BEIRUT: The turbulent waters of the dating scene have inspired countless books, films and TV series. Notable among them is the U.S. series “Sex and the City,” in which the love lives of four New York women inspired close to 100 episodes and two feature films.
The series – which grappled with issues surrounding sex, sexuality and relationships – was widely discussed at dinner tables around the world in the late 1990s, being hailed as taboo breaking by some while branded anti-feminist by others.
“Beirut Knights,” a new paperback by Lebanese author Jasmina Najjar, attempts something similar in a local context, delving into the complexities of Beirut dating.
Najjar, who grew up in the U.K. before relocating to Beirut in her 20s, has created a collection of anecdotes based on real-life experiences. Like Candace Bushnell – the author whose book spawned the “Sex and the City” phenomenon – she has chosen to narrate these experiences from the point of view of a fictional character and her friends.
Nadia is a 34-year-old book and art lover with a passion for working out. Raised in London, she now lives and works as a business consultant in Beirut, where she embarks on a series of doomed dates in the hope of meeting Mr. Right – or even Mr. Vaguely Passable.
Najjar has remarked that the book has two objectives. The first is to reflect on Lebanese social norms and to explore issues relating to dating, love and marriage. The second is to make the reader laugh. The author sets out to show how the notion that marriage and children are the pinnacle of achievement for a woman is outdated, rejecting the idea of relationships for the sake of relationships and demonstrating why she is happier going solo.
Passages based on Nadia’s dates with a series of ever-more-bizarre men form the bulk of the book. She stumbles upon all sorts of misfits and disappointments – from a man with appalling manners to one more interested in his car than his date, a man who lets his mother dictate all his life choices (from what to wear to who to date) to a macho obsessive seeking complete control of his woman.
Far from being unique to Lebanon, these men might be found in cities across the world. Playful illustrations by Maya Fidawi provide an amusing visual counterpoint to the stories. The effect is to refine Najjar’s caricatures – which reduce the men in her tales to little more than parodies of a certain generic male stereotypes, rather than fleshed-out, individual characters.
A couple of truly unique encounters prove the most amusing.
One man delivers an hourlong monologue about the benefits of carrots, complete with a list of carrot-based recipes, none of which he knows how to cook, before brushing his date’s thigh on the drive home while pretending to change gears in his automatic car.
Another, a local artist, extols the eroticism of feet before attempting to seduce her with the argument that sex is art and the gateway to a higher consciousness.
During a date with a man obsessed with Nadia’s religious and political affiliations – neither of which she considers relevant to their relationship – he asks if the colors of her dress are a subtle hint as to her views.
More general entries seek to encapsulate particular issues related to dating, sexual equality or male-female interaction in Lebanon. These prove more illuminating of Lebanese eccentricities.
Among them is an entertaining list of the bizarre backhanded compliments shouted at women walking on Beirut’s seaside Corniche – “How much for a kilo of thighs?” say, or “Had a baby known the softness of your cheeks, it would have left its pampers and pooped on your face instead” – and a chapter in which Nadia’s male friends reveal their horror stories about dating Lebanese women.
Perhaps the most interesting passage deals with Nadia’s Lebanese girlfriends’ attitudes toward marriage. One is engaged for the third time, as her parents won’t allow her to date unless the man proposes. All agree that, engagement or not, they mustn’t have sex if they want the relationship to end in marriage. Their men want to marry virgins, they explain, so they turn a blind eye to their partners’ having sex with other women before marriage.
Another episode recounts an abortive relationship with a man Nadia suspects of being a closet homosexual, who later marries, perhaps to cover his true desires.
Such passages are at least superficially revealing about Lebanese attitudes and approaches to dating. For the most part, however, Najjar never discusses sex – other than to have men propose it and Nadia turn them down. She thus steers clear of a landscape heavily wooded with both comedy and Lebanese exceptionalism.
The main problem with the book is that it seems unsure of what it wants to be and to whom it seeks to appeal.
Dedicated to unmarried Lebanese and anyone who’s undergone disastrous adventures in dating and relationships, it falls somewhere between social satire and cultural reflection. Yet it doesn’t really succeed at either. Too superficial to make many serious points about Lebanese society, it is too serious to make readers laugh out loud.
Jasmina Najjar’s “Beirut Knights” is published by Turning Point Books and is available at local bookstores.