Reviewed by Emma Garman
In the opening section of Always Coca-Cola, the savage and heady debut from young Lebanese novelist Alexandra Chreiteh, our narrator Abeer is flipping through a women’s magazine when an article extolling the importance of high-SPF lip balm catches her eye. Models, apparently, never leave home without wearing it: “It’s extremely important for models to protect their lips because the lips are the most important symbol of a woman’s femininity and attractiveness. Lip balm helps them protect their lips from dryness and chafing and thereby also protects their femininity.” Since she’s at a loose end, waiting for a friend who’s late for their meeting, Abeer decides to go across the street to buy some lip balm. “But the lip balm didn’t protect my lips,” she discovers as she walks in the strong Beirut wind, “on the contrary, dust started to build up on them!”
At first glance this hardly promises the most scintillating of plots. But although Abeer's preoccupations resemble those of a chick-lit heroine, this light-hearted introduction not only carries multiple layers of meaning, it also telescopes the central message of Always Coca-Cola, which embeds, in a deceptively simple story, a razor-sharp commentary on how young women in Beirut today are buffeted by the alternately conflicting and conspiring forces of hegemony, capitalism, and patriarchy—without, vitally, ever using such dry terms. “Protecting femininity” is the alleged purpose of the labyrinthine rules governing the behavior of someone like Abeer, a student at the Lebanese American University. And she tries to follow them, even though it sometimes proves impossible. A case in point: when she gets her period in a Starbucks, her friends give her a hard time because she wants a “disgusting”—by implication unfeminine—“Always” pad rather than a tampon, which, she thinks, “would for sure devirginize me!” But, as the author depicts with devastating clarity, Abeer’s best efforts to fulfill the omnipresent expectations of femininity—slippery chimerical notion that it is—will prove useless in protecting her from real danger.
Abeer, who lives with her religious, conservative parents, has two best friends who are each other’s perfect foils as examples of femininity: Yana, a Romanian model, and Yasmine, a sporty and tomboyish fellow student. Yana, whose larger-than-life red bikini-clad figure graces a Coca-Cola billboard facing Abeer’s bedroom window, is a media-perfected manifestation of “femininity.” Irrepressibly romantic and sexually liberated, she has long, straight hair, she waxes away all her body hair, and most enviable of all to Abeer, she has no cellulite whatsoever. Yasmine, on the other hand, is flat-chested, has short hair, wears no makeup, and enjoys boxing—“the kind of sport,” a horrified Abeer believes, “that strips a young woman of her most important attribute, her femininity.”
As fond as she is of her friends, both versions of femininity prove discomfiting to Abeer. When the novel begins, the three women are dealing with a crisis: Yana might be pregnant from the man she left her husband for—a man who, with sardonic, reverberating symbolism, works at the Coca-Cola Company. A pregnancy test is needed, but Abeer is terrified to accompany her friends to the pharmacy, in case her father hears about their purchase. Even at the best of times, walking around with Yana is difficult, because “everyone stares at her as if they were Bedouins faced with a lush oasis and they look away from me completely as if I were nothing, merely a mirage.” Yet it is equally problematic being seen out in public with Yasmine, who is gossiped about and called a lesbian: “I don’t want anyone to think that I am eccentric like her simply because she’s my friend.”
At moments like these, an ironic and illuminating distance opens up between the author and the narrator, and we see the serious intention behind the gentle satire. Alexandra Chreiteh is signaling that Abeer’s strongly held views are the unfortunate result of all the influences swirling around her: ancient religious and cultural traditions, the all-pervasive desires and prejudices of men, the venality of women’s media, and the imperatives of globalization. Hence her fervent wish for Yasmine to “take care of her natural assets” by tending “to her appearance and her femininity,” or her wholesale acceptance of all that is meant by the saying, “A girl is like a flower, she can only be plucked once” (not coincidentally, Abeer’s full name is Arabic for “fragrant rose”).
The juggernaut of globalization looms large in the novel, which opens with a description of Abeer’s pregnant and thirsty mother desperate for a Coke, which her husband refuses to get for her. This craving, Abeer reports, “left an indelible imprint on me: I was born with a small birthmark that looks like a little Coca-Cola bottle, on my upper back, right between my shoulder blades.” And it’s when Yana asks her boyfriend to give Abeer a job at the Coca-Cola Company that real horror strikes.
Remarkably, given its short length—a little over a hundred pages— and its uncomplicated, at times even frothy, style, Always Coca-Cola comes off as a work of searing intensity that powerfully conjures the atmosphere of contemporary Beirut; it’s a testament to translator Michelle Hartman’s skill that a novel written mostly, but not entirely, in Modern Standard Arabic, the “literary language” used in the Arab world, reads so naturally and humorously in English. As Hartman explains in her afterword, in creating a translation that did justice to the linguistic innovation of Chreiteh's novel, she faced unique challenges. Yet it is with impressive precision that, for example, she replicates in English the clinical, detached tone of the narrator's unflinchingly detailed account of a Brazilian bikini wax, which in both English and Arabic would typically be described with casual, slangy language. Conversely, even greater resourcefulness was required to represent the author's diversions from formal Arabic with jokes and local Lebanese vernacular, such as the wordplay of Yana's comical mispronunciation of Arabic, or a sexist rhyming joke in “texting Arabic” made at the expense of a man in shorts: “Shu hal-sa7beh ya 2a7beh?” (After much agonizing and crowd-sourcing, Hartman finally settled on “Legs so long and lanky, whoa that bitch is skanky.”)
Much of the comedy in Always Coca-Cola is a conduit for tragedy. There are no easy resolutions for the struggles faced by Abeer and her friends, which is another facet of the novel that renders it less like neat, pre-packaged fiction and more like messy, vivid reality. As Chreiteh herself has pointed out, “a lot of things change for the characters and a lot of things stay the same, and the fact that they stay the same is important because it’s sad.”
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