Fadi, Leila, Michael, Georgette, Paul, Helen, Elie, Rosa, Antoine, Josepha, Peter and I have arrived at an abandoned warehouse rooftop nightclub called White Beirut. Everything is a stark, blinding white, except for the people. You’re only allowed in if you adhere to the strict dress code: you must be dressed head-to-toe in white.
Hot pink and aqua coloured strobe lights beam across bright glossy white tables, booths and stools, illuminating those wearing neon coloured fedoras. It smells like someone has thrown buckets of ice and vodka over everything. The glasses and the floor fog up with mist, so if you put your hands to the glasses or to the floor like a game of Twister, it leaves a precise, crisp handprint. There’s no space to move without touching another person. Random strangers, both male and female, grab us by the shoulders and kiss us on each cheek three times, like a threat. I squirm at first but put up with it because I have trained for this day back in Australia, growing up in Redfern where the only social gathering we’d attend were church hall barbeques in which everyone in the Lebanese-Maronite community kissed you even if they didn’t know you. By the thirteenth kiss, my head moves from cheek to cheek with rhythm and dexterity. We’ve only just arrived but already my carefully swirled makeup starts running like calligraphy in the summer heat.
The twelve of us walk in like we’re the disciples of Christ—a motley mix of Lebanese youth from the northern village of Kfarsghab, nestled in the mountains three hours away, and their Lebanese-Australian descendants. We inch our way in, strutting like the brothers in A Night at the Roxbury. Georgette and Leila walk hand-in-hand with their fake Louis Vuitton bags in tow. I lose my balance because the floor is slippery like lube. Michael, a loud, confident Lebanese-Australian guy from Meadowbank, who is always in the front row church pew at Our Lady of Lebanon and who is from the same village as my father but not related to me and who comes to Lebanon every year to see his relatives, lifts his hand up. He’s holding his phone out in front of him like a staff, trying to part the crowd because his last name is Moses and he takes it literally. But nobody budges, they stand still and rooted to the ground, like sculpted golden wax statues, auditioning to be extras in Kanye’s ‘Famous’ video.
The Beirutis glance casually at us and they all seem to dry retch. They can smell the sunscreen on us, so they know we are from Australia, as though our Lebanese-ness is a prop. They look down at us with their air-brushed faces. One woman turns, and her fake breasts almost knock out her friends. All of the women’s noses are suspiciously small and straight, their fake eyelashes rimmed with actual coal, because in Beirut they do not fuck around. One woman’s lips are so freshly plumped with injections, it looks like she did it at the bar. She stares straight at me and pouts. I stumble back on my stiletto heel from the sheer force of her.
Another woman I recognise amidst the clubbers is Miss Lebanon Australia. I know who she is because I used to stalk her on MySpace, followed by Facebook after she won, and regularly Google her to find out which hair products she uses. Then she dated my cousin Rob for two months and I had to stop myself from saying, “Good to see you again.” She wears a small silk Versace dress, her boobs perking under a slab of Swarovski crystals, her long legs towering in clear plastic platform shoes—you can see right through them. On her arm is a shiny olive-skinned man, a perfectly trimmed beard dressed in a white robe with gold trim and a Rolex watch—he must be a millionaire Saudi. The local men hover around Miss Lebanon Australia like clumps of congealed glue, wearing billowing linen shirts unbuttoned all the way down. Every few minutes you get hit in the face as one of the women, and some of the men in the club, flick their long, black hair extensions in your face, whiplash.
The girls in our group—Leila, Georgette, Helen, Rosa, Josepha and I—look at our outfits and then each other. Helen’s “Made in China” label is hanging out of her synthetic white dress, flapping gently. We make a run for it to the two booths we have booked two weeks in advance. The girls are embarrassed because they can’t afford expensive designer clothes and I am embarrassed because I am wearing their clothes thanks to an unfortunate miscommunication around the dress code (usually I wear ethically sourced fabrics made locally in Melbourne or Sydney). We squeeze and pour ourselves into the booths, hoping to take up less space, elbows and knees digging into soft flesh. The boys—Michael; Paul, who is Michael’s brother; Elie, the son of the village Sheik; Fadi, the village clown; Antoine, our driver (who is my third cousin); and Peter, my friend from Sydney—follow us reluctantly. They spread themselves out, draping and flopping in all the spare holes left by the women. Michael, Paul and Peter begin scanning the room for their future wives. Elie, Antoine and Fadi are, on the other hand, judging the women like they’re Peter at the gates of heaven. My Arabic is not good enough to understand everything they’re saying, but I hear the word sharmouta—slut—at least seven times.
