by Hamida Ghafour, The National
BEIRUT // At the Music Hall bar and nightclub there is no sign of anything as gauche as chipped nail varnish or a frizzy perm. A band of impossibly slender and beautiful girls in tight dresses saunter up and down the bar, tossing long slinky manes or casting a smoky eye at the men wearing expressions of studied indifference.
It is 2am and the middle of the week, but young Beirut shows no sign of slowing down. The holiday season has just started and thousands of Lebanese men who work abroad in the Gulf states or Europe are home visiting families for Eid al Adha and Christmas.
In a country where single women outnumber men five to one, their arrival offers a unique opportunity for husband hunting.
Maya, who did not want her last name published, came early to the bar with her sister and friends to grab a table in a prime spot for people watching.
“I am looking for someone very well-educated, good looking,” she said, slipping off her coat to reveal a short leopard print dress. “I am 21 and still have time, so it is not so important to find someone right now. But he has to accept me as I am. That means coming to these bars, spending money, buying clothes. I don’t like to wear the same outfit twice.”
The scene is what the Lebanese call the “culture of the catch”, the highly competitive game between singletons to land a prize husband.
Over the next couple of weeks Beirut’s bars, cafes and nightclubs will be jam-packed with young Lebanese sizing each other up and trying to impress the opposite sex.
“This is the concern of my young students and I can’t get them to talk about anything else,” said Dr Samir Khalaf, a sociology professor at the American University of Beirut.
“What you see there in nightclubs is really a highly eroticised, permissive society with young people dancing on table tops showing off their bellies. There is a skewed demographic and men are a scarce commodity, so to speak, so they are a pursued commodity.”
There may be a hint of desperation in some of the bars, but the fears of many women are real because of Lebanon’s dismal demographics.
Between 1975 and 2001 approximately one million Lebanese fled the country because of the civil war and fragile security. The exodus was accelerated in 2006 following a brief war with Israel when another 200,000 – the majority of them young, highly educated men – left to pursue better lives abroad.
“I stress this is only an estimate because there are no reliable statistics, but every community knows its people are leaving,” said Guita Hourani, the director of the Lebanese Emigration Research Center at Notre Dame University-Louaize.
“The Lebanese who finish a degree here, they know they cannot find a job and it’s because of the situation. They are going as far as China or Africa for work.”
Turning to her computer, she opens her e-mail inbox.
“I get e-mails all the time from recruiters, Qatar is a major one. Some are not ashamed to ask the government here to help them recruit. I got this one a minute ago. He wants a graphic designer, another one is looking for two or three consultants with master’s degrees in Saudi Arabia. There is another job in Paris.”
These well-paid professionals returning home are highly sought after by families looking to provide security for their daughters in a volatile country – and no effort is spared in trying to ensnare one.
Ms Hourani paints a bleak picture for the girls left behind.
“If you are 35, forget it. The options are to hook up with a younger man in his 20s, or you migrate or you marry a man over the age of 65 who is divorced or a widower.”
At the Fadia el Mendelek salon, a favourite of Beirut’s beau monde, the telephone rings constantly as women book haircuts, colouring sessions or nail appointments.
“A lot of girls complain about lack of men, ‘all the good guys are gone’, I hear that a lot,” said the owner, Fadia el Mendelek, during a break. “Now they are back, it is holidays and the women fix themselves more for sure.”
She adds that business is double what it usually is.
“They [the men] should provide what our parents provided and more,” said Sarah Hajjar, 20, a doe-eyed beauty waiting for her nails to dry as her two sisters preen in front of the mirror. “If he can treat you like a princess, make you feel special, that’s good.”
Many of her friends spent up to four hours getting ready.
“Some do their hair every night before they go out, but not me. Yesterday I went out without my hair done. When they get ready to go out, some of my friends pick an outfit the week before. One girlfriend chose her New Year’s outfit three months ago.”
The pressure goes beyond wearing the right outfit or choosing a trendy hair style.
Dr Mohamed Kodeih, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon at the American University Hospital, says in the last two months 70 clients have asked for liposuction and nose jobs, while another 50 have booked in Botox sessions to iron out facial wrinkles.
“Lebanese men have got used to plastic surgery. Today the good girl who stays at home, is baby-faced and innocent, she won’t find a husband.”
Sometimes parents encourage their daughters and nearly all get their parents to pay for the treatment.
“They are looking for a husband, their daughter is getting older and older and the mother encourages her” [to have an operation], he said. “You see the mother and she has had three or four surgeries herself. Girls, on the other hand, want to marry someone rich and someone who can afford to give them a good life. The best salary is US$1,000 (Dh3,673) a month if he graduates from university. He can’t get a car and a house on this so he has to go travel [abroad for work].”
A fashion stylist, 30, who did not want to be named, said Lebanese girls are raised to be competitive.
“These girls are educated, they have lived abroad, but this is their mentality. Their mothers teach them to be like this. I married a working man, he manages a hair salon. My parents wouldn’t accept him because he didn’t have a house, two cars, a piece of land. I tried to convince them for two years. It was basically on our wedding day they finally said, ‘OK we have to accept you because now you are our son.’”
At the Music Hall, Wassim, a Lebanese businessman who lives in Abu Dhabi, says he is careful to look for a girl who is not after his money.
“I know it’s competitive out there for the girls, but I’m not looking for a wife right now. I tell them that,” he said, as the Jordanian woman next to him appeared slightly crestfallen.
Even after marriage it is hard work to keep a husband happy.
“Competition exists between all women,” said Nadine, 23, who married a year ago. “You have to hang on to your man. Always be the woman he wants to see, stylish and respectable, perfect in all things.”