“My new social environment in Beirut demanded that I be more feminine-looking. It demanded that girls look like girls and boys like boys. It demanded that I style my hair weekly at the hairdresser. Adorn my fingernails with bright polish. Speak softly and giggle often. Wear clothes that hugged my body, to show off my childbearing hips. No one knew how to deal with my tomboyish personality. My aunt would sigh every time I walked in with dirty sandals. My grandmother would shrug her shoulders when she saw me in torn-up jeans. And my cousins believed I was a hopeless case and that no one would ever marry me. How could anyone marry someone who only wore white baggy T-shirts?” – Zeina el Khalil (Beirut, I Love You)
A few weeks ago, I read this paragraph in Beirut, I Love You, and started cracking up. I had to write it down. I could relate to every single word. And here I was thinking that I was the only one thrown by the stark contrast between the ultra feminine and ultra masculine looks women and men sport here in Beirut. How arrogant and naïve of me. A whole series of conversations with my ex-pat and Lebanese friends followed as we all bonded over our recognition of this cultural trend.
Take my Arabic teacher for example. Nadia would come to class every day with her hair perfectly crimped, curled or straightened, an adorable, color-coordinated outfit, matching heels (almost always adorned with sparkling jewels or sequins). Even her eye shadow and nail polish would be colored to match her blouse. It was amazing. She looked like she’d just stepped out of a teen magazine.
And then I would enter. Panting and sweaty, 20 minutes late. Wrinkled clothes that I had worn the day before. Tangled hair, sloppily pulled back into a twisted bun, with long, curly wisps sticking out from all sides of my head, making me look a bit insane. What little makeup I’d hurridly painted on, visibly melting off. Yeah guys, I’m a catch 😉
Once, just as I was walking in the room at 9:20, Nadia, glancing at the clock on the wall, asked me playfully, “Colette, ayya seeya fiati leeom?” (Colette, what time did you wake up today?)
Me: Ummm…Seeya tmanee wah khumsah… (Ummm…9:05…)
Nadia: (looking completely perplexed) Shou??? (What???)
Me: (More assuredly) Seeya tmanee wah khumsah.
Nadia: (staring at me blankly) …
Me: (whispering to Omar, my friend and classmate) Wait, did I not say that correctly??
Omar: (also whispering) No, no. Your Arabic is fine. Colette, she doesn’t understand how a girl could get dressed and to class in only 15 minutes.
Me: Oh. Can’t she tell just by looking at me?
Omar: (Laughing) Habibti, I think she’s processing that now.
So yeah, I don’t fit the stereotype of the typical Lebanese girl. In case I hadn’t already made that clear.
In my experience, at least in the States and even in Spain, little things like shoes that match your dress or newly manicured nails are things that girls notice, not guys. But here in Beirut, guys comment if you don’t have your hair done just so or your outfit perfectly accessorized. They’re not necessarily insulting about it, more often than not, they just want to know why. Why don’t you care about your hair? Why do you have dirt under your fingernails?? You should take better care of yourself!
And in an appearance obsessed, knife happy culture where nose jobs are the norm, I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised by the fact that letting a little thing like my hair or nails go untended, sparks curiosity. Okay okay, I’m exaggerating a bit – of course not everyone is so appearance obsessed, but there is a large trend towards this among women here. Enough so, that it’s made me a bit self-conscious to the point that I’ve become hyper-aware of other women’s style and my obvious lack of it.
So, today I decided to give in a bit and treat myself to a manicure and a pedicure. All of my friends here in Hamra frequent one particular beauty salon called Cherry. It’s right in front of the lower gate of Lebanese American University (LAU), near the intersection with Sadat Street, just in case you’re wondering.
When I sat down with my manicurist, before I’d even spoken a single word, she glanced at my hands and looked up at me and said, “Habibti, you’re not Lebanese. Where are you from?”
Me: I’m from California. But, my Mom’s Lebanese! I just moved here.
Manicurist: Ha! I knew it! You look Lebanese, but you don’t have Lebanese nails.
Wait. What? Lebanese nails?
And it continued.
Manicurist: (as she was cutting my cuticles and doing all that stuff that manicurists do) Yeeeee! Hiyati! Do you see this?? (Holding up a napkin holding all the crud she’d cut off and dug out from underneath my fingernails) When was the last time you did your nails?? And they’re kteer short! So short! Do you bite them?? Ya haram. Hiyati you shouldn’t do that!
Me: (Mixture of laughter at the absurdity of the conversation and blushing from embarrassment) I’m sorry! I don’t take care of them like I should, thank you for helping me.
Oh, and then we moved onto my feet. I had a French manicure on my fingers and I asked if she could paint my toes red.
Manicurist: (clicking her tongue on the top of her mouth and raising her chin slightly – a gesture that means ‘No’) La! Habibti, I can’t! Your nails have to match.
Me: (smiling) Oh, that’s okay, I don’t care if they match. I think red would be fun!
Manicurist: Habibti you have to care! You’re in Lebanon! I can’t paint them different colors! I can’t.
Me: Um…okay. French toes it is then!
Manicurist: Yeeeeeeeee! Look at your feet! They’re worse than your hands! So dirty! And your nails! Yeeee! Hiyati, promise me you’ll come back soon?
Woman sitting next to me: Habibti, you look Lebanese. I thought you were Lebanese…but you don’t speak Arabic and you don’t have Lebanese nails…
Manicurist: (to the woman, as she (the manicurist) spent 10 minutes PER TOE, scrubbing, clipping, painting and perfecting) La (no), she’s American, but her mother is Lebanese. (Winking at me) we’ll fix the nails and she’ll learn Arabic.
Woman: Yes! You have to learn, an- yeeee! Look at your feet! So dirty!
I have to admit though, that my nails do look beautiful and very clean. And for only $15, it’s not a bad deal. So maybe I’ll embrace my inner Lebanese beauty queen and get my nails done every so often. Cause come on, if I don’t speak Arabic and have Lebanese nails, no one will believe that I’m really Lebanese ;).