A film set in a Beirut beauty salon holds up a funny and endearing mirror to the love lives of a group of Lebanese women.
Lebanese women have a reputation for being the most glamorous and liberated in the Arab world. So the choice of a Beirut beauty salon as the central setting for Caramel, a Lebanese light comedy about the trials and tribulations of womanhood, seems altogether quite appropriate.
The film revolves around the love lives of the salon's three beauticians – Layal, Nisrine and Rima – a customer, Jamal (whose name means “beauty”), who is a bit actress feeling the years catch up with her, and Rose, the middle-aged dressmaker and clothes mender next door who has dedicated her life to looking after Lili, her mentally challenged older sister.
The film's title relates to the Arab practice of using heated caramel (sukar banat or halawa) as a way of removing body hair. It is popular in the Arab world and my uncle even set up a factory to produce a ready-to-use version of it some years ago.
As I have never endured it myself, I could not tell you firsthand how relatively painful it is. There are Arab women I know who claim that caramel is more effective and less excruciating than waxing, while I've heard from some western women who have tried it quite the contrary. Regardless, the pain women have to endure to look “beautiful” seriously questions the traditional perception of which is the tougher gender, as a scene with a policeman having his eyebrows done shows.
Although the film is about Lebanese women, their experiences would be familiar to women in many other Arab countries and the narrative touches on universal elements recognisable outside the Middle East – which might explain why the film has become a massive hit in France and some predict it will become the biggest-ever box office success for an Arab film in Europe.
Despite Lebanon's reputation for being more liberal and progressive than the rest of the region, some of the differences are cosmetic, as the lives of these women linked by the beauty salon show.
Layal, played by the film's director, Nadine Labaki, is having an affair with a married man which she keeps secret from her family while he gives her the run-around. Her spirits hit rock bottom when, after she has spent all day perking up a seedy hotel room to celebrate his birthday, he stands her up with little more than a text message.
Nisrine (played by Yasmine al-Masri) is engaged to a man she loves very much and they are soon to marry. The trouble is the young woman hasn't told her fiancé that she has “previous”. No, not a criminal record, but something almost as bad in the traditional mindset: sexual experience. Her friends decide to take her to a hymen-restoration clinic where she gets her “wedding gift” to her future husband – her “virginity” repackaged.
Why virginity has traditionally been such a virtue in so many societies intrigues me, especially since some cultures, like the contemporary western and ancient Egyptian, value sexual experience. It seems to run contrary to other fields of human endeavour where experience is king. Does it have something to do with male machismo and a kind of sexual frontier mentality of “conquest”?
In the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, it seems that male/female virginity (aka chastity) is valued because it supposedly removes, in the pre-DNA testing era, the ambiguities of parenthood, and shores up the traditional family units upon which these faiths are constructed.
The saddest and funniest scenes in the film are delivered by Rose and her sister. Lili has hundreds of imaginary lovers who apparently leave her love letters disguised as parking tickets which she walks about the streets collecting. When a mysterious French gentleman walks into Rose's shop to have his suit fitted, he begins to court her. But Rose, bullied by Lily, stands him up, wipes the makeup off her face and returns to her normal, drab existence.
Caramel also ventures sheepishly into the world of lesbian desire. Rima seems to be attracted to other women. One day, a beautiful woman – who once sat too close to her on the bus – walks into the salon and asks for a shampoo and brush, which suggestively turns into a form of mild foreplay. And this young woman, whose hair looks like it had previously auditioned for a shampoo ad, keeps on coming back for more.
Personally, I found this intellectual foreplay somewhat disappointing. I would have liked Labaki to explore the “forbidden” world of homosexual desire in more depth by having these two ladies come out of the closet and explore the social and emotional challenges of this unspeakable love, as Brian Whitaker refers to it in his book.
One recent film that came out of the closet big time was the Egyptian hit The Yacoubian Building which had an openly gay character – Hatem Rashid, a sophisticated newspaper editor. Unlike the charming, romantic comedy appeal of Caramel, The Yacoubian Building is a hard-hitting and depressing dissection of the ugly underbelly of contemporary Egyptian society.
Although daring Arab films from Tunisia, Morocco and even Egypt have been pushing the limits of sexual acceptability for a while, The Yacoubian Building was the first mainstream film to do so. Its huge budget and success at the box office (it is reportedly the highest grossing Egyptian film in history) suggest that there is a mainstream appetite for more open and honest cinema. This, and other recent quality films, have fuelled hopes that a revival of the Arab cinema's golden age in the 1950s and 1960s may be around the corner.
One feminist director who has been pushing the limits of sexual acceptability for years has been the Egyptian Inas al-Degheidy. After making a series of socially conscious films defending women's rights, she caused a stir in the mid-1990s when she turned to more bawdy entertainment which was seen by critics as an attempt to titillate male audiences.
In her own defence, al-Degheidy has claimed: “I don't recognise the word ‘ayb [shame] in art … The artist should be able to realise everything that (s)he imagines … There are many things that I'd like to be able to do.” Her last remark suggests that there are still new limits she would like to cross in her work, if she can find the opportunity.
Even in ultra-conservative Iran, films delving into women's issues have been coming thick and fast. Jafar Panahi, who I regard as the Almodóvar of the Iranian cinema, treats women's issues in the repressive climate of Iran with daring and compassion. I had the privilege of hearing him speak about the challenges he faces at a film festival here in Belgium last year.
Panahi's award-winning fiim from 2000, The Circle, is a sobering and depressing exploration of the lives of ex-female prisoners in Iran which left me feeling down for several hours after the film. His latest endeavour, Offside, is a satire ostensibly about football-mad women who try to sneak into Tehran's main stadium, which is off bounds to women, to watch an important match. Luckily for me as a non-follower of football, the film actually explores everything but the beautiful game.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 5 October 2007.