G-Strings and No Males on a Beirut Beach

by Joelle Touma

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Liban: les trous de mémoire des manuels scolaires
Lebanon: the lapses of memory of the school manuals (english translation)
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Chatila still haunted by the carnage (english translation)
© Libération 2003 -2023

On the esplanade reserved for 'ladies', Lebanese women find a space where they can unveil their bodies freely. Religious or esthetic decency...

«Ajram beach for ladies», a small blue and yellow sign, on Beirut's coastal road, indicates the entrance of a beach reserved for women. To have access to it, one must go along a corridor leading to a ticket office, run by a man, Ahmed Kassem, owner and manager of the beach. A female employee then leads the customer in an anteroom that marks the limit starting from which no man is allowed. On a dilapidated concrete esplanade, by the seaside, women sunbathe calmly under july's radiant sun, stretched out on beach chairs. Behind this 'beach', with no sand, a war vestige remains, a two-stories empty shack, riddled with bullets.


Word of mouth

Large tarpaulins protect the place from the street's prying eyes. And, for more suspicious customers, a well hidden court has been set up close to a small swimming-pool. Joumana, 29 years old and Rola, 31 years old, are regular customers in Ajram beach. Wearing a black G-string, her bra unfastened, Joumana makes sure. with the help of a mirror, her back is getting an even tan. «I come here for religious reasons. After all, we are practising Muslims, we cannot go to mixed beaches.» Before getting engaged, Joumana used to wear the veil and thus could not unveil any part of her body. On a mixed beach, she was forced to swim with clothes on and even to add a layer of clothes to avoid transparency. Joumana's fiance authorized her to take the veil off but no man should see her in a bathing suit. It is partly because of such a reason that the 'beach for women' exists.

In 1991, when Ajram was still a mixed club, a friend of Ahmed Kassem, the manager, asked him if he could rent out the beach for a day. His wife, a veiled women, felt like spending the day by the seaside wearing a swimsuit with fifteen of her friends. A week later, the friend wanted to rent the beach again, then it became a regular thing. From word of mouth, women heard about it and came to see if they could also beneficiate from this beach. Ahmed then hired female employees and female swimming instructors to transform Ajram into a beach exclusively for ladies. «people think that it is a beach for extremists, Lebanese people slander a lot, they should come and check it out and judge for themselves», Ahmed cries out. Because, to Rola, Ajram seems to be first and foremost a space for freedom. «Since I discovered this place, nine years ago, I only come here. I could never wear a G-string on a beach where there are men.» In Ajram's protected space, most women wear G-strings. Yet, the Vendôme-Intercontinental hotel that overhangs the seaside, actually makes of it a much less discreet space than the customers would have liked it to be. «There are also boats that pass by. Of course they can see us, unless we choose our place well», rola explains.


« Doubly forbidden »

But Ajram does not only owe its succes to the religious decency reason that is put forward. Esthetic requirements being tacitly merciless on Beirut's beaches, a few obese women go to Ajram too. Other women are in their underwear, maybe because they do not have swimsuits. There is also those who have a burn scar or a physical malformation. On the other hand, without the presence of men, women here do not work on having graceful poses and expose freely parts of their bodies that are usually kept unexposed, such as the inside of thighs. Some have even brought their tweezers. A locker room atmosphere prevails. «Personnally, I come only to be able to sunbathe calmly, Zena, forty years old, explains. From a religious point of view, what happens here is doubly forbidden: we show ourselves almost naked and we look at other women. And also, there is beer. I am having my fourth one now, so frankly speaking, this has nothing to do with religion.» Ahmed, the owner, is nevertheless a hadji (a Muslim who has accomplished the pilgrimage to Mecca), but, according to him, «the goal, is that women could have a breathing space. It is not a religious affair, it is a profitable affair». Especially that the project of a highway that was going to encroach upon the esplanade was abandoned this year. Which encourages the owner to refurbish the place.


Unhealthy stares

For the time being, the fares are fair. He knows that most of his customers depend on their husbands, so he fixed an entrance rate that is half less expensive than that of other clubs in Beirut. «I want a married man to be able to think: 'Well, for 8 000 Lebanese Pounds (around 5 euros), I can have a quiet day' !», the hadji explains, laughing. Bur Zena still prefers to go to mixed beaches. «Here, I feel that stares are weird, unhealthy things are happening», she says while pointing furtively at a customer putting cream on the buttocks of another woman wearing a G-string. «I do not think it is unhealthy, Amal ,thirty years old, sitting next to her, retorts. People are free after all.»

Around 5 p.m., the women put their clothes back on. Joumana puts on an ample dress made out of thick material that covers her ankles and hides her figure. Others are wearing tight cyclist shorts and tight-fitting T-shirts. Some put on the veil. In a same family, veils rub shoulders with provocative outfits. A little like in all public places in Beirut, but without the men.

Joelle Touma is the correspondent in Beirut of the French newspaper Libération and the Belgian newspaper Le Soir since september 2001. She is also a scriptwriter and is working on another film presently under production.

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