community — you go around the area and you know the guy who owns the stereo systems store, or the mechanic — it was people. There’s an old Marxist line that says ‘relationships are capital’. It’s that little village from Lebanon kind of thing where everybody is family or a friend. People and relationships are the key in activism, fundraising, and life.

[EF]: Let’s pivot to your journey through illness and your mom’s palliative care experiences because it's also about living life.

[SB]: Being a gay man and surviving through the AIDS crisis, death is always on your mind. I am HIV positive. Luckily, I've lived with it, but I've seen too many friends that haven't. Leading up to my kidney transplant was seven years of dialysis. My husband Jacob was my nurse. Back then, the nurse at St Joe’s, our local hospital, didn't recognize Jacob as my husband, so when I needed certain drugs, the nurse wouldn't give them to Jacob. After one incident, we thought, we have to sue them! But then I realized, no, they actually need help, so instead, we insisted on an educational program; whoever I decide is going to be the person taking care of me, has to be listened to, gay or straight. And so they implemented aspects of that and we started raising funds for them to build two new dialysis clinics because the old one was so dark; people talked about it as a place to go and die. We put Christmas lights up, and now the hospital lights up the whole neighbourhood!

When I finally got a kidney, they said I’d be laid up for five or six days and then I’ll be home. But I developed sepsis and I was rushed back into surgery. After that I had an ileostomy bag and all these tubes coming out of me, and I was hallucinating from the drugs. At the rehab I had a fever and was rushed back to the hospital again — they weren’t sure I was going to make it. At some point my caregivers threw out my dentures. All those years of playing hockey and lacrosse, I had my teeth knocked out. And I couldn't get dentures because of all of the anti rejection drugs, and so I showed up for my Order of Ontario without dentures. But nobody knew I had dentures, so at this point, vanity just can’t be an issue! I realized, I've got all these diamond necklaces I can put on, no one’s going to notice the rest! It was a journey. At rehab I was bored and I didn't know Instagram or Facebook, but I started posting stuff, telling stories. It was from these posts that the idea for a book came about.

EF: Your posts are fantastic; I remember when I first read them, it felt like you were making your debut back into the world after your transplant. But did you wonder what would happen if you didn’t make it? Did you make any arrangements for your possible death?

SB: Jacob doesn't want to imagine that possibility. I appointed an executor and I was clear. I knew in my own mind that I didn't want to die, but I knew if I died, that I had taken care of everything. But then I thought, who would take care of my mom? Who would take care of Jacob? And we've got an autistic nephew.

EF: People don’t articulate that much about that part of their journeys. I think we're afraid to talk about death and our fears around death.

SB: Well when my mom had a stroke, we moved her back home. We used the Dorothy Ley Hospice. I knew about it because I worked with journalist and activist June Callwood who advocated for them. She had helped found Casey House (Canada’s first stand-alone treatment facility for people living with HIV/AIDS, and Ontario’s first free-standing hospice).  After my mom’s stroke, we thought she would die within a week but she lived for another year. We had great care at home. We used the palliative care between St Joseph’s and Dorothy Ley and we had a palliative doctor come once a week and a nurse a few times a week. Having her at home helped her tremendously. Jacob, who is an artist, did a whole series for my mom based on tulips from our garden called Flowers for Najla. After she died, we donated that and lots of other art to hospitals. Something peaceful you can get lost in. I feel comforted by the fact that there wasn’t a missed opportunity to tell or show my mother and sister how much I loved them when they were alive. Now that they are gone, they remain present in the stories and anecdotes I tell family and friends.

EF: While you’ve experienced a lot of loss lately, your zest for life is infectious. It seems even when dealing with death and dying, living should be our constant companion. I can’t wait for your book.

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