Ahmad Kontar Is the Syrian Model Shaking Off The Tired Refugee Made Good Narrative
The refugee turned something-considered-worthier-than-refugee trope has become numbingly familiar. Think of Mari Malek from South Sudan who was hailed as a refugee-turned-supermodel in a flurry of press features, or British member of the European Parliament Magid Magid who is still a ‘refugee’ in headlines although he has been in the UK since 1994. As I talk to Ahmad Kontar, who headlines have described as a ‘Syrian refugee turned male model in Paris’ I can’t help but wonder if he’s bothered by that version of the narrative of his life. “It’s beyond simplification. It’s annoying. It’s labelling, and I don’t like labelling. There’s another, deeper implication which is that refugee is something degrading and model is something elevating. But there isn’t a world of difference between them. For me both are a passage, they’re something I’m going through.”
Sitting in a dorm room in the small town of Amiens in northern France, wearing an alpaca hoodie, Ahmad looks like any other student. He’s working on a degree in physiotherapy, and his midterms are coming up. But his recent propulsion into the limelight isn’t linked to his studies. Around a year ago, in a bit of a fairytale scenario, he was scouted in the streets of Paris by an agent, signed with Elite Models, and quickly found himself in campaigns and shows for GmbH, Jacquemus, Alyx and Hermès.
We start speaking in French. I tell him I must have read something wrong, because the internet says he is studying the language but to me he sounds fluent. Beyond fluent, he has a regional accent and I find myself mesmerised by it. “I’ve been in France for three and a half years. I didn’t speak French at all before coming here. I thought it was just the Eiffel Tower and baguettes. I used to skip French lessons at school. I never imagined I’d be here, speaking to you in French. It’s extraordinary.”
Jacket, turtleneck, trousers, boots, prices on request, Balenciaga.
Much about Kontar is extraordinary. As he sits there in a room lit by the cold December sunshine, his ever-present dimpled smile is a stark contrast to his journey to this point. But for all the talk of fashion, sports and physiotherapy dominate his life more than anything. “When I was playing basketball at competition level, I got injured a lot. And didn’t know how to treat myself to get better. I didn’t know how to take care of my body. I didn’t know where my abilities stopped, so I always used to go beyond my abilities.” Is there a connection between that desire to pursue physiotherapy as a career, and its healing abilities that might go beyond the body, that might have something to do with his own journey? “You know, maybe. When I got to France, sports became one of my ways to survive. I didn’t understand the world around me and I was isolated. I couldn’t build links with people. So I found refuge in everything around sports.”
Kontar’s physicality is not confined to basketball or modelling either. In a YouTube video on Vogue Paris, his b-boy skills are on display in an ornate gold-trimmed room set to soaring classical music. “Quickly I came back towards dance. I didn’t know how to express myself verbally, so I used my body instead. It was therapeutic. Maybe I would have fallen into a depression. Maybe I did anyway. But dance helped me. Physiotherapy helped me too, and I want it to help others. So I want to transfer it.”
Does he ever think of putting Syria behind him? Of using modelling, sports and a career in France to build an entirely new life? “No. Never. I have so much love for Syria. My childhood, my best friends, my first kiss. Everything is there. Even if I have an almost equal amount of love for France.” Kontar is from As-Suwayda, in southwest Syria, close to the Jordanian border. Sixty percent of the city’s population has a connection to Venezuela. One of his best friends made the journey to the South American country around the same time he left for Europe. It was late 2015 when Ahmad and his twin sister embarked on a two-month journey to France.
Vest, stylist’s own. Trousers, $1715, Bottega Veneta
You hesitate to ask about this passage from Syria to Paris. It’s a story we have seen unfold for years on the news, a story we have heard from many Syrians in whatever city we may live in. It feels unfair to make him relive it if he doesn’t want to. “I never used to speak about it. You know, I have a defence mechanism. I denied that things had been hard. I wanted to act as if I hadn’t lived through it. But that doesn’t work. That’s not how you solve something like that.”
He can sense the discomfort. “Actually, because in the fashion world everyone wants me to tell my story, it forced me to confront it and talk about it, which is good. I still find it hard to give details. I’m not the kind of person who likes to make people cry. Also, this journey was shared by thousands of people. I wasn’t alone. But yes, it was something hard.”
As we speak, it dawns that all he has known since he was 14 is war. He grew up with it in a way that must be so alien to his new surroundings. “I didn’t realise it, because I was just living my life. I thought it was normal to be surrounded by bombs. You normalise things to survive. It’s funny here. People complain about anything! Whereas I think, ‘The world is fine.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh no, there’s no more Nutella!’” He laughs as he mimes opening a kitchen cabinet. “Just go buy Nutella. Your world is fine!”
Coat, sweater, trousers, prices on request, Louis Vuitton
Has integrating been hard? Parisian society can be cliquey and insular. “It’s true, Paris is hard. Maybe elsewhere in France is easier, but not Paris. The fact that I have different activities allowed me to build different circles. But I feel like none of them are durable, none of them are permanent.” It’s only when he started working with a charity that helps Syrian children that he found something that had been conspicuously absent: community. “I used to teach breakdance in Syria. So, when this charity, Baytna à Vous, heard that, they asked to see what I could do and the kids were mesmerised. And that was that.” The charity is based at the American University in Paris and it was there that he started to meet a more international crowd who would eventually become his friends. “It’s easier to create links being all foreigners, than making Parisian friends,” he says with a bit of regret.
You would have thought more people would want to be friends with a dashing young model. “Well, fashion did change everything. People saw me one way, then they saw me another way. Just the fact that I model, changed the way people see me. But I haven’t changed! If anything, I’m doing less of the work I want to do on other things.” It feels as if modelling has taken away from things he values more, like sport. Like healing. “It has slowed me down a bit. But of course, it’s an enormous opportunity. I’m so lucky.”
It must feel ridiculous sometimes though, this entirely new circle he’s entered. “I am still marked by the absurdity between these worlds. I come from a middle-class family. So I have no shame when I’m in a restaurant with fashion people to say, ‘What is this? I’ve never eaten this before.’ I don’t lie about who I am. They ask if we didn’t eat these fancy things in Syria, I say that I’m sure some people did – but certainly not me!”
Turtleneck, $1170, trousers, $1715, Bottega Veneta
With Paris Men’s Fashion Week just gone, who did he work with this time around? “Well I have to do an internship for my degree, so I skipped Paris Fashion Week.” There’s a nimbleness and carefree elegance to the way he weaves between these multiple worlds. And a strong sense of priorities.
Amidst all this, does he still find time to follow basketball? “Yes! I’m all about the NBA. I follow the King! I just want Lebron to win.” Well there’s the thing about opportunity: he’s now in an environment where he might meet Lebron James at a fashion show or some other industry-melding event. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him. His eyes light up. “That’s my dream! He was my childhood!”
You find yourself wanting to spend more time with Kontar. His energy and positivity are infectious – a brilliant melange of different worlds, cultures and disciplines. But, for now, we need to let him study for his midterms. You know, priorities and all.
Photography: Stephanie Galea
Styling: Steven Doan
Grooming: Bianca Hartkopf
Model: Ahmad Kontar At Elite Paris
Location: Palazzo Parisio, Malta (Visit at www.palazzoparisio.com)