Lebanon: On Hair, War, and Make Up

March 9, 2009

I shifted uncomfortably in my chair and glanced nervously over my right shoulder. There was no one there but I smiled anyway and nodded to the thin air. The ballroom was packed. My father and I were at a New Year’s eve/Christmas party in Jouniyeh, Lebanon, invited by one of my father’s doctor friends. Of course it was the 27th of December so, technically, it was neither New Year’s nor Christmas, but no seemed to care so I didn’t worry too much about it.

Under the table and away from the eyes of incurious onlookers, I tugged at my black-and-white striped cocktail dress in an attempt to lessen my discomfort. I don’t do dresses. My dad bought that one for me on an earlier trip of his and insisted that I wear it that evening for the party, even though it was freezing cold and, if the dress covered anything, it was my thighs leaving shanks, arms, and shoulders to the whims of a most surly cold. The worst part was that I went and realized, to my horror, that I was seriously overdressed – I believe I was the only one in a dress. All of a sudden I was very conscious of my arms, back and chest. For the rest of the night, my various attempts at maintaining a low profile failed miserably. My braces and bushy hair were of little to no help. I was clearly an odd-Dina-out.

***

An hour or so earlier, as doctors and commoners socialized in groups of two and three, I sat on a sofa with the buzz of surrounding chitchat occasionally interrupting my lethargic trance. We were all at the reception awaiting the opening of the ballroom.

“Yassin Mohamed”, I heard some bald twenty-something-year-old say as he shook my father’s hand and introduced himself. (Note: the person’s name may or may not be that mentioned. I forget what it was and put down the next best thing). A few minutes later the conversation picked up on a thread that snapped me out of my daze.

“Of course. Next time you come to Egypt, I’ll be more than happy to help you out. You can come train at my clinic or at the hospital”, my father said. He was one of the acclaimed opthalmologists in Egypt and in the region and the young man was seeking him out for advice.

“Thank you. I’m planning on going to Egypt soon inshallah. Just waiting for my visa”.

“but you don’t need a visa to get into Egypt. I mean you can just buy it at the airport”.

“I’m Palestinian”. The five or six men standing in the group nodded and shifted uncomfortably. A moment’s awkwardness and then Gaza came up.

The 27th of December 2008 was our second day in Lebanon. It was also the day Israel launched an attack on Gaza.

***

That same morning my father and I were strolling down the newly renovated Negmah Square at the heart of Beirut before we decided to sit down for a cup of coffee at one of the many outdoor cafes.We were discussing the philosophy of colors and religion when the cafe’s television read “Breaking News: Israeli attack on Gaza”.

We looked, we frowned, we sighed, and we eventually turned our backs to the TV.

We walked for several more hours and by the time we got back to our hotel, right off Hamra street, word about Gaza had already spread. Two minutes later we were in our room glued to to the TV.

***

Why was I in Lebanon in the first place could probably be traced back to several reason. But mainly it was because of a particular history professor and a Modern Middle East history course I took with her last semester. I got to study Lebanon for the first time and was very much hooked to its peculiar politics. Besides, I have never been to an Arab country and have never traveled abroad on my own and have been trying to talk my parents into doing both during the winter break.

Throughout our stay, my father and I quickly verified one stereotype: in Lebanon, anyone who’s anyone talks politics. You get into a cab and the driver promptly flashes you with his AP press ID from some twenty or thirty years ago and starts reciting his own version of what Lebanese politics is and is not. You walk into a shop to buy your grandmother a souvenir and the same thing happens. Commissionaires, doctors, waiters, and housewives…Everyone talked politics. It thus follows that, for the rest of our visit, not a single conversation was to exclude politics and, by implication, Gaza.

***

After the news on Gaza that morning, I no longer felt like going to the party I was so psyched about earlier. I felt it would be too much hypocrisy than a person could (or should) handle to be somberly following war news one minute and slipping into a cocktail dress the other. But the end I did go.

As I sat there sulking over my unfortunate attire for the evening and trying to ward off an overwhelming feeling of guilt, a reference to Palestine quite naturally caught my attention. They talked a bit and batted opinions amongst themselves until we were all, finally, ushered into the ballroom.

Inside I could more easily scrutinize the people for the lighting was dimmer and rather quickly cigarette smoke swirled around adding to the flurry. I’m covered, I thought. The party kicked off with a Louis Armstrong sound-a-like singing a personal favorite – The Way You Look Tonight. Two seconds later everyone seemed to have gotten The Music in Them as people started swaying in their seats. Wine glasses were filled and refilled, watches gleamed, diamonds glistened, men eyed women with subtle interest while women eyed other women measuring their snazziness. It all seemed very surreal and I wondered how Yassin must be feeling and started looking around for him. I expected him to be wallowing in some corner lamenting the horrors that his country was going through. Instead I caught him flirting with a voluptuous someone, with a rather handsome young man chuckling beside him.

