Nothing shines as bright as a Beirut night
Nightlife, War, and the Lifestyle of the Lebanese Upper Class in the summer of 2006.
A version of this article has been published in Etnofoor, Anthropological Journal.
ABSTRACT: In times of peace, the Lebanese upper class uses their glitzy, glamorous, yet organized and almost rigidly regulated nightlife to set itself apart from the chaotic reality of day to day life in a politically and economically unstable country. In times of war, they continue this way of life at night, this time in an attempt to find inclusion within the rest of society: they assert their Lebanese-ness through embedding their 'continuing to live life as normal' within a national discourse of resistance and resilience.
It was a regular night out for my upper-class friends, beach-club Oceana the venue of choice for that Saturday night in September 2006. Just off the dark, unlit highway along the coast of Lebanon, this upscale place was hosting a booming party. There were beautiful women in bikinis and high heels with dazzling hair, covered in make-up and jewelry; there were men dressed in designer trunks, their expensive sunglasses resting on a head of hair gelled to perfection. Tables were covered with sparkling glasses and bottles of vodka and champagne in coolers; behind a bar bursting with colorful cocktails there was the pool with its dimly lit blue water, surrounded by seating arrangements of white beds and lounging chairs. From the speakers came popular Western and Arabic music, and as the evening progressed, girls showed off their dancing skills on the bars separating the pool from the restaurant area.
For the shorthaired UN soldiers entering the club, having just left the dustiness and poverty of South Lebanon behind (where they had arrived barely a month earlier to safeguard the ceasefire between Israel en Lebanon/Hezbollah), this was certainly an unexpected sight. A little hesitant at first, but with eyes betraying their excitement, they were warmly received by a group of cigar-smoking young men occupying one of the big white beds close to the pool. The soldiers quickly joined the party crowd – everybody was smiling, cheering them on, buying them one drink after the other. It didn’t take long before the soldiers tried to make some dance-moves of their own. More drinks were consumed, raising the level of enthusiasm even further, until one of them got overconfident and tried to step up on the bar to show off his talent. His dancing skills had not improved with all the alcohol consumed, and his stumbling, uncoordinated waving of limbs met with embarrassed smiles. Many fashionable partygoers, including his Lebanese hosts, shyly turned away their faces to continue the conversation amongst themselves. His fellow soldiers, one even more excited and drunk than the other, passed him the bottle of vodka, which he swiftly emptied – directly into his mouth.
It took some time before the soldiers realized that their cheering crowd had turned away from them. The dancing guy stumbled off the bar, looking somewhat lost and confused. What had happened? Why had the party suddenly moved elsewhere? After a while the shorthaired guests made their way to the exit, their alcohol induced frenzy dissolved into puzzled faces by the time they left the glitter and glamour behind.
I had seen this coming, because after several months in the glitzy nightlife of upper-class Beirut I had learned the unwritten rules of the game. The soldiers, unaware of those rules, had probably assumed nightclub etiquette was the same here as it was back home. After all, at first glance, Beirut nightlife looks like that found in any Western city: spaces where the night is celebrated in all its glory, where its associations with the hidden and the secret find their justification, where the rules of life as it is lived during the day don’t apply, where social and moral restrictions vanish and make room for an attitude of ‘anything goes’.
Night, as we conceive it, is for all that which can’t bear the light of day. After dark, the things that do not fit within the rules and regulations of daily life – for being too chaotic, too wild, too loose to adhere to laws and social codes – are given leeway.Things that are frowned upon in daytime are considered acceptable once the sun has set. Night is the time for many people to feel they can let go of the responsibilities they have during the day, they can forget about work, they can dress differently and behave differently, especially after a few glasses of alcohol. Images of tourists in bars on the Spanish islands come to mind – drinking, crawling across the bar, (dirty) dancing, kissing, vomiting, fighting; it all happens in public and is cheered on by fellow visitors of the night. The improper and illicit becomes what is aspired to; applause for those who manage to cross yet another boundary, or successfully challenge someone else to do so. Night, as Mattijs van de Port describes in his account of the Gypsy bars in Serbia, is when people allow themselves to lose control:
Hier geen beheersing maar vervoering; geen matiging maar exces; geen spaarzaamheid maar verspilling; geen helderheid maar roes; geen rede maar gevoel; geen gehoorzaamheid aan regels, verboden en taboes maar een opzettelijke schending daarvan... (Van de Port, 1994:23)
In nightlife, the body is allowed its pleasure of moving in dance; seduction and sexual innuendos are expected rather than shunned.
The excess, the abundance, the ecstasy that the UN soldiers saw in the beach club-cum-nightclub was understood as the transgressions we have relegated to the time zones after dark. When I started my research in the upper-class nightlife of Lebanon, I, too, had thought the Beiruti bars and clubs might be like Mattijs van de Port’s Gypsy bars in Novi Sad, where the so-called civilized bourgeoisie ignored the regular social restraints and gave themselves over to the ‘primitive wildness’ of the gypsies, where they got in touch with the ‘pure passion’ that was inside them, captivated by the gypsy music and spirit (Van de Port 1998). However, it turned out to be the opposite. The nightlife of the Lebanese upper-class is the one place where strict boundaries are set and carefully maintained.
