“I knew the men were Lebanese,” an American friend of mine once said, “because they were well-groomed, slightly overdressed, and just too pretty… but they looked like they had ‘disappeared’ one or two people. I didn’t know what to think, but I just knew they were Lebanese! And I was right.”
That was five years ago. Ever since, I’ve been confronted with growing evidence – some of it self-generated – that the Lebanese male is a unique creature. And it’s certainly true that, in times of peace, he is more obscure than his female counterpart. In the Middle East, and in many other parts of the world, Lebanese women are renowned for their beauty, which isn’t always a “gift from God” (let’s keep that between us). Of course, there’s much more to Lebanese women – well, maybe not all of them – than their pretty faces. It’s also true that the beauty stereotype has many negative consequences for many women. Bottom line, though, is that the stereotype represents a uniform and parsimonious view of the Lebanese Woman.
By contrast, public perception of the Lebanese Man is a fragmented jumble of confusion. Not to fear. This is one of those wonderful situations in which a concise definition can account for complex underlying realities. In essence, the Lebanese male is a Macho-Sexual.
To understand what I mean by “Macho-Sexualism,” it’s important to look at existing typologies of the Lebanese Man, recent personal observations, and extensive field research conducted in various social settings. Here’s a glance:
Identifying Existing Typologies of the Lebanese Male
He-Man of the Arab World
Between the mountaineers, valley tribesmen, and hardy seafarers of Lebanon’s various mythologies, it’s easy to see where a reputation for toughness comes from. Most Lebanese folks have heard tales of how a relative – in my case, my father’s cousin – used to carry timber over Mount Lebanon while fighting off thieves, wolves, and rival villagers. All the while, it seems, this man was eating a labneh sandwiche and drinking arak. Or perhaps you’ve heard of how the men of yesteryear would get drunk and go brawl with Ottoman sentries, leading to their expulsion from the Empire (hello Mississippi Valley, Italy, and Brazil!). No? Maybe that’s just my folks.
I’ve certainly heard a thousand times how my grandfather, in an old mountain tradition, had to lift a mahdali over his head to ask for his bride’s hand in marriage. For those unfamiliar with the term, a “mahdali” is a stone roller that was used to flatten clay roofs or pave roads in inacessible areas. Of course, while mere mortals were content with lifting the mahdali once, as minimally required, my gramps picked the stone up three – or was it five? – times before throwing it about fifteen meters. That’s how manly he was. Booyah!
I’ve broken a sweat just looking at the damn thing. Moving on…
Pretty Boys of the Arab World
In the eyes of many other Arabs, the Lebanese male is alternatively “feminine,” “metrosexual,” or “gay.” Or maybe just “a pretty boy.” Without myself equating toughness and masculinity to sexual orientation, I’ve heard these descriptions from a scattering of people.
At face value, then, there must be something to it. Right? Or maybe there are a few alternative explanations.
First, most foreigners meet city slickers from Beirut or Jounieh, the jet-set, or what I like to call “diaspora dandies” (Full disclosure: I’d put myself in that category). Compared with the He-Man of yesteryear, who was busy moving mountains and fighting Turks, the contemporary city boy is more concerned with his shirt (button-downs or Lacoste polos, please), jeans (designer, to be sure), cologne (over-utilization is standard), and car (German make, but excluding Volkswagens).
Second, the Lebanese dialect is purportedly softer than others in the Arab world and is infused with a high dose of French and English words. As such, it may sound generally less “masculine.” Now, anyone who’s been to the mountains or the rural periphery might wonder if I’m sniffing glue. But, keeping in mind that most non-Lebanese come into contact with the more urbane men of Achrafieh and Hamra or the even tamer members of the diaspora, it’s a fair linguistic point. My response: Here. What now Saudis-in-Audis?
Third, social attitudes in Lebanon are relatively more liberal than other parts of the region. It’s not as if Beirut is actually a “Paris” or “Provincetown,” as the Ministry of Tourism and The New York Times would have it. The apparent liberalism has more to do with the fact that Beirut’s competition is almost non-existent. Riyadh, Jeddah, Damascus, Amman, Cairo? Please. Beneath the glitz, glamor, and financial ruin, even Dubai isn’t exactly the most tolerant of places.
