Archive | June, 2011

Sex, but no sex.

Pick a street in Beirut. Any street. Look in front of you, behind you, above you. Chances are, within your line of sight, there is an ad for some form of physical enhancement, a woman who looks like a cross between Najwa Karam, a disco ball and a Czech pornstar and a guy who has consumed enough steroids to make Schwarzy look like a girly man whistling at her. This unholy trinity of visual queasiness is starting to get very annoying.

I am by no means conservative when it comes to social mores. I’m a Godless libertarian. But the socio-visual landscape in Beirut is becoming repugnant. I actually wouldn’t mind it if everyone was actually bumping uglies, but it’s the blatant hypocrisy of it all. Our society has become hypersexualized, with a distinct lack of actual sex.

Let me explain. I don’t mean no one is having sex, obviously. I mean, Beirut is one of the rare cities I’ve seen where they sell every kind of Durex condom under the sun at the Duty Free checkout counter at the Airport. You know, in case you’re thinking of joining the Mile High Club and you haven’t planned ahead. What I’m saying is that if you walk into a club in the UK, your chances of leaving with someone and getting up to no good are about 70%* (*highly unscientific guess). Your chances in Beirut, where I would say everyone is dressed and acting about the same, is 15% (*again, highly unscientific guess).

There is something misleading about the way we function. Everyone is always dressed up to the nines. Everything is enhanced. Breasts are augmented, fat is reduced, hair disappears. Eyes go green. Lips go red and plump. Pecs appear, bisceps bulge. And yet, very little actually every happens between the sexes on a casual basis.

I know I keep coming back to the opinions of tourists I meet, but they’re a highly useful objective and external vantage point. Every time I take them somewhere, they gasp and say something like “Jeez, it looks like everyone here is getting some tonight”. I proceed to explain the complex dichotomy between appearance and reality, which is an immense buzz kill to the pack of marauding horny Italian Eurotrash men.

Much like the oversexualized women in Arab pop videos, Lebanese women are expected to be alluring and seductive, yet remain virginal. Walking through a shopping mall or making limp-wristed vaguely Oriental dance moves in a club, most seem to be reprising their role as themselves in the movie of their life. It’s a symptom of the Blingification of the world. Everyone wants to be in a hip-hop video. So the men and women of Lebanon flock to Skybar (Note: Other Rooftop bars are available), tanned and toned, their bloodstreams a mix of vodka and champagne, their nostrils flaring at the smell of fireworks. They sway and flirt. But there is no dancefloor. Ever. There is no communal space for people to interact and meet, dance and sweat together.

Everyone lives in a proverbial music video for a few hours. Then they leave the blinged out universe of faux-independence and fleeting adulthood and return to their parents’ homes. Their parents’ homes replete with marble floors and gold chandeliers and expectations of virginal daughters.

Of course, for the men it’s different. They are coached from their earliest age to have double standards, namely that Lebanese women are pure and respectable and foreign women are to be used as vessels for sexual discovery. Many Lebanese men have their first sexual experience at the hands, quite literally, of Eastern European prostitutes in seedy hotels North of Beirut filled with the pungent odour of desperation and lost youth.

Men then go on to embrace this concept of the “Western Whore” and consider anyone remotely blonde that they meet ripe for the taking. Like unevovled cavemen, they whistle and gawk and grope. It’s an embarrassing sight. When I dated a Russian girl in London for two years, and I’d tell anyone in Lebanon where she was from they’d give me a knowing wink and I suppose they’d imagine her with her legs wrapped around a pole, upside down, her blonde hair caressing the stage floor. When I would explain she wasn’t a stripper, or blonde and was the epitome of class, I’d get confused looks for a few moments. It was as if I was pulling the rug from under their every assumption about relationships and sexuality. Then they’d chuckle, as if to say “I’ve just erased what you’ve said, and gone back to my parochial social dynamics. Phew, that was close”. Sigh….

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Balkan Beats.

Besides being undoubtedly the youngest looking 61 year-old in the world, Goran Bregovic is also the Balkans’ most prominent purveyor of neo-gypsy beats. But he’s also kind of the embodiment of the Balkans themselves, born in Sarajevo, in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina, to a Croatian father and Serbian mother.

I don’t know much about him, but from what I’ve read he appears to be a mish-mash of Balkan influences. Which is saying a lot, and probably explains why his work is so layered and universal.

See, the Balkans are very much like Lebanon, more than either of us would like really. On a trip to Zagreb a couple of years ago, I was struck by how similar a lot of the discourse is to our own. Of course, the Croats themselves hate being assimilated to the Balkans, so for the sake of sematics, let’s call the place ex-Yugoslavia.

Most of us grew up with images of bombings and massacres perpetrated in these countries not so long ago. It seemed so surreal, countries at the heart of Europe, deeply beautiful countries, committing atrocities at the end of the 20th century. A lot of the scars of that conflict remain, and it doesn’t take long to sense them. And sense the similarities with Lebanon.

Religion still plays an important role, as does suspicion and fighting for scraps of land and influence. They’re still hunting down their war criminals 15 years after the conflict has ended. Much like Lebanon, history is never far in ex-Yugoslavia for anyone willing to look….

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