Chaos is essential
In Beirut, chaos reigns the day, not the night. During the day, the city is a constant cacophony of noises, smells, and movement. Lebanese traffic is exemplary in this respect: no rule is obeyed; cars make u-turns as they see fit, drive against traffic in one-way streets; drivers honk their horns and scream at each other; lights are ignored and even policemen who try to regulate the endless streams of cars are more often than not standing on the side of the road, chatting with colleagues or watching this seemingly uncontrollable flow of noise pass by. Even on a quiet day, nothing can hide this atmosphere – the streets and sidewalks broken, the electrical wires hanging loosely over the street from one building to another; their failure to provide electricity explains the incessant and ubiquitous humming of private generators. Beirut, despite the wealth of many of its inhabitants and despite the attempts by the former prime minister Rafiq Hariri to renovate parts of it, is in many ways a broken city. No view is without a war-damaged building, some of them 30 stores high, meters and meters of concrete punctured with bullet holes, standing empty, damaged beyond repair by years of war, fighting, bombings and explosions. Construction is going on everywhere, the sea-boulevard is being repaved, but the carelessness of the people – throwing their garbage wherever they go – makes that it quickly turns back into nothing more than an old-looking, dirty sidewalk.
The chaos does not end here – these are merely the physical manifestations of the way many Lebanese view their country: as the embodiment of instability and insecurity. An unresolved history of (civil) war, an economy that hinges on a mounting state debt of 40 million dollars, and the constant threat of political instability and war have lead to a national narrative of resilience, of saying ‘no matter what happens, we carry on’, of saying ‘we thrive on chaos’. Every time I met a Lebanese person, inevitably at some point I would have to listen to a similar description or explanation of their people: ‘You know, we are used to war, we are used to political instability. It doesn’t affect us at all’ and even, as my friend Reina told me in the first week of the war: “In quiet periods, we are dead, only during war we feel the rush that keeps us alive”. Banker, architect, taxi-driver or fruit-vendor: both upper- and lower-class people I spoke to would put up the same show of pride about their perceived ability of getting through tough times. The message they conveyed was that they thrive on difficult circumstances, thus inextricably binding suffering and hardship to Lebanese-ness, defining the national character as one that requires the chaos and miserable state of the country rather than as a reaction to it. They thus revealed a narrative connection between chaos, suffering, resistance or resilience and being a ‘true’ or ‘real’ Lebanese, an image that was accepted and uncontested within Lebanese society.
The upper class
It is against this unpredictable day-to-day reality and narrative of chaos that the Lebanese upper-class (and their nightlife with all its rules and regulations that the UN soldiers missed out on) should be understood. These young people, my research population – the upper-class according to my criteria of family background, education, career, income and social status – live their lives and form their identities with and against this image of ‘Lebanese-ness’.
My interviewees, men and women in their twenties or early thirties, the sons and daughters of fathers who were businessmen, university professors or generals in the army and of mothers who were teachers, businesswomen or housewives, are not part of the more than 95% of the Lebanese population for whom the chaos, the weak economy and the failing state mean a lack of even the most basic necessities such as electricity and running water[i]. They are not part of the majority of the population that has to live on a minimum wage of $250 a month; of people who on average sustain a family of five with a monthly salary of no more than $500. Instead, they lived with their parents in apartments in well-maintained buildings with running water at all times and electricity from a private generator, with a janitor to take care of the common areas and wash the cars, and a live-in maid to cook and clean. They usually had their own car, sometimes shared with a sibling, so public transport was hardly used. They had all gone to prominent private universities, such as AUB (American University of Beirut) or LAU (Lebanese American University), or universities in France, the United States or Canada. Most of them were now working for banks or international firms, their salaries as high as four or five times the average income of a whole Lebanese family. They were internationally oriented and had often traveled outside of the region or gained work-experience in Europe, North America or (most commonly) one of the Gulf countries.
Most of the people I interviewed felt they had nothing in common with the poor part of the population. Their cosmopolitan, wealthy lifestyle set them apart from the rest of society, they deemed, and they failed to see what I could learn about Lebanon and its people by studying them – after all, they were not the real Lebanese, like the poor people in the South or in the mountains, the majority of the Lebanese population that was suffering and struggling through life. Maya, a medical student at AUB, warned me:
But Lebanon is not only AUB, you know that[ii]. The problem is meeting other people, because people from AUB only know people from AUB. And they have to speak English of course. Oh, you speak French? But the people who speak French also go to private schools… so this is not Lebanon.
