For much of its contemporary history, Beirut has been characterised as the Paris of the Middle East, a cosmopolitan metropolis that misfortune has placed in the middle of a region otherwise hostile to the civilised pleasures of material excess, free-flowing alcohol and exposed female skin.
Of course, Beirut’s Parisian charm has tended to become less apparent during periods of mass sectarian slaughter. In the introduction to his seminal text Orientalism, the late Edward Said notes repercussions of civil conflict in Lebanon on the European consciousness:
“On a visit to Beirut during the terrible civil war of 1975-1976 a French journalist wrote regretfully of the gutted downtown area that ‘it had once seemed to belong to … the Orient of [18th- and 19th-century French Romantic writers] Chateaubriand and Nerval’. He was right about the place, of course, especially so far as a European was concerned. The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.”
The civil war may indeed have upset a regional landscape constructed over time by European scholars, poets, travellers and other self-appointed authorities, who, as Said argues, helped institutionalise Eurocentric prejudice, deny agency to the actual inhabitants of the romanticised exotic lands and thus facilitate imperial and colonial conquest.
The civil war did not, however, halt Orientalist traditions – something that was made quite clear in manuscripts like From Beirut to Jerusalem, unleashed to wide acclaim in 1989 by former New York Times Beirut bureau chief Thomas Friedman.
According to Friedman’s account, civil war-era Lebanon was populated by “buxom, Cleopatra-eyed Lebanese girls”, whose presence threw invading Israeli soldiers for a loop: “This was not the Sinai, filled with cross-eyed Bedouins and shoeless Egyptian soldiers”. That such caricatures were permitted to pass as insight exposes the delusional nature of Friedman’s subsequent complaint that “a toxic political correctness infected the academic field of Middle Eastern studies”.
In recent years, meanwhile, Beirut has reclaimed its image as the Paris of the Middle East, outfitted with expanded shopping opportunities and a spiffy new downtown erected on the former dividing line between the Muslim and Christian halves of the city.
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The New York Times has dutifully taken on the role of PR firm for the resurgent Lebanese capital, advertising it as number 1 out of 44 ideal travel destinations in 2009. A spate of Times articles about Beirut’s various amenities offers such trivia as that “[i]n a city of many faiths – Christian, Sunni, Shia, Druze – at least one religion is universally practiced: sun worship”.
Given that the specified temples of worship are high-end beach clubs where “hordes of heliophiles absorb ultraviolet rays and cultivate their bronzed exteriors”, it would seem that said religion is not so universal after all – either from an economic perspective or one that recognises the incompatibility of certain prominent faiths with public bronzed exterior cultivation.
On the new Zaitunay Bay waterfront promenade, meanwhile, a “luxury playground” where “[t]ablecloths gleam white and bottles of wine sweat in silver coolers”, the Times observes that the boardwalk planks, “a nod to maritime authenticity, present a design flaw perhaps foreseeable in this city: Women with Louis Vuitton handbags are forever extracting their spike heels from the cracks”.
Additional sights at Zaitunay Bay, itself described as “Lebanon’s latest effort to recapture the prewar 1960s – when Brigitte Bardot was a regular and Beirut was a fashionable port of call”, include an Iraqi immigrant in “leather miniskirt, thigh-high boots and a fur vest” whose “fire-engine-red lipstick and long yellow hair” would have appeared out of place in her native land but “were right at home in Beirut”.
In other Beirut-centric dispatches, the Times raves about gay nightlife and restaurants offering beef and duck flown in from France.
The point of taking issue with such idealised odes to money and fashion is not to deny the affluence that exists in the city or the comparatively liberal nature of its society. However, the marketing of a Beirut brand of “joie de vivre” that is so blatantly equated with material wealth becomes morally problematic when we acknowledge the glaring economic disparity in the country, visible in the capital itself.
Consider, for example, the aesthetic differences between the refurbished downtown and the overcrowded and neglected Palestinian refugee camps and primarily Shia southern suburbs, where recent infrastructure projects have included the rampant flattening of apartment blocks by the Israeli air force in 2006.