To my right sits Josepha, a nineteen-year-old from Ehden. Her name is Josepha because her dad really wanted a boy and was too sad to think of a new name so he just added an A to the end of Joseph. She has the same light green eyes of her older brother Antoine, but that’s all she inherited, luckily for her, since Antoine looks like a bloated pig. I’m mesmerised by how “not Lebanese” she looks with her fair skin, freckles and green-grape eyes, and because of her high pointy cheekbones, big breasts and slim frame. She is a poor man’s Adriana Lima. She seems bored and disinterested, her head on her hand as she flicks through photos on her iPhone 5. I smile at her desperately. She doesn’t smile back. She is the only one the Beirutis approve of thanks to her nonchalance and white-passing natural beauty—the men and women grab at her, lift her from her seat and suck her into the vortex. In her wake, she leaves her pudgy, moody brother, who stares at me and looks away when I catch him.
Three large chandeliers shaped in a circle hover from the sky. Tall thin palm trees sprout from the ground and tower over us. Four young women clad in white angel wings, bikinis and little else dance on the bars, stepping over drinks and waving white pom poms. The lights start to flicker so fast, people look like they’re moving in slow motion. A giant screen that hangs from one end of the club says in capitalised English: ‘THIS IS BEIRUT’—in case we had forgotten. Electronica house music drones on and on in a repetitive trance with three competing DJs elevated high on floating stages. The bass is shaking the ground and the walls, pummelling through. It rises in crescendo until it climaxes.
The music here is even louder than at Lebanese weddings back home, the ones where the speakers were turned up so high that mouths would move but no one could hear anything, so you’d wildly gesticulate instead, knocking over the seafood sticks and labne mezze plates.
Suddenly the music changes. A woman sings out, like an Arab Christina Aguilera, deep and throaty. The DJs play a mix of house music with French and Arabic thrown in like an unwanted guest, but the crowd loves it anyway, singing in the same breath, “We’re up all night to get lucky... boos el wa wa!”
Next, an Arabic–French hybrid song comes on that I keep hearing everywhere in bars and clubs through-out Beirut. Most of the song is a group of voices singing together. “C’est la vie,” it sings. “La la la la la. That’s life. We’re going to love and we’re going to dance. La la la la la la.” There is no translation for the five “la’s.” The song always makes me stop and remember I’m not alone, that there might still be someone out there who will lift me up and give my life purpose, even if that purpose is just to wave my arms around like I’m drowning. And yet it also reminds me that I am alone because I was dumped three times in the space of a year by Khalil, a Leba-nese-Syrian refugee from Sweden. Each time I was more surprised than the last, believing that it was just a matter of time before Khalil and I would end up married with kids, following the same path set out for everyone in my community. When it didn’t happen over and over again, I was left without goalposts, the map ripped out from under me, starting over and on my own without protection. My hands fall limp to my side. I snap out of it and notice that everyone is adding their voices to the chorus, all hands raised, no longer conscious of how they appear, particularly Paul, who has climbed over the bar and fallen into an ice bucket but is still, somehow, dancing.
Some people around me stand up and climb onto the seats and tables and start gyrating on top of each other, spilling drinks, their bodies, their sweat, blending together in a blur. I stand up too, so as to not feel left out, but I get knocked over immediately by a stray heel and grab at the marble table for balance. It feels hard under my palms.
Antoine leans over and whispers in my ear. “Good to show skin!”
I ignore him although I know he’s referring to how I arrived at the club wearing a modest black baggy dress and stocky Mary Jane flats. I didn’t know there was an all-white dress code. They had me take Leila’s spare dress in the parking lot (she always keeps a wardrobe of clothes in her car in case of emergencies). Leila, who was the daughter of the sheik and could normally be seen in the village wearing jeans and a hoodie, had now seized the opportunity to squeeze into a lace bodysuit and tight mini shorts. This prompted Michael to say, “She was hiding that body under those baggy jeans!” She pulled out a handkerchief from her purse, waved it around like a flag and then dangled her white stilettos at me like keys. I squeezed into the thin, crepe-like material which fell across my arse and was so small, my breasts were spilling out.
I keep flicking my brown hair over my chest to cover myself but it’s not long enough to conceal my breasts and I can hear my mother and my sita screaming at me from Sydney to cover myself before someone puts something in my drink, or worse, I catch a cold. I fold my arms over my chest and hobble around the booths, like I’m holding something between my legs.
“Wow, you look Lebanese now!” Antoine says, making me wonder if looking Lebanese means looking constipated.
“Why you don’t talk to me?” he adds, English broken. He has already drunk half a bottle of whiskey in the fifteen minutes we’ve been here. I’m pretty sure he brought the bottle in with him because he can’t afford table service. He gets mad if anyone tries to pay for him, even though he works in the fields picking fruit and his weekly salary wouldn’t cover a meal at Icebergs in Bondi. On top of this, he has to help pay for his family of six siblings, who all still live at home in the village. With each sip the buttons on his shirt stretch, making hourglass-shaped gaping holes over his protruding hairy belly. “When I see you first day from rooftop, I swear hat Allah, my heart stop, I fall in love at first look,” he shouts over the music, his round, droop-ing face completely red, choking and spitting out each English word. He’s talking about the time I was exiting my cousin’s beat-up Mitsubishi, swimming in sweat from the tight-dark-faux-denim-skinny-stretch jeans I wore on the plane because I thought the stretch waist would make them more comfortable. Spoiler alert: they did not. I had patches of sweat under my arms and I smelt like a damp cloth dipped in urine after pissing myself a bit during the death-defying car trip.
