My perception of Lebanese people changes on a daily basis. Living in the big city is what confuses the topic. Down in Beirut, it's very rare for me to come across the kind generosity I've always stereotyped Lebanese people to possess. Years of holidays in the village had me thinking that all Lebanese people were friendly, genuinely caring, interested in the welfare of the other before the self. But my time in Beirut is showing another side to this society. A rougher, more self-obsessed, don't-smile-at-me side to this culture. I'm talking about the women of course - none of these men would turn down a bright happy-day smile!
I was having one of my 'I love Beirut' days on Thursday. Loving the chaos, the hooting, the bad-quality $1 shops, the construction works, smell of manouche, chatty security guards. I walked to my oriental dance class with an extra spring in my step, looking forward to ending off a wonderful day with a bit of a shimmy. And that's where it all went downhill like mascara running off a tearful eye...
'Oh Tracy! Where have you been?' I was asked because I hadn't attended the last two classes. I was about to answer when she turned around and started talking to someone else about her hair while looking at herself in the mirror, batting her eyelids and pouting her lips.
In walked in a lady from our group who I hadn't seen in two months. She walked straight to the beauty-talking girls, who immediately launched a barrage of questions about her red face (she'd just come from a facial peeling session). 'Did she do so-and-so to you?'; 'You should tell her to do so-and-so next time.'; 'Oh, I go for treatments like this every year.'; 'You have to look after your face.'; 'That's why I have such beautiful skin.'
Uh-hum new-old lady... I was looking straight at her, waiting to greet her after two months. She ignored the fact that there was another person standing two metres away from their exclusive beauty group and rather turned the other way to look into the mirror too.
Eventually, she looked up, acknowledged me, and went back to me-talk. After another bit of 'my beauty regime is better than yours' conversation, she said hi and I excitedly (and genuinely) said, 'I haven't seen you in aaaaages! How have you been?'
The reply cut my excitement short and ruined my dancing session: 'Oh, you haven't done your eyebrows yet. I told you how you must do them. Why haven't you done it? You're young still and your face looks like it's drawn down. You need to lift it up. You need to take that hair way. Two thirds before the arch; one third after.'
'Yes,' said the teacher. 'I told her last week she must do something.' They gather to inspect my generous eyebrows and shake their heads in disapproval. 'Why haven't you done it?'
'I'm happy as I am,' comes my 'I want to slap you right now you artificial beauty-obsessed women' response, and I turn around to put on my coin-encrusted hip shawl.
During the class, while trying to perfect a certain turn, another student comments on the teacher's beautiful make-up as she does a professional twirl in front of her to demonstrate. That's when I want to chuck my shawl on the floor with one, loud coin-dropping sound and tell them to catch a grip! 'It's not about makeup and eyebrows and perfect skin!' I wanted to yell. And that's when I realised I may never really fit into being a real Beiruti. I'll rather give that place up to someone more worthy of a perfectly groomed spot on the 'I'm a Beiruti' panel. Someone with two-millimetre thick eyebrows who's plucked them so much she now has to tattoo them in. No, I'm happy as I am.
Which made me start wondering about how Lebanese I actually am? Where do I fit into this crowd? A trip to Batroun answered that question. I fit in with the small-town village people. The people who take a genuine interest in what you're doing and who you are. The people who ask questions and will sit all day listening to your reply. The people who share themselves as much as they share their food.
Thanks to a spontaneous pop-in to Batroun's famous lemonade store Rim Patisserie, my perception of Lebanese people was restored. The owners Elie and Denise Becharra, and their daughter Melissa, made us feel as if we'd gone to visit them in their home. Denise sat down with us while Melissa went around the counter to get us some baklawa to taste, and Elie gave the men some of his homemade ice cream before taking Dad round to the kitchen to proudly show him where he makes the baklawa, ice cream and prize lemonade.
We walked away knowing so much more about each other's families than I have learned about the people I've been dancing with for nearly four months. When they said 'come visit' it was an invitation from the heart, not like the superficial invite from one of my fellow dancers: 'Become my friend on facebook.'
Maybe it's growing up in Bloemfontein that makes me more attached to the plat op die aarde mense, but one thing's for sure, when push comes to shove, I'll always choose lemonade over a mini facial!
Dad backstage with owner Elie Becharra at Batroun's Rim Patisserie.