Finally, although results vary, Lebanese men are very conscious of appearances. They’re often more put together than their Syrian, Egyptian, or Gulfi counterparts. Call it quasi-Italian, pseudo-French, faux-Midwest-on-the-Mediterranean, or just call it Lebanese: button-down shirt, designer jeans, thick belt, shoes, and gold galore. There’s also that rare form of brand mastery that captivated me at the beach some weeks ago.
“The problem in Lebanon,” at least one self-styled analyst believes, “is that it’s just full of crazy fuckers. It’s that simple.”
That rather unacademic view brings us to our third stereotype: the Angry-Boisterous-Caustic Man. You know him very well. He’s the guy who honks his horn at you while trying to run you off the road, even as he’s driving the wrong way with his lights off at 2:30 a.m. (True story: my neighbor). He’s the guy who hunts birds because “he just needs to kill something” and it’s “illegal to shoot anything else” (never mind that bird hunting is actually illegal too) (True story: family friend). He’s the guy who tells you to lift for mass, so “if anybody says something to you or your girl you can just smack the shit out him” (True story: my cousin).
There isn’t much to say. Even my calmest acquaintances – none of my good friends are calm – have a crazy streak that just pops out of nowhere in response to the slightest irritant. Since returning to Lebanon last month, I’ve almost brawled on account of “traffic,” “the way that guy keeps looking at our table,” “MTC Touch’s shitty Blackberry service,” “and because that fool thinks I’m funny, like I’m some kind of clown and shit.”
And don’t forget those little “discussions” we have from time to time. So, again, I just can’t think of a counterargument here.
Ego-Trippers: Jacks of All Trades, Perfect Princes, and Fat-Bellied Pimps
Finally, we have the cab drivers who double as political analysts, the gardeners who double as construction site managers, the athletes who double as energy consultants, and the barbers who double as cell phone distributors. In the past, I’ve attributed the emergence of these dual career opportunists to a general lack of specialization made worse by the need to adapt to perpetual instability.
And while that may be true, I’ve come to appreciate another theory put forth by family and friends alike. Ego. Now, I’m not a shrink and I’m not well-versed in Freudian terms, such as the “id,” “sub-id,” “ego,” and all that. Whatever. All I’m trying to say is that the “Lebanese Man” has a massive goddamn ego, as understood in the “parlance of our times.”
You’ve seen these assholes. Maybe they’re walking into a club like they own the place, paying the valet fifty dollars to park their Ferrari near the door, strolling down the street clutching two cell phones, wearing suits shinier than my kitchen floor, and bitching about how nobody in Lebanon has class anymore.
Maybe it’s the 45-year-old prancing around with a girl literally half his age or obliviously strutting about with company that’s been paid for. Really, son?
Maybe he’s the waiter who feels compelled to offer life lessons on how to “build your career.” Or advice on what women really want, which is apparently an overweight 22-year-old dude who beats his masseuse every Tuesday. Or maybe, if you’re lucky, it’s the complete fucking stranger who is kind enough to manage traffic and guide everyone’s parking activities before exiting stage right before you’ve had time to curse his nosiness.
Lebanon is Krypton. Everyone here is, or thinks he is, a superman. That explains why it can be so annoying here; but, in a way, it also explains why many Lebanese men do well abroad. If Lebanon is Krypton, then everywhere else is Planet Earth, with orderly societies based on trust and the rule of law – the yellow sun, if you will – fueling these men’s power and success.
Macho-Sexualism: A Comprehensive Understanding of the Lebanese Male
On balance, it’s easy to see why my friend took the blend of fashion (though strange) and toughness (though likely contrived) to be a marker for Lebanese manhood. So, while the “Lebanese Man” appears quite complicated, he’s really a simple creature. His personality generally rests on a simple base, which has been built up since his childhood and reinforced by encounters with similar people.
Be strong, look good, behave like a star, and if all else fails… act fucking crazy. It’s really that simple, folks.
Of course, some men are stronger than others, some look better than others, and god knows some are crazier than others. Inevitably, by design or by circumstance, men combine these aspects of their personalities differently. As the old saying goes, you have your manhood and I have mine.