by Margaret Zhang:
Yale World Fellow May Tony Akl led a relaxed question-and-answer session Thursday evening after a screening of the Lebanese film Caramel.
A well-received 2007 film, Caramel features five women as they deal with everyday issues facing Lebanese women. First-time director Nadine Labaki (who also stars as the title character, Layale) challenged public perceptions of Lebanon by portraying a quirky, personality-filled Beirut rather than the Beirut that the 21st-century audience so often sees as militaristic images on the evening news.
In the question-and-answer session that followed, May first let it be known that Caramel gave an extremely accurate portrayal of day-to-day Lebanon. All issues that the women faced within the film—preserved virginity, the intense pressure on women to be married, women’s fear of aging amongst a beauty-obsessed culture, the conservative nature of Lebanon (as evidenced by “morality police”)—are issues that surpass socioeconomic splits and consume Lebanese women’s daily energy.
Perhaps one of the most interesting points made in the session following the movie was the notion of just how much Lebanon adheres to Western standards. In comparison with other Arab countries, and with Americans’ traditional ideas about Arab laws, Lebanon’s practices are fairly liberal. Because half the population is Muslim and half the population is Christian, the residents of Lebanon have grown accustomed to not forcing their religion upon those who practice different faiths. Because of this, two religions that are popularly viewed as having a tumultuous relationship get along without much friction in Lebanon. May used her own example to illustrate: Oftentimes, she would be with her conservative Muslim friend who was covered head to toe, whereas May would be wearing a miniskirt. And there were never any objections.
Additionally, Lebanon does not seem to have a problem with its acceptance of homosexuality. Though there are known gay bars and restaurants, May said that they typically cause no outrage in the community, as it is recognized that homosexuality is present in both Muslim and Christian parts of the community.
Yet another issue in Caramel that May discussed was ideas about beauty. As Lebanese culture has become more enamored with the idea of beautiful and youthful women, battling aging has become a top priority in the society, and Lebanon is now the Arab country with the highest rate of plastic surgery. In fact, Lebanon’s obsession with staying youthful is so prominent that banks make loans for the purpose of getting plastic surgery.
Overall, both Caramel and May portray Lebanon as a country that, despite its popular depiction as war-ravaged, does not weigh heavily on the puddle of pessimism into which the world has so indiscreetly tossed it. Rather, the Lebanese (or the women, at least) illuminate humanity in their part of the world by bringing a punch of relatable quotidian quirks that allow the rest of the world to reconnect to a Lebanon forgotten, but thriving.
Margaret Zhang ’14 is a freshman in Berkeley College. Contact her at email@example.com.