These Guys Are Trying to Improve Lebanese Sex Lives
By anonymously shipping lube and condoms in brown paper envelopes.
Zadi Hobeika (left) and Robert Tabet, founders of Yalla Condoms
“If my girlfriend doesn’t come, can I return this?”
That's one of the stranger queries the founders of Yalla Condoms have had from customers since launching their lube and condom delivery website a little over a week ago.
According to Yalla founders Zadi Hobeika and Robert Tabet, the site is a result of a very local problem. They say that the average Lebanese person isn't exactly comfortable when it comes to buying contraceptives. So at a party in January of this year, the two came up with a remedy: a discreet service that could supply a vast array of condoms, lube, creams and various sex-related accessories to the masses, allowing them to practice safe sex while also broadening their horizons. And in a society where the neighbourhood pharmacy may well be owned by your family’s landlord, any opportunity to avoid an awkward encounter while buying all your sexual paraphernalia is a welcome one.
Hobeika, 28, has lived abroad most of his life, but owns an advertising agency in Lebanon and recently left Google Dublin to come back to his homeland. He made the move in the hope of working on projects that he feels passionate about, and watching him switch between laughter and mock seriousness, it becomes immediately clear that he and Tabet are enjoying their first foray into the sex-product industry.
Loads of condoms in the Yalla office
Despite his extensive time outside the country, Yalla Condoms is a project that Hobeika has been considering for a long time. Startlingly tall, at 6-foot-9, he draws from personal experience when he talks about one of his reasons for creating the company.
“People already stare at me because I’m tall," he says. "And when I go into a pharmacy to buy condoms – to me, it’s nothing. But you feel sometimes [that the pharmacists] are looking at you in a certain way."
Tabet, 27, the other co-founder, is quieter than his partner, coming off as the more serious, business-minded half of the pair. He works in the pharmaceutical industry and has seen firsthand the difficulty some people have not only with buying condoms, but with more sensitive sex-related products, due to their societal implications.
“I told [Zadi] that condoms are just the name of the website," Tabet says. "Because, usually, people are ashamed to ask, for example, for extra-small condoms or delay tubes. I wouldn’t even see myself going to a pharmacist, ‘Hey, do you have something that delays ejaculation?’ It’s tough to say."
According to Tabet, even buying lubrication can be problematic, as there's an idea in Lebanon that it's only ever used by homosexual men – and the stigma around being gay still hasn't been eroded enough for people to buy lube in public. But, thanks to Yalla, people can now buy any of these products anonymously. In fact, couples can even browse the website together and choose products to stimulate their sex life without suffering any of the stigma they might do in public.
Zadi Hobeika in the Yalla office
The two are currently working out of Hobeika’s office on the eighth floor of a building off the Zalka highway, less than 20 minutes outside of downtown Beirut. For now, their operations are slow and steady, so they don't need much more than a table, a smartphone or computer, a couple of shelves and box full of product. Their pre-delivery happens in their small office, where they keep the stock they have bought in bulk, mostly from local pharmacies. The two double-wrap the products in nondescript brown envelopes, then take them to a courier company to be shipped out to customers.
Despite Lebanon’s reputation as an oasis of freedom in the Middle East, talking about sex and buying sex-related products still remains taboo for many. Across the sectarian divides in the country, there is a common thread of conservatism when it comes to premarital sex. However, according to medical sexologist Dr Sandrine Atallah, things are slowly starting to change, especially for the younger generation.
“We have more outside information," she says. "We are more open because the people are changing their point of view on virginity. You see more people who think it's normal to have sex before marriage.”
One pharmacist in Beirut, who asked to remain anonymous, believes that though it's a more open city – where “people always go to the extremes” – there is still a significant chunk of society who are uncomfortable addressing sex.
“[Yalla Condoms] will help, but it won’t change the problem," he says. "It’s the old-school mentality. It will really help with preventing STDs and infections, but you won’t cure this problem of character."
But until things change drastically, Hobeika and Tabet are cornering the market. And the appeal lies in the simplicity; the website, yallacondoms.com, is minimalist, and offers 14 different types of Durex condoms, 12 from Pasante and an accessories section that includes a pregnancy test, delay creams, vibrating rings and even wobbly pink and transparent snake-like condom enhancers.
According to Hobeika, most of the feedback so far has been positive. Tabat adds that some of the emails they have had since launching show that there's not only a need for their service, but that there are also people looking for guidance. They don’t ask their parents or their pharmacist for help, but they are asking Yalla Condoms – sometimes even on their live chat.
“First of all, I want to say thanks for this amazing idea. I support it," said one email. "I have a question. If I want to have sex with my girlfriend, what is the best condom I can buy? I need your help because I’m not expert in this kind of work. Thanks, best wishes."
The majority of the messages they've received have also asked that the founders diversify their merchandise even more; along with pregnancy tests, people have expressed their desire to be able to order sex toys and the morning-after pill. But because of regulations and laws, they won’t be selling either any time soon. Sex toys are illegal in Lebanon, and the morning-after pill is something they can’t currently get involved with.
Robert Tabet in the Yalla office
“We started by going to all of the pharmacies and grocery stores to see what they had on their shelves. If the product is being sold next to the cashier, we can [sell it], too," Hobeika laughs. "The first thing is that no one is really doing this, so there’s no benchmark. Can we do it? Can we not do it? How far can we push it?”
Every order comes in an unmarked package within 48 hours and is cash on delivery. The two were surprised that the majority of the approximately 30 orders they have filled so far have been from outside of Beirut, from villages in the south, Bekaa Valley in the east and outside Byblos, a city in the north of the country. They believe this is due to the fact that, in villages, there are a limited number of pharmacies, and they're usually run by someone the customer knows.
For the founders of Yalla Condoms, the mission isn't just to make money, or make it less awkward to buy condoms, but also to raise awareness about sexual health. The pair are planning to set up partnerships with initiatives and non-governmental organisations, and to use returns they get on their investment for charity work related to sex education and disease prevention.
It’s clear that, soon enough, Hobeika and Tabet will no longer have to roam Beirut's pharmacies, desperately trying to find the popular Love Light "techno sex" condoms that are constantly out of stock. Distributors are already knocking on their door, and a few new brands will be on the website in the coming days.
Though many initiatives and trends in Lebanon go viral and disappear quickly, Yalla Condoms is confident they have the brains, business-savvy and the market need to stick around for a while.
“It’s a way to have fun, be safe, make some money, bring awareness, overcome taboos,” Hobeika says, before Tabet adds, “Plus, I don’t know if you know the feeling of being the first to do something – that’s a great feeling, to be innovators.”