They appeared to have the feeling that their experience of Lebanon was not worth being researched; their lives not ‘true’ or ‘real’ enough for all the attention focused on them. Yet despite the showing off and flaunting of wealth and status, I noticed in their words an unease about the discrepancies between their lives and the rest of society, a continuous switching back and forth between shame and pride about what their families had attained in money and power. There was also an unspoken acknowledgement that no matter how rich and luxurious their lives were, they were still subjected to much of the same chaos and overall insecurity in their day-to-day lives as the rest of the population. And although it seemed they actively created an outsider status for themselves through their lifestyles and nightlife, it would later become clear that when it really mattered, they would try to include exactly this lifestyle within the national image – they didn’t want to be completely excluded either.
Show your class at night
Creating a special status for the upper-class in Lebanese society was done most visibly in nightlife.Whereas daily life in Lebanon can best be described as ‘chaotic’ and ‘full of uncertainty’, the most apt adjective for its nightly counterpart that caters to the upper class would be ‘regulated’. Unwritten rules guide the behavior of visitors of the glamorous venues that since long ago have earned the city its epithet ‘Paris of the Middle East’. This regulated-ness starts even before entering club: the classier the venue, the more one is expected to make reservations and dress up according to strict dress codes. Like in beach-club Oceana, people are seen in nothing but the costliest designer clothes, sporting brand-names from head (sunglasses) to toe (shoes and handbags). The girls’ make-up looks as if they are going on stage – eyes outlined with black kohl, lashes heavy with mascara, eyelids covered in sparkling colors varying from bright blue to gold, lips full of lipstick, earrings and necklaces glittering in the spotlights. The men are no less groomed, every hair held in the right place by hairspray that makes it all look glued together. Expensive watches, the latest model phones – everything gleams and shines like gold and diamonds.
From the moment of arrival everything is subjected to rigid order and procedures: the valet-parking will put the cars in order of status – the most expensive vehicle is put closest to the entrance; the hostess will make sure everyone gets seated at the right (VIP-)table; and the waiters are all dressed in similar attire, often a shirt and a tie. On a summer night at a club like Crystal in Rue Monot, a famous nightlife area, one could spend the whole evening admiring the large variety of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches, and big and shiny SUVs of the club’s customers. If you show up in anything less fancy, car- or fashion-wise, you will need connections with the owner or a very wealthy customer to be allowed to enter.
As said before, this nightlife, at least the visible part, is to be an area of organized beauty, an antidote to the dirt and chaos of the day. The nightclub is the best place to show off riches because the environment is designed in such a manner as to optimize flaunting wealth and confirming social status. Thus, the walls of the nightclub are covered in mirrors, the disco-balls reflect the moving spotlights, breaking the beams of light in thousands of tiny spots that mingle with the guests’ glittering jewelry. The music is too loud to engage in conversation but the popular songs from all over the world are perfect for dancing. Some girls get on the bar – lifted by strong men – to have a better view of the crowd, sensually moving their hips. When a wealthy guy orders a bottle of champagne with a price-tag of a staggering $1750, however, all attention is redirected to the accompanying spectacle – the bottle is delivered to the client accompanied by the DJ’s drumroll and followed by a spotlight, from the bar all the way to his table, for the rest of the club to see.
All of this enables the visitors to project an image of being secure and in control. Being able to afford spending literally hundreds of dollars on alcohol in a single night, maybe even several nights a week, means they are not bothered about life in the way so many others in the country are. On the contrary – here they can treat their friends to an expensive bottle of whisky, and another one and another one and then one more, and act as if the city is theirs when they tip the valet-parking guy and leave the club in their expensive cars, drunk but always able to drive.
The Lebanese upper class is a small, relatively close-knit ‘group’. This does not mean they all know each other, but gossip reaches far and a good family name (meaning from a wealthy, influential and well-known family) has to be protected. Maintaining proper behavior at all times is crucial. The social circle is formed by people met at school, university or work or through their families contacts, and sustained by the fact that they all frequent the same places in the city – the bars and nightclubs as I described previously. This turns the night and nightlife into a space where they can ‘perform upper class’, where they can reinforce social boundaries and ascertain their inclusion in this life that seems so far away from the out-of-control reality of Lebanese daily life.
