miércoles, 16 de marzo de 2011

Fitness in Lebanon

There is something that continues to blow my mind in Lebanon, even after 8 months of being here: people's obsession about their appearance.

I mean, I have never seen women (and some men) more done up in my entire life. Let me explain a bit more.

When I go out to the supermarket, I usually wear jeans and a T-shirt (especially on Sundays!), and find myself not only under-dressed but also under-makeuped.

When I get in the elevator, I can forget about my perfume, since all I will be able to smell for the next hour is the perfume of the woman or man who was there before me.

When I go get my nails done at this beauty salon, I need to have a 10 minute discussion with the girl who works there explaining why I a) don't use acrylic nails, b) don't want to bleach my arms' hair (sorry for the visual there) and c) only come every other week. O a side note, it seems like 9 times out of 10, there are men getting their nails done at the beauty salon as well.

In downtown Beirut, you can find pretty much every big fashion brand, and the most expensive ones. If you go to the mall, all girls are wearing at least 9- inch heels. And if you go to a club, forget it, it is a freaking fashion show.

Please don't get me wrong, I am someone who loves make up and cool clothes. I have walked the streets of Paris, London and New York. I like fashion, and actually follow it up a bit. But style in Lebanon is far beyond anything I have seen.

I think we are all fashion victims to a certain extent (even those who say they aren't because they are obsessed with not looking like they're fashion victims). We are after all bombarded constantly by advertisements, and taught on TV, magazines and movies what looks cool and what is out.

But in this day and age looks, go actually beyond clothes, as it includes-especially in Lebanon- the way a body should look like.

To be fair, I believe that every woman in the world (and I think now more and more men) has experienced the pressure, the need or the desire to be "fit". It is common knowledge that to be "fit" is equated to be thin, healthy, athletic or just look good.

But, if you think about it, the word "fitness" actually means "the quality of being suitable". So in this context, far from coming from a desire of being healthy, when we talk about being "fit" , we are actually concerned about our ability of being adequate, suitable, or up to standard.

Suitable for what? you might ask yourself.

Lebanon is the country with more plastic surgery in the world. Some even say that one out of 3 women have gone "under the knife" in Lebanon. It actually has 1 million and a half interventions a year, seven times the rate in France! And in Lebanon there is actually something called "Plastic surgery tours". In some Gulf countries plastic surgery is considered taboo, so people come to Lebanon to get the procedure done. Europeans often come too, since Lebanese surgeons are professional and cheaper.

But why Lebanon though?

According to some, the plastic surgery boom came after the civil war, when people were disfigured. Also, since there were more women than men, women became obsessed with their looks to find suitable husbands. Another theory is at since unemployment is high, looks have become an important criterion to raise the chances of getting recruited.

But what actually surprises me the most is that I actually think that Lebanese are very attractive already. So I just don't understand where this need to look a certain way comes from.
I wonder if it comes from the fact that the Lebanese seem to be living only for the "now", as the future is so uncertain in this country. Or maybe this comes from a nostalgic idea of things needing to look a certain way, to compensate for what has been lost... Who knows.

The one thing I know is that my "expat" colleagues and I oftentimes that we are getting our hair and nails done more often here than ever in our entire life. But the reality is that no matter what we do, we will never look Lebanese. For good or bad. It's just too much work.

martes, 15 de marzo de 2011

I'll just tell you who you are

In Mexico we have this expression: "Tell me who your friends are, I will tell you who you are" (boy, did my mother repeat that one over my teenage years!). This, obviously, comes from the popular assumption that people who are alike hang out together.

In Lebanon, this assumption goes beyond socializing, since here every little detail about you lets people know who you are.

A note for fairness: when someone tells you in Mexico where s/he comes from, you can deduct some basic things about that person, especially if s/he comes from the capital (like s/he is an arrogant or impatient a@@).

However,the mere fact of a Lebanese telling people what region or village his family is from, people in Lebanon will immediately assume they know everything there is to know about that person.

In a way, this makes sense historically, as some groups- like the Druze, have lived traditionally in a specific area (the Chouf Mountains, I understand). I want to caution that this is not, by the way, an anthropological analysis of human settlements in Lebanon. What I mean by this post is that group identification in Lebanon is extreme.

Since I just got here, I have been surprised by the assumptions people make of one another, even when they don't know each other very well. When people mention the name of their village, others assume they know their religion, their income, their politics, their education and even which language they speak. I came across an interesting blog written by a Lebanese, who says that even the colors you wear indicate your political affiliation.

On a funny note: I was offered work recently as a house maid on the street, because of the way I look. When I asked the guy where he thought I was from, he told me "You're Philipino". He was completely surprised (and as a matter of fact speechless) when I told him I wasn't.

As a foreigner, I often receive advice from well-intentioned Lebanese (who I am sure are looking for my best interests) not to hang out with people from such and such area or such and such religion. So if I follow this advice, I don't even need to know anything about people, to be able to say who they are. This completely undermines my networking possibilities!

I find this whole affair arrogant , and also very short sighted. How can you really know who someone is by a mere superficial assessment? As a matter of fact, I didn't like some of my best friends the first time I met them!

So... Let's give each other a chance and allow ourselves the opportunity to be positively surprised by one another.

viernes, 4 de marzo de 2011

Private vs. Public

I know I have already written about how hospitable the Lebanese can be. I wanted to focus this time on something that really struck me the other day.

I work in an office with about 400 people. Last week, there was a guy who was walking office by office with a huge box of chocolates.
I personally didn't know the guy, and to my surprise, he came beaming into my office to offer me a chocolate and tell me his wife just had a baby.

I was absolutely moved by the gesture, since a) I had never seen anything like this before and b) I realized what a wonderful custom this is, to let your whole community know about this happy event and about how happy you are.

In Mexico, to the contrary of what many would think, we are actually very private about our personal matters. It is hard to explain, since we are very social at the same time. But I dare say that we do not talk about the really personal stuff in public. There is a huge emphasis on "being appropriate" and saying something that would be shameful for you or your family is an absolute no-no.

And after living in New England (North East of the US), forget it. I am just used to keep conversations, especially at work on a rather superficial level, unless I have a colleague with whom I feel more at ease, and I open up.

What became very clear to me in Lebanon is that people talk about everything. Even with strangers. Some of my friends complain that this is just to nosy, that people shouldn't inquire about every detail of your life. But I just find it fascinating.

Let me give you an example: I enter the elevator in my office, and a woman is in there. I smile politely and then stare at the ceiling (I hate awkward elevator silence).
The woman asks me: are you new? And I go, no, I have been here for 6 months. And then she goes, where do you work (which unit), where do you live, are you married, you got any kids?

Or I am talking to a Lebanese person and he asks me how much my rent is, if my husband is happy, if I have gained weight since last time we saw each other... I mean, things that a Mexican would never ask.

I must say at the beginning, this made me very uncomfortable. I would just lie or change the subject. But I have now realized that behind this superficial "small talk" that I have been accustomed to my whole life is a huge fear of being known (and judged). So I talk about the little things, so the other doesn't have too much information (and can't use it against me).

Maybe the fact that I come from a city with over 20 million people makes me just naturally distrusting. Maybe my culture doesn't allow me to be vulnerable in public. Or maybe this is just a personality trait. The bottom line is that I find this Lebanese nosiness completely disarming. It makes me open up. Tell people who I am. And people look genuinely interested about me when they ask all these questions.

I don't know if as a stranger in this land I crave this type of familiarity and intimacy with people. But I must say that it has allowed me to develop more meaningful relationships around me. People in Lebanon are just friendly. For whatever reason, they just want to know.