Needless to say, less sanitary aspects of life in Lebanon – such as the enslaved status of many migrants employed in the domestic help sector – have no place in the portrait of Beirut as a paradise of wealth, where tantalising opportunities await foreign visitors and their pocket-books.
Cleopatra on botox
Three decades after Thomas Friedman discovered buxom Cleopatras in Lebanon, another Western voyager by the name of David J Constable has confirmed that the women still “look like Cleopatra”, and that they have acquired new methods for enhancing their appearances – becoming in the process veritable ambulatory showcases for “tucks, lifts, firming, lipo, implants, grafting, tightening, otoplasty, mammoplasty, rhinoplasty and many other physical manipulations”.
A member of the Royal Geographical Society, Constable approaches his anthropological subjects with Orientalist vigour, compiling his findings in a Huffington Post report entitled “Boobs, Botox, and the Babes of Beirut“. His dispatch begins with the curious hypothesis:
“For a largely Arab country it’s a bizarre thing that in Lebanon (Beirut specifically), women care more about their appearance than men. Males lead a rather sullied existence, priming their closely cut mini-beards and, from my own observations, eating rather a lot. The formula in Lebanon’s capital for women is fashion-forward, from their choice of cloth to the decisions they make surgically.”
Non-experts on Arab grooming habits might of course be surprised to deduce that men usually spend hours preening in front of the mirror while women mope about in filth. Undeterred, Constable bumbles on: “Muslim, Christian and Druze women in Beirut dress surprisingly skimpy. There are vests and silks and bikinis and cashmere and come-hither off-the-shoulder numbers.”
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Indeed, the Israelis were presumably just as pleased as they’d been in 1982 – when they discovered that not all Arabs were cross-eyed Bedouins – to find the Lebanon of 2006 inhabited by bikini-clad plastic surgery recipients (and their slovenly overeating menfolk).
Constable warns, however, of occasional inauspicious outcomes among operated females: “Some look as if a drunken Picasso has drawn a face on to a balloon”. In the very least, Picasso’s inebriated doodles attest to the European role in literally shaping the Orient.
The Orient’s existence as a spectacle for the Westerner to behold and interpret is meanwhile made especially clear during Constable’s expedition to a nightclub “to witness the dolls and their dates myself”. A power outage interrupts the exotic display but is fortunately resolved:
“The lights slowly raise and the permafixed smiles return. The waxed, toned limbs of party women begin to pop and gyrate again. They’re back on show, electrified so their surgical enhancements, botoxed-brows and designer names can bounce off my eyes, competing in a variety of silk-cut blouses, Louboutin heels and over-night handbags.”
At another rooftop bar, Constable surmises that “[t]here are benefits to marrying/dating/having sex with a plastic surgeon”, since “surely no one can afford to spend that much of their own cash on reconstructive surgery and blow-me-up operations”. Case closed.
As with the New York Times‘ fixation with Beirut glamour, the effect of essays like Constable’s is to reduce the Lebanese to a superficial existence in which personal concerns are limited to inflating one’s lips and breasts and not getting one’s designer heels stuck in boardwalk planks.
Never mind that many Lebanese are faced with more pressing preoccupations, such as a southern neighbour with a penchant for massacring civilians, upending infrastructure and saturating portions of the country with unexploded cluster bombs to serve as post-conflict population control.
Some may argue that the Times-Constable approach is less detrimental than other reductionist portrayals of the country, such as Lebanon equals terrorist den, which helps propagate an ethnic stereotype that has been exploited to justify more than one imperial project in the Arab/Muslim world.
However, the representation of Beirut as a Middle Eastern Paris brimming with wealth and cleavage – in other words, a place the West can relate to on account of its fervent materialism – can also function on behalf of imperialism, eliminating as it does all context legitimising other aspects of Lebanon’s identity, like resistance to Israeli regional designs.
Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog, Al Akhbar English and many other publications.