It has probably become clear that these upper class venues are no places to fool around. Even though people might end up dancing on the table, this is in no way comparable to the bar clientele as described by Van de Port, who ‘launch their attack on etiquette and abandon themselves to an orgiastic violation of their everyday endeavours’ (1998:9). In a Beirut nightclub, dancing on the table is a way to show off one’s dancing skills and expensive outfit, not a funny act performed in a drunken frenzy that would be unthinkable being sober, and definitely not a way to experience one’s inner passions or taste the ‘wilder pleasures of life’. When thinking of groups of people going out and drinking excessively, one quickly thinks of drunken groups rolling around in the street fighting, crawling across the bar and vomiting in public. But my interviewees assured me that Lebanese people are not like that. Samir, owner of several bars in Monot and Gemmayzeh, compared the Lebanese and the English: “In Cyprus, for example, there is a bar for English people, so we don’t go to it because they are trouble-makers. When they get drunk, they act roughly. Even the Germans… We don’t have this! We are nice people”. To which Yves, his business partner, added: “Lebanese are friendly, they always stay friendly”. 28-Year old Sandra said people don’t even get drunk at all; “we drink a lot, but we don’t get drunk, very few people get really drunk. We just go out to have fun and forget and laugh and… see people, meet people, talk about them…” Interestingly enough, it happened to most of my interviewees once or twice – they got insanely drunk and spilled their dinner all over the table, or had a one-nightstand and cheated on their girlfriend – but never in Lebanon. These things always happened when they were living abroad and hanging out with non-Lebanese people. Yet even when talking about it, they carefully picked their language not to make it sound too harsh. As Lila, a 29-year old AUB graduate told me:
There was never any alcohol restriction for me, nor education [about alcohol]. I was in control of myself. Once I wasn’t, on a trip with the basketball team in the Ukraine. I hugged the toilet-seat, so to speak… [laughs]. But never again, ever!
Only once I saw a girl who had had one drink too many, throwing up in the bathroom of a club called Asia. All the other girls waiting in line carefully looked away and only the hostess was there to hand her a glass of water when she was done. The girl fixed her skirt and her hair and then returned to her friends, who pretended everything was fine and they hadn’t seen the state she was in when she left the table. All in all it was only the excess of alcohol and drugs that had to be kept secret (not so much the use of it), drinking alcohol seemed to be widely accepted.
My friends and interviewees were very clear about why this was the case: social pressure. Wissam, doctor-to-be at AUH, the hospital affiliated with AUB, thought he would never get completely drunk and out of control because “it wouldn’t look that nice. […] You don’t want to give a bad image of yourself, it wouldn’t look good”. With his girlfriend around he would be even more careful of his behavior, because it would reflect badly on her as well. It was an often-heard complaint among the upper class: Beirut is tiny and everybody knows everybody – especially in the nightly scene – so one misstep can ruin a reputation. According to 29-year old Myrna people do get staggering drunk, but, as she says:
It doesn’t show because they are conscious of others, they care about what others say, how they look at them… Oh, if they meet someone they know, that’s total disaster. Because the community of people who go out is very small, and chances of you getting to see people you know are very high. So they wouldn’t really go crazy. It’s not a big country where nobody knows you and you can do whatever you want. You might be talked about the next day and you’d regret it...
To some, this almost inescapable form of social control – always having to stay in control and bearing the responsibility to uphold the reputation of not only yourself but also the people around you such as your friends and your family – felt like a burden. To others, this distinguished Lebanese nightlife from the party-scene everywhere else in the world: a special place that the upper class had created for itself. Moreover, it was part of what made nightlife fun and civilized, and thus the opposite of the daily life in their country.
In his quest to understand what is happening in the Serbian gypsy bars, Van de Port turns to Victor Turner, according to whom ‘cultural “performances” [in the broad sense of the word] are eyes by which a culture sees itself and a drawing board on which creative actors sketch out what they believe to be more apt or interesting “designs for living”’, which leads Van de Port to ask exactly ‘what sort of design for living is sketched in these venues’ (1998:5). As I made clear, this is very relevant in the Lebanese situation as well, even though the nightlife can in some ways be seen as the total opposite of the gypsy bars. For the Beiruti upper class, nightlife and hence life at night is a chance to be in control, or at least to feel in control. The glitter and glamour provide an escape, a way out of the disorder of the day. Life in Lebanon becomes like any cosmopolitan knows it: plenty of money, guiltlessly spent on luxuries. All uncertainty, chaos and dirt is invisible and thus non-existent.
As I wrote before: the lifestyle described here is one completely opposite to the struggling and suffering that they call the ‘real’ Lebanon, it is an image of ‘I have everything I want or need, I have no worry in the world’. So if I understand the ‘cultural performance’ of the Lebanese upper class correctly (particularly in nightlife) and the symbolic actions and representations of its aesthetics, what I see is a meticulously painted image of a people that is well off, secure and in control, with not a single worry in the world; a people that remains civilized even when the opportunity presents itself to be the opposite. Nightlife is par excellence the place where class-boundaries are produced and reproduced; where those who are unable to project this materialistic image of well-being (or image of materialistic well-being?) are excluded from the scene entirely. In upper class nightlife, pride about showing off wealth is not accompanied by feelings of shame, because the poverty, insecurity and chaos it is contrasting are, though not visibly present, known by all.
