This morning, an article in The National by Rasha Elass caught my eye – and brought back memories. Rasha writes about her reception at a posh Beirut hair salon, when the stylist learns that she is Syrian.
Having lived in Damascus for some time before moving to Beirut, I too learned about the perils of my accent. Unlike Rasha, however, my learning was generally ex post facto. Hence in summer 2005 I was booted from a Beirut service for saying something too shami; and when I moved to Beirut, I avoided saying “water” for months after seeing the looks on waiters’ and shopkeepers’ faces when I asked for “moy” rather than “mai”. And I only learned to stop saying “lissa” one evening when the person to whom I had been speaking drew back from me as if I were diseased.
In any case, my experiences were those of an outsider: someone who had committed the offense of learning Arabic like a Syrian, rather than a Lebanese – and not someone who had committed the evidently graver offense of being Syrian, like Rasha.
Here is her article – enjoy!
The Lebanese hairdresser had a sleight of hand typical to his profession, alternating quickly between his left and right hand as he cut, razored, pulled and tugged the strands of my hair. He came highly recommended by a friend, so I wasn’t worried about the way my hair was going to look when he was done.
But I was worried about him picking up on my Syrian accent, given that I was in an area of Beirut where many hold strong anti-Syrian sentiments.
And then came the inevitable.
“Are you Lebanese?” he asked.
Sometimes I purposely don’t speak Arabic when I venture into anti-Syrian areas in Lebanon. During a road trip to Batroun, a charming small town with a staunchly anti-Syrian community, my Lebanese friend made me promise not to say a single word in Arabic.
“They’ll pick up you’re Syrian from the minute you open your mouth,” she warned.
Though her concern was exaggerated – violence motivated by hatred is extremely rare since the end of the civil war in Lebanon – times were tense, and people might have been rude or snooty towards us if they had found out that I was Syrian.
Your accent in the Arab world is like an identity card. Even the unfamiliar ear can place you in a region, be it the Gulf, the Levant, Egypt or North Africa. The familiar ear can even figure out if you’re an urban or rural Syrian, a Damascene or from Aleppo, a Kurd from northern Iraq or a Shiite from the south, an Algerian or a Moroccan, and whether you grew up locally or abroad.
Accents also often are the butt of political jokes, like the popular favourite for Lebanese and Syrians taking political jabs at each other.
It pokes fun of the words moo and ma, Syrian and Lebanese slang for “right”, as in: “You’re coming to dinner, moo?”
“‘Moo’? What are we? Cows?” goes the joke.
“Better than ‘ma’,” it continues. “‘Ma’ is for sheep.”
Given my propensity to say moo, I couldn’t lie to the hairdresser, so I confessed that I was Syrian.
“Emm,” he muttered, his face visibly annoyed. I briefly worried he might purposely ruin my hair, which would be a disaster given I was to attend a posh Syrio-Lebanese wedding later and needed it to be flawless.
“You’re Syrian from both parents?” he asked.
Here, I thought, could be my way out. I could lie and end the conversation amicably, guaranteeing a good haircut. Or I could keep playing cat and mouse and see where the game took us.
“Umm, no. My mother is American,” I lied.
“Aaah, OK,” he said, looking relieved, as if everything about me finally made sense to him.
The most striking thing when travelling from Syria to Lebanon is how politicised everything is in Lebanon. While Syrians are bashful about discussing domestic politics, the Lebanese think nothing of asking you where you stand on their domestic political spectrum the minute they meet you.
“Are you with or against?” is probably the most common question in Lebanon after “what’s your name?”
I was still at the hairdresser’s watching my transformation in the mirror when I was asked this question.
“Are you with or against the Americans?” the hairdresser said.
Before I could answer, a customer in her mid fifties walked in frazzled, her short blonde-dyed hair brittle and uncombed. According to my friend, this hairdresser is known to the stars and the wives of politicians.
“Je suis en retard,” she announced to the hairdresser, her head appearing in my mirror. She spoke the French typical of Sodeco, a predominantly Christian neighbourhood.
How their conversation moved from “I’m running late” to comparing political affiliation is beyond me. But after exchanging the usual “ça va” and “walaw”, the latter being colloquial for no worries, they vented politics at each other.
“I know you’re a supporter of Aoun,” she told the hairdresser. “But I’m not,” she announced, her head’s reflection still floating in my mirror.
“And that’s why you were late,” he said in French, laughing.
The conversation ended as quickly as it started, and the woman sat herself down in a chair for a shampoo.
Turning his attention back to me, he made a reference to one pro and one anti-Syrian Lebanese politician and asked:
“Are you with or against Aoun? Or do you prefer Geagea?”
I mumbled something about not caring a whole lot for internal politics in Lebanon.
“Ah, mais vous êtes Syrienne. Vous aimez Hariri,” he concluded, half testing if I understood French, another telltale political sign for some Lebanese.
Fortunately, he got distracted and forgot to wait for an answer. When he finished my hair, I paid in US dollars, then thanked him in French. I walked out into the street, and my hair looked fabulous.