Inside the world of Lebanese enfants terribles

31Mar09

bratsMove over, McDonalds. The ballroom of the exclusive Phoenicia-Intercontinental Hotel, a helicopter, a Hummer limousine or a swanky Beirut bar/club is the preferred birthday-party venue of Lebanon’s upper-class prepubescents. But beyond the lavish venues and cakes, such birthday-party celebrations serve a more important, and perhaps intriguing role in cementing  children’s growing control over their lives. And yet, these seemingly over-the-top parties are “rigidly structured by tacit rules” formulated by none other than the adolescents themselves. This is, at least, according to Kirsten Scheid, assistant professor of Anthropology at the American University of Beirut, currently two years into a five-year study on the rites of passage found among Lebanon’s better-off prepubescents.

“My hypothesis is that birthday parties are rites of passage that reveal the privileged ways [of children] who have choices about their lifestyles and residential locations in negotiating an identity,” Scheid said at her lecture, “In the Red Glow: Lebanese Elite Youth between Entertainment and Identity,” Monday. Her research is based on interviews with 34 children between 11 and 14 years old attending three of Beirut’s top schools, as well as interviews with four 15 year olds, 14 mothers and three “birthday industry” professionals.

Very little research has been conducted on ritual behavior in the Arab world, Scheid said. “Moreover, reluctance among researchers to study elites has resulted in the implicit naturalization of elite behavior at a time when both social control and community membership” was highly disputed in the Arab world. But examining the phenomenon of Lebanese birthday parties provides a fascinating glance into the construction of taste and identity of these pampered children, said Scheid. While her research is by no means complete, preliminary results show the typical “dancing party” of 11-14 year olds is important “for embedding themselves in social networks and embodying cultural virtues.”

Strict rules govern these dancing parties, Scheid told an intrigued audience. The birthday girl or boy decides on the music, DJ and venue, and the guest list is “carefully governed by the host’s memory of who has invited them to previous parties” over the last two years, Scheid said, citing interviews. Further narrowing down a guest list is usually guided by the host’s perception of their guest’s ability to dance. Children are expected to arrive in clothes similar to their everyday apparel but not worn on “regular” occasions, bearing “impersonal” gifts costing up to LL25,000. It was essential that guests wear “previously unseen” garments at each of the parties, Scheid added. Those who transgress these unspoken rules are relegated to the status of “losers.”

According to Scheid, one thing was clear: at these exclusive parties, children are “negotiating and asserting their own categories for interpreting the world in which they find themselves but do not yet make.”



6 Responses to “Inside the world of Lebanese enfants terribles”

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