Tracing Lebanon’s history through its hairstyles

One of Naim's famous chignons in the mid-1960s, photographed by Fouad Haddad.

BEIRUT: Hairstyles might not be the most obvious lens through which to trace Lebanon’s postindependence history. In her biography of celebrity coiffure Naïm, however, Carole Corm manages to place his work in a socio-historical context that renders the book of interest to those more concerned with history than hairdressing. Through her account of Naïm’s life, from his birth in Lebanon in 1941 to his emergence as Lebanon’s undisputed master of haute coiffure and his subsequent travels around the world, Corm provides a measure of insight into Lebanon’s turbulent history, from prewar glamour and lingering French influence to the Civil War’s destruction.

“Naïm: A Brush with History,” the latest release from Darya Press, is a large coffee table book with as much emphasis on visuals as text. Divided into 17 chapters – each of which is preceded by a timeline placing events in Naïm’s life in a broader historical context – the book is packed with old photographs capturing the hairdresser and his entourage; models sporting his inventive styles; and old newspaper clippings recording his escapades.

It also includes a selection of drawings by Naïm himself, simple sketches capturing a vast range of hairstyles executed through the decades.

In her foreword to the book, Corm writes that, as well as drawing attention to Naïm’s colorful life story, she hoped to “take another look at the historical events that have rocked the Middle East and Europe over the last 50 years, whether it be the Lebanese War or the fall of the Iron Curtain and to show you this through the eyes of Naïm, who has often witnessed them firsthand from an unusual and overlooked standpoint.”

In this regard, the book is a mixed success. The opening chapters, during which Naïm establishes himself in Lebanon and – having become hairdresser to the stars – achieves a sort of stardom in his own right, paint a fascinating portrait of prewar Lebanon.

Naïm’s is a quintessential rags-to-riches story. Born to a wealthy Catholic family two years before Lebanon’s independence, he had a troubled childhood. He twice attempted suicide, the first time at only 8 years of age, after being sexually assaulted by a “notorious womanizer,” whose full name is not given but a photograph of whom appears in the book.

Determined to achieve independence from his gambling-addict father and absentee mother, Naïm left school at the age of 15, and his uncle found him work at a salon in Bab Idriss.

From this small salon, the talented hairdresser soon rose to a position to of prominence at the fashionable Bristol Hotel. Next came a stint at the St. Georges Hotel, prewar home of the international jet-set crowd, followed by a prestigious job under the famous French hairdresser Alexandre Paris at his Beirut salon, the Faubourg Saint-Honoré.

Naïm would eventually take over the salon at the age of 27 after his services became more sought after than those of his Parisian superior. Later he launched his own salon, The Beauty Shop, in 1970.

As Naïm’s life story unfolds, Corm provides a glimpse into the world of Lebanon’s privileged elite in the famously glamorous prewar years. Details of which hairstyles were in vogue at various times betray shifting influences dominating Beirut’s elite, whether drawing inspiration from the blonde locks of Hollywood heartthrobs like Marilyn Monroe or the chic chignons favored by fashionable Parisians.

During the 1950s, Beirut’s in crowd enjoyed ice skating and hula hooping at the Bristol Hotel, Corm writes, and feasted on “Russian Salads,” a light-hearted reminder of the ongoing Cold War.

In the 1960s, the Miss Europe beauty pageant took place at the newly opened Casino du Liban, while the Phoenicia held the lavish “Bal des Tetes,” dedicated to outlandish headgear. At an event highlighting artificial hair, held at Beit Mery’s Al-Bustan Hotel, Naïm made waves with a model wearing nothing but a white swimsuit, a bridal veil and a floor-length plait. Another model appeared in a dress made entirely of hair.

“No one cared about things like religion,” Naïm is quoted as saying during a passage foreshadowing the looming Civil War. “We had too many parties to think about.”

The hairdresser had by this time achieved celebrity status almost on a par with his famous customers and was frequently featured in the local press. He rented a penthouse in Badaro, Corm writes, bought a black Jaguar and began collecting Oriental antiques.

The extent of Naïm’s fame and fortune reveals the values of high society in 1960s Beirut. In 1964, Corm notes, local hairdressers became so enraged by the popularity of French and other international coiffures – many of whom were setting up salons in Beirut – that “over 1,000 angry hairdressers demonstrated in front of the Faubourg.”

The list of celebrities who frequented Naïm’s salon is extensive. As well as a global tour with Sabah, who claimed Naïm as her personal coiffeur, he was patronized by Arab and international stars including Johnny Hallyday, Anita Ekberg, Jayne Mansfield, Shirley Bassey, Linda Christian, Jean Seberg, Umm Kulthum, Faten Hamama, Hind Ruston, Algerian singer Warda, Rene Mouawad and Lebanon’s beloved Fairuz. He also styled the locks of various members of the Jordanian, Saudi and British royal families.

Unfortunately, these encounters remain little more than names in Corm’s biography, which includes minimal anecdotes or reminiscences relating to these figures.

What quotes are included from the man himself suggest Naïm was utterly consumed by his profession. He likens hairdressers to deities, jokes that seemingly emphasize the frivolity of his profession yet suggest a measure of egotism.

“Jesus Christ himself didn’t manage to please everyone,” the haute coiffure once said, “so don’t ask too much from your hairdresser.”

“Even though some act like divas,” he cautioned, “don’t think hairdressers are gods.”

Hairdressing-related aphorisms such as these form the bulk of direct quotes from the book’s subject. Just as stories about the clients he worked with are notably absent, reflections on history and personal relationships are also few and far between.

“Ultimately, I think I was too obsessed with their hair to think about women romantically,” Naïm is quoted as saying during a passage detailing his short-lived but widely publicized relationship with Egyptian actress Zubaida Tharwat.

Originally conceived as a means to record the styles created for members of the Saudi royal family, who could not be photographed, Naïm’s drawings emphasize his obsession. The women he captures in his simple, colorful sketches are often missing features. Noses, eyes and mouths are frequently omitted, but jewelry and hair are carefully rendered in minute detail.

It was only once the Civil War broke out in 1975 that Naïm’s obsessive worldview appears to have shifted. “I realized then that life wasn’t only about scissors and hairpins,” the hairdresser recalls.

Ironically, it is from this point on that the book loses much of its historical interest. Corm details Naïm’s flight to Kuwait, followed by stints in Cairo, Paris, Poland and finally London, where he continues to live and work today. Lebanon becomes little more than a footnote in these chapters, which focus on the hairdresser’s business ventures, punctuated with fleeting references to the devastation in his homeland.

“Naïm: A Brush with History” is beautifully produced, displaying more attention to detail than the average coffee table book. Although the book is most likely to appeal to those with an interest in retro fashion, Corm has managed to put together an entertaining narrative that may also interest those seeking insight into the vagaries and values of Lebanon’s prewar elite.

“Naïm: A Brush with History” by Carole Corm is published by Darya Press and is available from selected local bookstores.





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