“I looked like shit,” I reply.
“Yes,” he says. “That’s why I know... this true love.”
I mime throwing up. He swats my hand away from my lips with too much force and I hit the inside of my mouth, scraping my inner cheek.
“Don’t touch me,” I say.
“Don’t be rude,” he replies.
“You’re not my type,” I say to him.
“What this mean?’ he says.
“I’m too good for you,” I say, because saying he is simple and basic, dropped out of school, works in the field picking fruit, believes in antiquated gender roles, isn’t very attractive, and keeps trying to pay for every-thing with money his dad gave him but is secretly relieved when I offer to pay, even though he pretends to get mad at me for paying, is too hard to translate into Arabic.
“And anyway, I’m pretty sure we’re like distantly related or something,” I reply. All around me the club-goers are singing, “Turn the lights out now!”
“Killoun cousin,” he says, which means, everyone is a cousin. He’s not wrong. If I’m being really honest with myself, it’s not that we might be distantly related; it’s that I have already cast judgement on the type of guy he is—the hyper-masculine wog type that pretends to joke about you going back to the kitchen while your mothers and aunts are literally in the kitchen, so you know it’s not really a joke at all. The type of guys who remind me of my distant cousins back home who laugh when you say you need to study. I have convinced myself that I am not like anyone else in my family or my community, and so I have always found reasons to reject anyone who brings me back into that world.
Michael orders table service at the booth and a waiter in a white vest and white leather pants screams out, “Yalla, vodka here!” and single-handedly brings a giant tray of oversized frosty bottles of Grey Goose vodka in crystal ice buckets, and jugs of orange juice. A disembodied hand gives me a delicate glass of what I think is vodka, and I take a big gulp and drink it in one go before they have time to add orange juice. Detached hands appear to pull me up and I am hoisted onto disembodied, floating shoulders. I am only sure of one thing: that there are lights bouncing off my exposed arse cheeks like a disco ball. I can’t seem to move my arms and legs. My head dangles around like a broken doll. Everything goes from white to black.
I wake up in a single bed, the tube dress so tight and drenched in sweat, it feels like it has melded to my skin. I reach around for my phone. I’m surprised when my hand touches the cool, cracked glass screen of the iPhone 5—it feels like it's something that would have disappeared. I squint and see that I have no wifi because, priorities. I then notice the time. It’s 12pm the next day. My eyes are darting everywhere and my hands are shaking. I try to lift my head, but it’s full of metal. I roll over but the bed is so small, I fall toward the yellow lino floor which looks like vomit, still holding my phone like a weapon. I fall into actual vomit which was camouflaged by the colour of the floor and smells like rancid butter. I look at my hand, wipe it on my sleeve.
Up from the ground I spot another single bed on the other side of the room. That’s weird, I think. Who would ask for two single beds? I squint and see a naked man lying there, his back covered in red dots where the hair used to be... I gasp and let out a nervous, childish giggle when I notice two hairy butt cheeks protruding in the air—it seems rude to me and betrays my shy and prudish sensibilities.
I look away and commando roll out of the room. I am in some kind of garden oasis with draping ferns hanging over concrete, pot plants lining the path in front of me. I crawl to the front desk. “I need to report a kidnapping,” I say from the ground, looking up at the man at reception, who spreads out his arms on the counter like he owns the hostel.
“Shu?” he says, leaning forward, his voice lined with smoke, hand tapping an ashtray.
“I have been kidnapped,” I say.
The owner laughs like a bloated walrus. A man who is carrying a bucket and mop asks him in Arabic, “Who is this drunk American girl on the ground and why does she smell like vomit?"
The owner replies in Arabic, “It’s the Lebanese-American girl who was brought in last night by her cousin, be careful, she might understand Arabic.”
“I have no cousin!” I scream in English. It’s a lie. I have hundreds of cousins. “And I’m not American!”
“She speaks, walla!” the cleaner says and sniggers at me.
The hostel owner looks down at me again and frowns, his mouth turned up in one corner like he pities me.
“See here girl,” he says in Arabic, “I don’t care what you are. If you village people want to come and have sex with your cousin, that’s fine, just be quiet about it.” •
This piece was originally published in The Lifted Brow #41. Get your copy here
Sheree Joseph is a Lebanese-Australian writer and editor from Sydney’s north-west.
Jo Ruessmann is an illustrator, print-maker and postmodern ghost in the hallucination machine (or something). Currently based in Glasgow, where she mainly serves coffee at conferences.