A mirage (wanted/unwanted)
It sometimes seems like a mirage, the nightlife of the Lebanese upper class – being in such sharp contrast with the realities of daily life of the majority of the population that is struggling to make ends meet. No wonder then that the upper class is often being labeled ‘superficial’ and their luxury lifestyle considered to be ‘fake’. In wider society, theirs is seen as a typical Lebanese-ness, not a real one, which is a distinction that is hard to overcome.[iii] ‘Typically Lebanese’ evokes the romantic image of a free, flourishing Lebanon, an image that mainly exists abroad, according to the Lebanese. ‘Real Lebanese’ means what they believe themselves to truly be, an identity inextricably bound up with hardship and suffering, whether or not this is their day-to-day reality.
The interplay I noticed between enthusiasm for and embarrassment about their lifestyle was also visible in the adoption of the above qualifications of ‘typical’ and ‘real’ by the Lebanese upper class. Many of the people I interviewed, despite laughingly applying the label ‘typical Lebanese’ to their own behavior, did not want to be seen as being part of the upper class. Not only because it would mean they were people who reportedly always show off their wealth, are arrogant, superficial and “made of silicon” as Sabine said, but also because it would question their Lebanese-ness – a matter that proved to be especially precarious during the war. Despite the benefits of upper-class life, there was a certain ambiguity, a hesitancy in their identification with the corresponding lifestyle – so if the nightclub Crystal is the place where the rich people go, one should make fun of one’s visit (and the people) there or otherwise keep it to oneself; as became clear to me from the following conversation that developed during one of my interviews:
Joelle: I don’t go to Crystal a lot[iv].
Sabine: I hate Crystal.
Joelle [quickly]: I hate Crystal, I hate it. It’s not my place.
Sabine: I went one time, it was ok. But people go there, and they all stand on chairs and tables and they look at each other like this [looks me up and down three times with a frown on her face].
It was the main complaint my interviewees had about the upper class: that it was all so superficial, all about appearance and showing off – who has the hippest designer shoes, the most expensive handbag or the fanciest car? Is everyone’s hair perfectly done and the make-up applied by a professional? Nothing escapes the critical Lebanese eye.
The upper upper class, it’s a fake. They do everything for their satisfaction, but it doesn’t bring satisfaction to them… it satisfies someone else. You can enjoy a Maserati or a Lamborghini or a Porsche if you like it, but sometimes you bring it just to satisfy a neighbor or a friend who has a better car…,
said Samir, the bar-owner who claimed not to be upper class himself. Some of the people I interviewed did not deny being part of the upper class, but did their best to avoid the label ‘typical Lebanese’ by trying to convince me that most of the acting big was done by tourists from the Gulf, like Ahmad who told me that “a large majority [of the fancy cars] are from outside”, meaning that the lifestyle might be Lebanese, but the superficiality should be attributed to the foreign visitors. Most of the other interviewees were convinced that it’s the Lebanese mentality, that the Lebanese are famous for this mentality in the Arab world. As Maya stated:
You know, the Lebanese, the Arab girls, they love make-up, they are not natural, very superficial” and “there are these women who get a degree, they hang it at home, just to say “oh, I got this degree from this or that university,” or “I went to England or the US and I got this diploma.” Then they have coffee with the neighbors in the morning, they go shopping for the rest of the day, and then they go for social dinners… this is how they fill their lives.
It is the upper class’s obsession with appearance and status and the accompanying behavior of spending money on luxuries and a lavish lifestyle, exemplified in upper class nightlife, that gives them the image of ‘unreal’ in others’ and consequently in their own eyes. In times of peace, this ‘fake-ness’, this being ‘typical’ instead of ‘real’, is merely verbally rejected. In those times, national loyalty is of secondary importance to living a good life. In times of war, however, when it really matters, an image of un-Lebanese-ness becomes a serious accusation, and the need for inclusion in the society at large creates a new kind of narrative about exactly this same lifestyle.
It was a bright and promising season, the summer of 2006, with all the glitter and glamour in full swing. But then, on the 12th of July 2006, all of a sudden (or so it seemed to me) a war broke out. The trigger was the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah, the answer was a massive attack by sea, air and land that lasted 34 days and laid a large part of Lebanon to ruins.
On the first day all TV channels had switched to 24-hour news updates, embassies had sent their travel warnings, but on the street everything continued as normal and none of my friends had cancelled their plans for the night. So there we went, to the opening of a new tapas-restaurant and some live salsa-music afterwards. Halfway through the night, though, people started getting phone calls and news spread that Saida, a town 40km south of Beirut, had been bombed. “Oh, it’s nothing”, my friends said “the Israelis bomb the south every few years, don’t worry about it”. The band kept playing, the people dancing and drinking. But some of my friends were living in Saida and I went home with a heavy heart, hoping they would be alright. Over the next few days, the city lost all its hustle and bustle, it became quiet and seemingly empty. Foreigners and many Lebanese with a double nationality were evacuated by bus to Syria or by boat to Cyprus, others fled by taxi or moved to their house or a hotel in the mountains in the North. A large number of refugees from the South came to the city and moved into the parks and empty schools, to wait there until the day the bombardments of their villages would stop and they would be able to return.