That young man was later on to be introduced to me as a Youssef al-Harriri. It turns out he was in fact a relative of the recently assassinated Sunni Prime Minister Rafiq a-Harriri, except he was part of the Shi’a branch of the family. Lebanon has been ravished by a 15-year long civil war and Rafiq al-Harriri was the PM responsible for its renovation. Everyone I talked to, save one Maronite couple from the South, idealized Harriri and what he’s done for the country. Youssef attempted to illustrate to me and my dad where he fitted in the Harriri family tree. Sadly he lost me about four seconds into the conversation. In my defense, it was very loud, he had a a quirky Lebanese accent, and it was um a complex topic (the kind that would require me stopping him every other word demanding a clarification).

When he was done I had nothing but a vapid smile and a penitent nod to offer.

An hour into the party, I caught him jumping up and down on the dance floor, with a girl on each side. Nasserallah would be horrified, I thought.

I sat at my table staring at my hors d’oeuvres. Here I was a twenty-year-old Egyptian sitting in a fancy dress at some ritzy ballroom at the top of Jouniyeh mountain making muted judgments about the Lebanese. I was expecting the Palestinian to be wallowing, perhaps even hoping that he would be, so that he could fit my well-studied construct of a Palestinian refugee living in Lebanon. I was expecting the Shi’a to be bearded, rugged, possibly wearing a turban. And the Lebanese. Here they were dancing and drinking and its only been two years since the Talmuz war. You can see the war’s scar on the bullet-ragged buildings scattered all over Beirut, but not on them.

I looked up and scanned the room again.

At one corner, a man was squeezing his wife’s hand. Another was whispering something in his fiance’s ear that left her with a broad smile and him with a thank-you peck. One minute Youssef wore a serious look as he conversed with an older gentlemen, the other, he was chortling on the dance floor. One man was eating, the other was yawning. One woman was readjusting her hairpin while another stared into oblivion.

I realized that I wasn’t so much making judgments as much as I was trying to fit the people I met into the roles created for them in my school books and classes: Maronites, Shi’ia, Sunni, Druze, refugees. I was still caught up in my Cleveland book and my research paper on Lebanon. If I learned anything from my seven-day trip to Lebanon, it’s that nothing trumpets first-hand experience. School provides us with the necessary basis that we are, in turn, obligated to deconstruct.

Driving down the mountain back to our hotel, I made a mental note to come up with one sentence that would sum up how I perceived Lebanon by the end of my seven-day visit. Hair, war, and make up, I believe, is what I ended up with.

2 Responses to “Lebanon: On Hair, War, and Make Up”

  1. sara said

    I’m assuming the history class you’re referencing is that of history 356 with Keaney, I’m taking that class this semester!Back to your blog, I love that you set the scene with the ballroom party, wandered away from it, and then again concluded with it. It was a really clever way to lure a reader in with the appearance of a perhaps shallow blog about a party, only to then present your thoughts about the reality of war-torn countries and the people that inhabit them. With that said, it was a very well balanced article in that you did give me something to think about, but you also kept things light with all the references to the what music was being played and so forth.I found what you said about school giving us a necessary basis that we are obliged to deconstruct very interesting. However, from reading your blog I did feel like the individuals you described might be from a more upper class or elitist part of society, which leads me to question whether they are a good representation of how all Lebanese or Palestinians feel about the conflict they have faced. Would those who do not have the good fortune at this time to escape Palestine be able to behave so light-heartedly as one safe in Lebanon? Is this particular man an ideal representation of a fuller reality? With that said, I fully agree that school gives us a good understanding of the world around us, but that it can also give us misconceptions about the people we study and that first hand experience really is something else.O, and as a last note, I love your title, and I really liked the fact that the blog as a whole is basically an explanation for how you came up with it. Many neat twists and turns, keep it up!🙂

  2. Dina,I really like the way this piece captures, without pretensions, some of the complexities of the Beirut situation–the voice in the piece makes a great “outside observer” and you do a great job of moving smoothly back and forth between describing the scene and filtering/reflecting on your impressions. I appreciate also the courage and cleverness with which you represent the perspective of the naive observer and his/her assumptions.Have you read any of Robert Fisk’s writings on Beruit?–he’s writing, of course, form the “informed” journalistic perspective, but he does a great hjob of capturing the contradictions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: