Always Coca-Cola, the debut novel by Lebanese writer Alexandra Chreiteh, centers around three friends, Abeer and Yasmine, university students in Beirut, and Yana, a Romanian model. In Chreiteh’s funny and poignant story of sexual imbroglio, the repercussions of Yana’s unplanned pregnancy and the pressures that this brings to bear on the women’s friendship are closely observed.
Abeer is modern-thinking but also a traditionalist at heart, super-sensitive to the wishes of her family, and wary of behaving in a way that goes against her strict Muslim upbringing. Above all, she insists upon the importance of femininity, that a woman should tend to her most prized ‘natural assets’, that she should keep her skin soft and unblemished, because beauty equates to womanly virtues. By the same token, bruised and blemished skin signals an aggressive and decidedly masculine nature. In such physiognomic terms Abeer explains femininity as the sine qua non of a young woman’s social existence, the ‘most important attribute’ she could possess. Unsurprisingly, she finds Yasmine’s interest in boxing unwomanly, and views her ‘butch’ disposition as unattractive to any ‘young man in his right mind.’
Abeer is a trusted confidante, but in truth the need to escape the prying eyes of her neighbors when purchasing a pregnancy test for Yana, is born out of fear that her father could learn through the grapevine about her visit to the pharmacist and completely misconstrue the situation. Always Coca-Cola is mostly centered on this type of subterfuge, but Chreiteh does often tread a fine line between humor and offense, as when she describes Yana sitting in the bathroom, legs exposed, about to take the pregnancy test; the long black hair framing her face, observes the author, resembled a hijab, a veil traditionally worn by Muslim women for reasons of modesty. Chreiteh has the ability to amuse and offend in equal measure, depending upon the reader’s perspective.
Though Abeer’s mind is often filled with trivial matters, puerile interest in the sexual foibles of other people, Chreiteh always offers a serious subtext to such inquisitiveness, which serves ultimately as a stinging indictment of the hypocrisy of Lebanese society. While at Starbucks, for instance, Abeer comes to the realization that the pretty young women sitting next to her table sipping coffee projected a false image; they were not ‘immaculate as the cleanest, clearest purified water.' However, the image that they portray of modesty and sexual inexperience is nothing more than ‘artificial innocence,’ a falseness explicitly reflected in the obscene graffiti Abeer sees scrawled on the toilet door of Starbucks. Generally, in Always Coca-Cola, the penumbra of youthfulness, the masquerade of innocence, merely insinuates the truth about the sexual mores of these women. Appearances can of course be deceptive; when Yana moved to Lebanon from Romania she had romantic notions of the country, the biblical land flowing with milk and honey, where naked women swayed ‘to eastern melodies, with their heads and faces (except for the eyes) covered, in ornamented castles.’ However, her disillusionment with the place – compounded by the bitter failure of her marriage to a Lebanese man – made the East she had read about in One Thousand and One Nights, Omar Khayyam, and the poetry of Mutanabbi even more distant. Instead, she finds littering the beach in Beirut broken glass and used needles, the unpleasant detritus of modern living.
As one would expect from a short story that draws heavily on the symbols of mass consumer culture – complemented by the vibrant Lichtenstein-inspired cover design of this English translation of the Arabic original – American brands are ubiquitously referenced in Always Coca-Cola, while incongruously the spirit of the Lebanese capital, which forms the novel’s backdrop, is intermittently invoked. Invariably, the book elicits certain, perhaps crude, inferences about religion and culture. Arguably, it is a commentary on Westernizing rhetoric that regards Muslim women as representative of a backward religion, or conversely, Islamic view of Eastern women as a trope of traditional virtues and, by extension, Western moral degradation as characteristic of our time. Perhaps, even, the discord is between modern and regressive ideas of femininity and modesty, and the negation, or inversion of hijab as a symbol of purity; rather, it begins to signify restrained sexuality.
Ultimately, however, the cross-cultural paradigm of Always Coca-Cola bears testimony to the biological ties that bind women together. Sexuality in the book is the strongest, most compelling force of modernization; if some parts of contemporary Lebanese society remain deeply religious, uncompromisingly traditional, for Abeer and, for that matter, young Muslim women generally, confronting the dilemmas of life, that is to say the pleasures and pains of the body, remain the greatest challenge. In this regard, the repeated reference in the book to Coca-Cola advertisements in Beirut, points toward not only their global iconicity, but also the allure of their sexualized form. For Abeer the Coca-Cola billboard on Hamra Street, which she sees often from the window of her bedroom, bearing the seductive image of her friend Yana wearing a red bikini and drinking from a bottle of Coke, makes her feel self-consciously inadequate, reminded constantly of the inability ever to aspire to such an aesthetic ideal. However, later on, when the model’s image is spray-painted in black, it appears as if she is wearing an abaya, a long robe, and her hair again resembles a hijab. But the suggestion of modesty, Abeer comments wryly, could not be further from the truth, as far as Yana was concerned.
If one wishes to understand the cultural complexity of Lebanese society then Chreiteh’s Always Coca-Cola is a good starting point. Her simple and unaffected style proves its strength in producing both an engaging read and a literary commentary on contemporary youth in Lebanon. Chreiteh is witty and insightful, unafraid to broach social taboos, while also proving that a brash first novel can cloak some deeply profound ideas about sexuality and religion.
Myrna Nader completed her PhD at Brunel University on Anglo-American female poetry and the philosophy of perception. She previously taught at the American University of Beirut and now teaches at Brunel. Her current research is focused on Edward Said and the notion of “other” in contemporary Lebanese society. She lives and works in London.