During the following 34 days, the city was dark at night: the streetlights had been turned off to save electricity after the main power-plant had been bombed. Hardly ever did we leave the house after sunset; speeding through the empty streets if we did go outside, avoiding tunnels and bridges. After watching the news we would lie in bed, waiting for the planes to come and the bombardments to start, their deep, dark rumble making our building shake to its foundations, the windows rattle. It was a strange thing to wait for, being fully aware of the death and destruction it brought upon so many people so close to us, yet the start of the bombings would also bring an end to the uncertainty of what would happen that night – to us, to the city, to the country – thus bringing a false sense of security that would allow us to fall asleep. During the days I walked around different neighborhoods, I saw how daily routines were picked up again (partially at least) and how life was lived at a pace much slower than before. Stores (re)opened but hardly saw any customers; Rue Monot and Downtown, two popular areas for nightlife, were closed. The bars in Gemmayzeh were open but almost empty save for a few journalists trying to get a glimpse of the nightlife they had heard so much about. It wasn’t there.
The abrupt changes in day-to-day life as described above do not match the image that most of the Lebanese had of themselves; the upper-class as much as anybody else in the country. Their words painted quite a different picture, the opposite of this sudden change in living life. The image they had of their society was one of resilience and perseverance, of denial of the abnormality of the situation, of being civilized despite the barbarity of it all. I heard it in my interviews and I read it on the blogs that Lebanese people kept while their country was under siege: the idea that ‘daily life/the Lebanese kept going as normal’. Mail was delivered, rich ladies got their manicure done, and people went to work, the gym or to see friends ‘as usual’. It was as if they tried to deny the influence of the war on their daily lives. If there was a change in routine, they would tell me it was because of practical reasons – they didn’t go out because of fuel shortage, for example, or there were no summer-courses because school-buildings were shelters for refugees from the South. That they declined many opportunities to go out or visit friends because they were afraid something might happen to them or their family while away or on the road was something not to be expressed in words. Even when they knew I was aware that they weren’t telling the truth – that their cars were full of gas, that their schools did not receive any refugees – the image of resilience and continuity had to be upheld. They made it seem as if they were annoyed with the situation more than anything else. No fear, no panic: war was to be seen as a regularity in Lebanese life, something that has always been there and will always be there, it’s ‘what they are used to’. War or no war, a real Lebanese continues his or her life in spite of everything – or so they say. Action and narrative thus became a strange mix of denial and wishful thinking, where what was really happening didn’t matter as much as how people portrayed their situation.
The nights in Beirut told me that the image of imperturbability of the Lebanese was at least partly untrue. Thanks to (live) coverage of the bombings on TV, it was impossible to not be aware of the horrifying consequences of the bombardments, not to feel the fear and the powerlessness that these large-scale attacks caused[v]. This didn’t mean people weren’t dancing. It merely meant that they no longer visited the regular places in Beirut, which were within earshot of the heavily bombed Southern suburbs of the city. The streets of Beirut became no-go areas at night. As my friend Joe replied per sms to my invitation for a drink: ‘I think tonight is going to be hot with bombs, and to be honest with you I don’t feel very comfortable going out.'
It was only with a slight adjustment (moving up to the mountains) that it seemed possible to combine the need for an escape of reality, while holding on to their familiar lifestyle, with the ideal of a resilient Lebanese. So the shiny nights moved their venues North-East, to the towns in the mountains where many upper class Lebanese had sought refuge in their summer-homes or in hotels. There, they went out ‘as usual’, trying to live life as they knew it. Yet, although ‘acting like normal’ and ‘continuing life as if nothing was happening’ were the proud slogans of many Lebanese, nightlife was another issue altogether – dancing wasn’t so easily accepted as resistance. A refugee from the South sitting in a park, smoking his arguileh (hookah) as usual, was seen as the ultimate show of defiance; yet an upper-class Beiruti going out in a club in the mountains was easily accused of ignoring the horrific reality, of not caring about his or her compatriots, and would not so easily be given the label of resilient, persevering Lebanese that was the proud topic of the incessant conversations about the war, amongst the upper-class as well as others.
Looking back upon the atmosphere in the clubs up in the mountains, different people gave me very different accounts about what was happening: some said it was as if nothing was going on in the country, people were dancing and making merry like they always did. Others were convinced everyone was stressed out and only pretending to be happy. Some expressed their discontent with the party-crowd who continued their routine by focusing on the practical side: how can it be alright to spend $100 on a bottle of vodka while the country is being destroyed and will have to be rebuild; when so many refugees finding shelter in schools and parking garages need to be fed and clothed? Most people who objected to the continuing nightlife took the moral road: how can somebody dance and drink when there are people, fellow Lebanese, getting wounded or dying from bombings? The regular criticism of the ‘fake-ness’ and ‘unreality’ of the upper class lifestyle lost its joking forgiveness and became a harsh accusation. The sensitivity of the issue is expressed by Ramzi, the owner of Asia, a rooftop-bar in Downtown Beirut, who reopened his club in Broumana in the mountains:
We told the people that Mondays, half the bill goes to charity. But then I gave all the profits to charity, to help. […] A lot of magazines came, foreign and local, to do interviews; and TV stations, but I didn’t let anyone in because I didn’t want anybody to twist it that the Lebanese people are partying and having fun while other people are dying, which was exactly the total opposite. It was more quiet than here [in his bar in Beirut at the time of the interview], it was more of a restaurant-lounge, but we had music and people were… not dancing but enjoying, getting their stress out, you know, just seeing each other, feeling a bit of normalcy again. Basically that’s it.
