“Look at those tight pants, the eye makeup, and long curly hair!” My husband, Bishara, could hardly contain himself as we walked along the wide and well-traveled corridor of the main wing of King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh. “She must be Lebanese,” he continued. Although decidedly less observant than my husband, I angled my eyes in the young woman’s direction and nodded my head, “Yes, she really does look Lebanese.” Because I knew he just had to know, I mumbled under my breath, “Let’s go find out!” We picked up our pace and were soon alongside the young woman, and her two companions. “Hello,” I started, “we saw you walking with your friends and had the feeling you might be Lebanese.” The woman idled towards me, looked me directly in the eyes, and with a hint of exasperation disclosed, “Yes, I’m Saudi on my father’s side, and Lebanese on my mother’s side. How did you know?”Bishara’s brow wrinkled ever so slightly. A native Lebanese, himself, Bishara definitely knew the “Lebanese look.” However, this was a curious fusion of lineages; one side representing the traditional Arab world where women are required to wear abayes and headscarves, and the other characterized by a more contemporary lifestyle shaped by western influences. Although the flying time between Riyadh and Beirut is only two and a half hours, the proximity of these two capital cities belies unusually disparate ways of life and customs.
My husband and I had lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia as expatriates for several years (from 2000 to 2004), and while I was the one who felt compelled to explore this enigmatic land and was rewarded with a phenomenal and life-changing experience, it became apparent the Kingdom was the most conservative of the more traditional Gulf nations. Although the unwritten dress code on the King Faisal Specialist Hospital (KFSH) grounds (where I worked as an Economist and Bishara as a Civil Engineer), and in the Diplomatic Quarter, where many of the embassies were located, and where we lived, was somewhat more relaxed for females due to the large numbers of western expatriates, Saudi women were expected to be arrayed in a black abaye, including a face covering, niqab, when in public. Women, in general, were prohibited from driving in Saudi Arabia, and limited to employment in three sectors – academia, hospitals, and banks.
Conversely, in the nearby cosmopolitan city of Beirut, women sport perfectly coiffed hair, fully made-up faces, and pricey nose jobs. I was definitely taken aback on a visit to Lebanon in 1996, my first trip to the Middle East, when I saw an amalgam of women on the streets of Beirut with colorful headscarves or no headscarves, tight jeans, designer handbags and shoes, erect postures, and determined gaits. Cafes overlooking the azure Mediterranean Sea were brimming with women, some with male companions and others in collections, many in oversized sunglasses sipping Turkish coffee, chattering, and people watching. Sheesha, prevalent in Beirut seaside cafes, is often the diversion of choice on weekends and in the evenings, with women going toe-to-toe with their male counterparts on mustering the largest smoke rings.
And Lebanese women may be found in all sectors of employment, from the service sector and retail arena, to the armed forces. There seem to be no limits for Lebanese women, who are nothing if not bold and direct. In the early 2000s, Bishara and I were having breakfast in a sweet little café on the outskirts of Beirut, and I had special ordered my favorite – a western omelet, a little known breakfast selection in Bishara’s native country. As I savored my omelet, I noticed a group of women at a nearby table shooting sideways glances at Bishara and me from time to time, not an uncommon occurrence, as Lebanese women tend to be a very curious lot with a tendency towards flirtation. When the women, each immaculately dressed and dripping with confidence, paid their check and got up to leave, they sashayed right up to me and just inches away, peered unabashedly at my eggs soaked in bacon, onion, and green pepper as I moved my forkfuls from plate to mouth. Although I had become conditioned to the audacious ways of Lebanese women having traveled with Bishara to his homeland on many occasions, I was startled by how very upfront and personal these women were being. “Here would you like a taste,” just sort of slipped out, as I lifted my fork filled with omelet in their direction. “Oh, no, thank you!” came the swift response, as the women scurried out of the restaurant on their Louboutin heels.
The confidence and fashion forward nature of Lebanese women is strongly influenced by the inundation of western Europeans into Lebanon in the 1960s and early 1970s for fun-filled holidays; mountain skiing in the winters, and summer days spent lazing by the Mediterranean Sea and shopping, with evenings spent partying at trendy nightclubs. Before the civil war in the mid-70s, Lebanon was known as the “Switzerland of the East,” and Beirut as the “Paris of the Middle East.”
Lebanese women not only want to look their best, but often feel compelled to help others do the same. On the trip Bishara and I took to Lebanon in 1996, after a prerequisite feast of grape leaves, molkhia, bamieh, kibbe, moutabel, and falafel, Bishara’s sisters and a couple of neighbor ladies were kind enough to offer to style my hair. Having coarse and generally unmanageable hair, I jumped at the opportunity. After washing my hair, I was seated in front of a mirror in one of the bedrooms in Bishara’s old family residence, and out came the hairdryers, hair straighteners, hairsprays, and mousse. Like professional salon hairstylists, the women effortlessly dried, straightened, fluffed, moussed, and finished off their creation with a heavy mist of hair spray.
Since our plan for later that night was to have an evening out at an exclusive mountain-side restaurant outside of Beirut that featured belly dancing, my styling team decided my new look would not be complete without a heavy dose of eyeliner to create “Cleopatra eyes” with multi-colored eye shadows applied to achieve the ultimate effect. I had never worn so much makeup in my life, but I had to draw the line when I heard whispers of plucking and shaping my eyebrows – I had always prided myself in maintaining a more “natural look.” And, of course, my choice of attire was not immune from evaluation and enhancement. The ladies chose the shortest skirt I had packed, a white flouncy blouse under a black jacket, and a sparkly black and gold scarf. Like my eyebrows, I would not negotiate on the shoes – no spiked heels.
So, there I was in the middle of the mountainside restaurant, feeling out of place, completely outside my “comfort zone,” yet somehow satisfied (based on Bishara’s reaction) having affected “the Lebanese look.”