He added that this was ‘the Lebanese resilience, you know’. It was exactly this narrative, so prevalent in Lebanese society, that provided the upper class with a justification for their behavior – despite the fact that this narrative was highly contested. It was this narrative that they clung to as the only thing they had to justify their behavior, to be able to continue their lives without feeling like a complete outcast or outsider. To Sonya, one of my upper-class friends, going out was indeed a marker of Lebanese resilience, and she took it almost as an action-plan. Going clubbing in Broumana didn’t feel right for her, because she knew people in other parts of the country were having a tough time, but out of conviction she went to some of the bars in Gemmayzeh, “to show people that we are still alive… that Lebanon is still going out”. Imad also had no problem in giving me arguments for his ‘extrovert’ behavior during the war. Partly, he took pride in the Lebanese resiliency: “I don’t think Europeans would have behaved the same, I don’t think so. I don’t think someone whose city is getting hit would go to Broumana and have a drink and be relaxed and everything.” Yet interestingly, he also claimed he could go out for a drink so often only because he identified with something bigger than Lebanon: he was very universal, a true cosmopolitan, and hence saw no big difference between children dying in the war in Iraq or in Lebanon when it came to his conscience. He wouldn’t allow others to ‘destroy his life’ – or rather, his way of living.
However, even though it was the ultimate show of Lebanese steadfastness for some, the narrative of resilience was not always accepted as an explanation for the behavior of the upper class. Consequently, those who were partying while bombs were being dropped were accused by their fellow countrymen of not being ‘true Lebanese’. The words of Karim, a refugee from the bombed Southern suburbs of Beirut, clearly show that the upper class narrative of inclusion wasn’t accepted by everyone:
Those people going to Broumana to go out… that was sad, that was really sad. […] People were completely isolated from what was happening. This is not right, this is not human! You [addressing me], you are not Lebanese, you couldn’t do that, you couldn’t go to Broumana to club and… you were feeling that you have to be here. See? What about Lebanese? Lebanese were not caring. This is very bad. This is lack of education, this is lack of patriotism, this is lack of maturity, this is lack of… so many issues. This is loss of identity. The identity of being Lebanese. Of caring for your Lebanese fellow, of caring for your fucking country! It’s your land man, it’s your land. It’s where you stand. It’s yours, it’s being taken!
He himself, however, had gone to bars in Beirut a few times during the war, and he claimed there were people who were there ‘all the time’, wasting valuable time in which they could have done something useful for the country. When I asked him how he knew they were there all the time, he told me they were there ‘every time he himself was there’. I told him they might be thinking the same thing about him – after all, couldn’t it be that they just happened to be there on the same days, and that was all? No, he was certain that what was only a small interesting excursion for him had been the daily entertainment for all others.
Most of the upper-class people I spoke to after the war had gone out once or twice during the war and were willing to see the need for entertainment and diversion. Others were actively adhering to the discourse of resilience, they saw nightlife as nothing less than the defiance of the Israeli occupation, rather than an indifference to the suffering of others. Still, they were aware that this narrative wasn’t necessarily shared by the entire Lebanese population. It once again became clear that the image of ‘real Lebanese’, which was tied up with suffering and hardship, was almost impossible to achieve for the upper-class. Following public opinion they should have given up something too, in this case their lifestyle; something that was not required of the refugees from the South – their sitting around smoking arguileh waiting to return to the South or the Dahyeh was taken as the ultimate sign of resistance. The continued clubbing of the Beiruti party-crowd, on the contrary, was seen by many as ‘un-Lebanese’. It was as if the ‘real’ Lebanese identity of war and the ‘fake’ (superficial) upper class identity of nightlife were mutually exclusive. Yet the adherence of the people from the upper class to the stories of resilience and civilized behavior during war shows their attempts at bridging the gap between war and their lifestyles. These stories show that they want to belong to their country, that they want to include their lifestyle in that belonging, and therefore they want their narrative about continuing nightlife during the war to be accepted as the ultimate expression of their Lebanese-ness.
When it really matters: war as truly Lebanese
‘Typical Lebanese’ is how my Lebanese upper class friends would label the lifestyle connected with the world-famous Beiruti nightlife. ‘Real Lebanese’ is what they would call the suffering and destruction of war. Although seemingly having the same meaning, ‘typical’ and ‘real’ were used by my research population to denote two very different things. Typical is the lifestyle of the upper class – rich, cosmopolitan, glamorous, superficial – representing, or rather appearing to be Lebanese. Real is the rest of society, those who are poor and suffer. Real is war, because this is when society shows what is hiding beneath the surface. ‘[W]ar serves as a moment of truth, a moment when individuals – be they soldiers or civilians – have to define their deeply held priorities and act on them’ Faust 2004:377).
It is no surprise, then, that many from the Lebanese upper class – modern, and nation-wide understood to be superficial, ‘fake’, and thus outside of the rest of society – take the war as an opportunity to assert their ‘real-ness’ through a discourse that stresses their similarity with the rest of the Lebanese population and includes them in the narrative creation of a national unity of sorts. By claiming to continue their regular lifestyles (mainly the nightlife part of it), they feel they show the same resilience as those refugees who fled the south and were now sitting on the corniche, smoking their arguileh. This attitude, of going on as normal, as if nothing is happening (whether this attitude exists mainly verbally or also in practice) in their eyes bridges the gap between the different social classes in Lebanon. It is, as they say themselves, what makes the Lebanese Lebanese, and Lebanon Lebanon. Through this discourse of resilience war becomes a defining and thus essential element of the Lebanese identity. This might be the case for the upper class even more so than for others, because it gives them the opportunity to find an inclusion for their outsider-status, to turn ‘typically Lebanese’ into ‘real Lebanese’.
Because of the ubiquity of war in Lebanese society (in narrative as well as in reality), the upper class also needs the stories they have about war and resilience to cope with the bad situations, and they need their stories about the superficiality of their peace-time lives to prepare themselves, just in case the country goes back to war, a possibility they are always aware of. After all:
[d]e droom van een heldere, opgeruimde en bewegwijzerde wereld, een verhaal over de wereld dat ons het gevoel geeft grip te hebben op onze ervaringen, een verhaal dat maakt dat we onze weg in het leven kunnen vinden, dat houvast biedt, wordt vanzelfsprekend niet alleen door academici nagejaagd. Die droom van een verhaal dat ‘waar’ is, dat is ontdaan van twijfel zaaiende ambivalenties en onduidelijkheden, dat ondubbelzinnig betekenis verleent, dat onbevraagd en kan zijn, dat ‘staat als een huis’, een verhaal, kortom, dat niet als zodanig hoeft te worden aangemerkt , wordt door velen, zo niet door iedereen, gekoesterd. Niemand wil uit zijn verhaal gejaagd worden (Van de Port, 1994:52).
For some, going out during the war was a way to stay in the bubble, in the fake, ‘unreal’ world where they are in control. For most, though, it is not such a straightforward denial of the situation – rather, it is an attempt to recreate the feeling of being in control and showing that they do not lose their (cosmopolitan) civilization no matter what the circumstances, while at the same time including themselves, through their stories and justifications of continuing nightlife, in national narrative of resilience. The night once again offers them an opportunity to perform life as they want it to be.
1998 The Silent Revolution in Lebanon: Changing Values of the Youth. Beirut: American University of Beirut.
2004 “‘We Should Grow Too Fond of It’: Why We Love the Civil War” in Civil War History (page 368-383). Vol. L, No. 4.
Van de Port, M.
1994 Het einde van de wereld: Beschaving, redeloosheid en zigeunercafés in Servië. Amsterdam: Babylon/De Geus.
1998 Gypsies, Wars and Other Instances of the Wild: Civilisation and its Discontents in a Serbian Town. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
[i] 95% is an estimate. Statistics in Lebanon are hard to obtain, especially in regards to population numbers. The last census has taken place in 1932, leaving present-day numbers heavily influenced by estimation and approximation. I have based my numbers on Muhammad Faour’s study The Silent Revolution of Lebanon (1998) and on unpublished research of the Lebanese marketing company InfoPro (2006) targeting exactly the youth I was focusing on in my research.
[ii] American University of Beirut, (one of) the biggest private universities of Lebanon, with tuition fees similar to private universities in the United States.
[iii] Referring to the ‘real’-ness of the self-ascription of my interviews, I do not think any identity is more real than another, yet I choose to use the word as and when my research population uses it, presumably to convey the authenticity of that which it describes.
[iv] As described earlier in the article Crystal is one of the poshest and most expensive nightclubs in Beirut.
[v] As Sonya said: ‘We would wake up from the launching of the rockets from the ships, get out of bed and turn on the TV just in time to see them come down on the Dahyeh and see the smoke coming up.’ New-TV, a Lebanese broadcasting company, had installed a camera on the roof of their building in Ashrafiyeh, right at the edge near the Dahyeh, from where they provided uninterrupted coverage of every bombardment of the Beiruti suburbs.